Troubleshooting Finish Failure

prep, site conditions, materials, or technique? February 26, 2005

We are a small company and we do most of our own standard finishing (stain and clear coat). Six months ago, we had a kitchen job that required a white lacquer finish. Because I had never done colored finishes, we decided to play it safe and sub out the finish.

At the customer's request, we made the face frames, doors and drawer fronts out of solid paint grade maple (rock maple, not soft maple) and all exposed sides out of one-sided melamine/maple.

The finisher used Trinity brand sanding sealer and a pre-cat lacquer, also Trinity brand. He applied three coats of sanding sealer, sanding between coats, then two coats of finish. They looked good, except I thought that the edges looked a little light. Within a month, some of the doors and drawer fronts started to chip and flake off, mainly around the edges. The funny thing is that the finish came off all the way down to the bare wood. Could someone shed light on why this happened?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
What reason has the finisher given you for this happening? Since the edges looked starved to you, I'm wondering if they were eased? Some cabinetmakers like to just break an edge. Breaking an edge just gives you two more edges on which the paint can chip or peel. Slightly rounding an edge assures that if there's three coats of material on a surface, there's going to be three coats of material on an edge.

From contributor I:
If the finish is failing at the raw wood and you used rock maple, my bet is that they sanded to too fine a grit, like 220, before the sealer coat. If you burnish hard maple, the finish won't adhere well.

From contributor C:

Sealer? You meant primer, right? Lacquer sealer or primer is brittle and may not work with a pre-cat. Zink and acid from the pre-cat don't work well, even though calling anything a pre-cat doesn't mean a thing today.

From contributor B:
Definitely, this is your finisher's problem. He should make it right. It's only your problem if your finisher is as flaky as his finish is.

From contributor T:
I would think the hard rock maple sanded to 220 and then the odd combination of sealer and pre-cat are possible culprits. The finisher should know where the failure may have started. What does he offer as possibilities? Since he applied the finish, he should be responsible for correcting it, or shelling out for someone else to correct. If this were my job, I would insist on assurances that after the correction, there will be no more finish problems.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for your input. About the edges, that is something we take very seriously. All of our edges are softly rounded, so I don't think that was an issue. The failures are mostly around the sink and dishwasher, but there are some random spots also. We sand everything down with 120 before stain or clear finish on all of our woods, soft or hard. In this case, we had hired the finisher on a T/M basis, so I think it's our baby.

From contributor J:
I'll second that question on the primer (sealer?). It seems odd that after 5 coats of pigmented finish you would think it looked a little thin (should have looked completely covered). Also, if the finisher isn't blowing off and wiping to remove either sawdust or sanding/primer dust before another coat is applied, then obviously there will be a barrier causing delamination. Another thing to keep in mind is moisture of wood before finishing - too much, and finish failure.

From contributor M:
You said that you sanded to 120. Is it possible the finisher resanded? It sounds like he did. We did a paint grade project in rock maple a few years ago. Same scenario with the customer telling me that is what they had to have. Absolutely the last time I will do that. Now it is my way or the highway. Go MDF. Have the finisher diagnose the problem and repair at his expense. If he refuses, bite the bullet and sand it back to raw and refinish at your own expense. If it is this bad at 6 months, it will be really bad in another year. Can't let that hurt your rep, so you will have to redo it. Hopefully the finisher was an honorable guy and will redo the project.

From the original questioner:
I have another question. For the longest time we have used M.L. Campbell C.V.
(Dura-var). Now we can no longer get it because of compliance codes. Is there a comparable product out there that's as tough as that stuff?

From contributor A:
There are too many coats of sealer. Also, you need to know how fine the wood was sanded prior to laying down finish. Worn sandpaper can also burnish wood, making the surface too fine for the coating material to find any tooth to grip to.

In any event, you do have a defective finish, not from the manufacturer but from the finisher. Always look at operator error first and you will usually find the pesky detail where the error is.

Precat on a kitchen is risky enough just from exposure and wear that the coating will receive. Add to the risk a finish schedule which seems funky and then turns out to behave according to the funkiness in which the finish was applied and there you go, a failing finish.

Your finisher can strip and start over. Onsite stripping of the frames and attached millwork is interesting work. The doors and drawers can be stripped off-premises, so that's no biggie.

From contributor G:
I've been hammering this at my staff for years and quite a few finishers as well. I wrote this as a standard instruction sheet for my techs.

Finish only fails, in a nutshell, because of:
1. Contaminate
2. Incompatibility
3. Environment
4. Technique/application

The importance of detail in the prep work cannot be stressed enough!

If it is not sanded correctly or uniformly,
If there is contaminate on the surface or in the crack,
If it is not clean,
If it is not stripped right,
If it is not smooth to begin with,
If the steps of finishing are not followed properly,
If the dry and coating windows are not followed…

The finish will fail!

What you describe is an adhesion problem. Most likely sanded too smooth at whitewood level and burnished rather than sanded. Not clean of fine sanding powder can also be a culprit. Seal coat should have been a primer/sealer coat going with pigmented pre-cat. I would opt for Optiset by Chemcraft as topcoat. Done well with it for years.

While it is your finisher's problem, it's your customer and your problem. Your image and reputation is what's at stake, not his. The client hired you. If it means finding another finisher, move on it. Speed of service and communication is important. I've had nightmare job issues, but when the client sees rapid communication, no avoidance, and something being done, they have always been patient and happy in the end, in my experience.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor L:
It's a moisture failure. If any part of the cabinet face frames or doors did not get a sufficient build of sealer and finish, water will find a way into the wood and migrate through the film and escape. This process swells the wood fibers, then as the moisture evaporates, they shrink, causing the finish to lose mechanical adhesion to the wood surface. Maple is a tough wood to finish in any case. I try to steer people away from maple for that reason alone.