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2164 Views 13 Replies 11 Participants Last post by  Barry747
Here is a description of how I finish items. As you probably know I make mostly boxes, but have made other items. Most are finished the same except for oily woods which I am not going into here.

I probably make 100-300 boxes a year. I make boxes for teabags, memory boxes, funeral urns or whatever. I have been making boxes for years. I also make 50 or so wooden boxes for little kids each year that I do not apply a finish. I never use stains or grain filler - you'll later see why I don't use fillers.

Finishing material that I use:

Wax free Shellac that I get at Woodcraft. I dilute it 50/50 with denatured alcohol.

Zar oil-base semi-gloss polyurethane that is available at a couple local paint stores.

Mineral spirits that is labeled paint thinner that get at Lowe's or Home Depot.

I mix the poly / mineral spirit and the shellac mixture in 6 oz. plastic bottles that I get from Midwest Bottle Company located in Kentucky. I order 30 or so of these with lids. After I put the finish in, I shake it and I shake it before applying each time. I try to mix several bottles at a time.

I have tried different polyurethanes including water base but I like the oil base better. I had used Minwax but it turns yellow. I have used Zar for probably 15 years. I have also tried a host of other finishes, but again I like Zar the best. Occasionally if semi-gloss isn't available, I will mix gloss and satin. I sometimes put in more gloss to make it shine a little better. I have tried some of the other finishes, but this is what I like best.

I get 6" foam pads called Abralon from Supergrit. I use 180, 360, 500 and sometimes 1,000 grit.

I get rolls of the blue paper shop towels. I cut several sheets at a time into 1/4 sheets. When I get ready to apply shellac or polyurethane I then fold them into about 2" pads.

Sandpaper: I have a 6" orbital sander with a vacuum attached that I use 100, 120 and 180 regular sandpaper. I have a 5" orbital sander that I use 320 and 600 grit wet and dry paper. For using the wet and dry sandpaper I have a 1/2" thick pad that I got from Supergrit. It attaches to the sander and the wet and dry sandpaper attaches to the pad. The pad also keeps the finish out of the sander motor.

Getting to work:

I cut a board slightly wider and longer than will be needed for the box. I then run the board through the planer just enough so I can see the grain pattern. I then flatten the board with the jointer.

I resaw the boards with a bandsaw and plane the boards to the thickness I am seeking. Generally around .44 to .45" thick. I then sand before cutting the board to length and width. It is easier to sand a longer board and I can look for defects in the wood. I can also decide what part of the board I want to be on the front or top of the box. I start sanding with 100 grit on a random orbital sander. I sand both sides. I then flip the board around and sand with 120 grit with the sander. I then mark the board so I know where to cut the pieces. I cut the boards slightly longer than will be needed.

At this point the boards are slightly longer and wider than the finish piece will be. I mark both edges of the board and run one edge over the jointer to insure that one edge is straight. I then take the boards to the tablesaw and cut to the correct width removing the side that still has the pencil mark. Now the pieces should be parallel.

I tilt the tablesaw blade to 45 degree and using a Kreg miter jig I cuts all the boards to the correct length. After the first cut I stand the board on the tablesaw and place a square against it to insure that it is accurate.

If the box bottom is to be 1/4" thick I will use the table saw to cut the slot for the bottom. I then cut the bottom to fit. I want the bottom to be tight. Often times I will make the bottom with the same wood as the box. If I have resawn the board I will glue pieces together to make them wide enough then plane it to the correct thickness. Since the wood is thin it has the tendency to bow but once I put it into the bottom slots it flattens out pretty good.

I have different routers set up to do different functions. I round over the edges. If the box is to have a slot cut at the top of each end for lifting the top off, I have a router set up to make that cut.

Now I am ready to start the finishing.

Over the years I have taken different species of wood and experimented with different finishes. Some finishes turn yellow on light colored wood like maple. I've experimented with different sanding techniques. I finally got a finish that I like.

I sand the pieces that will be the inside of the box with 180 grit sandpaper with the orbital sander. Each time I sand I look for any defects or machine marks that I may have missed. If the box gets a 1/4" thick bottom I sand that with 180 grit. I then use 180 grit foam Abralon pads on the orbital sander that I mentioned above. This pad will remove and scratches from the wood. I dust the boards with the yellow micro rags. You have to watch because sometimes you are just pushing the dust and not removing it.

For the inside of boxes and the bottom, I generally apply 2 or 3 coats of unwaxed shellac diluted 50/50 with denatured alcohol. I wait several hours between coats and I apply it with the blue paper shop towels. I may sand after the first coat with 350 foam Abralon to removed dust. If the board still feels rough I will sand it with 180 Abralon pad. After the last coat I generally use 500 grit Abralon foam pad on the orbital sander. If I am making a wooden basket, which won't have a top, I will use Zar poly instead of shellac. I make sure the finish doesn't run onto the mitered cuts. That would prevent the glue from sticking to the wood when I glue the box together.

At this time the box is ready to be glue together. I use two belt clamps and to prevent the clamps from making dents into the wood where the metal is, I place a couple pieces of cardboard behind the metal buckle. I use Titebond II glue, but don't put so much that it squeezes out on the inside of the boxes. I also put a small amount of glue in the grooves to prevent the bottom from moving around after it is finished.

I generally wait several hours before removing the clamps. I then sand the entire outside of the box with 180 grit on the orbital sander. To make sure the box is flat on both the top and bottom I set it on the tablesaw. If it wobbles I have a sanding board for that. I have gotten a roll of 120 grit sandpaper that is 4" wide with adhesive on the back. I glue these to a strips of plywood that is 16" * 24" to make one solid sanding pad. I use a pencil to mark all the way around the top and bottom edge of the box and rub the box top and bottom edge over the sandpaper. Once the pencil mark is gone the box should be flat. I recheck before proceeding.

I then apply a coat of shellac to the outside of the box. This is to prevent glue stain later. I generally put splines in the corner of the boxes. I do this on the tablesaw. I cut the splines and glue those in. The shellac prevents the glue from getting into the wood that would show when finish is applied.

After applying the splines I wait a couple hours and I sand with 180 grit on the orbital sander to flatten the splines and remove the shellac and any damages to the wood. I then sand with one of the 180 grit foam Abralon pads.

If the box will be getting a top, I make the top to fit the box at this time. I generally put a small ogee profile around the top of the box using a router that I have set up to do it. I sand the top the same way I sanded the box. Also I make sure I sand the ogee profile using a 180 grit foam Abralon pad. Afterward I feel around the edge to make sure it is smooth before applying finish.

I dust the box and lid. I wipe my hand over it looking for dust. I can also wipe it down with mineral spirits using the blue paper shop towels.

I apply a coat of Zar polyurethane diluted 50/50 with mineral spirits that I described above using the blue shop towel. I don't sand between coats and you will see why later. I wait 8-hours or so. I inspect it for defects and resand if I detect any. After 8-hours I apply another coat. Then another coat after 8-hours. I have a 5" orbital sander that I have applied a 1/2" thick foam pad that I got from Supergrit. I put a 320 grit wet and dry sandpaper on the pad. After the 3rd coat of poly mixture and waited 8-hours I apply the Zar poly mixture onto the wet and dry sandpaper using a 1" foam brush. Also apply a coat of the mixture on one side of the box. I sand for about 30 seconds on that side of the box. I wipe it off with a blue shop towel including along the edges. Then rotate the box and continue going around it. This sanding will fill the grain if there is any and it makes the wood really slick. There will not be any shine at this time. I'm okay with that. I wait 8-hours and apply another coat of poly mixture with the blue shop towel. Wait 8-hours and apply another coat. Then after 8-hours I do another wet and dry sand using the poly mixture but this time I use 600 grit wet and dry paper. After 8-hours I apply another coat of the poly mixture using the blue shop towel. I then wait a several days. If I detect any dust in the finish I either will sand with either 500 or 1,000 grit foam Abralon pad OR I used a 4/0 steel wool and apply Liberon natural wax.

I hope this info helped and not confused anyone.

Malcolm / Kentucky USA
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Very informative and well-explained. Thanks for posting.
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Like Andy said, informative. Right now, the only thing I have been making is with plywood, mostly canes, but a few other things. The finish I use is Titebond II, thinned at least 50/50, usually more, with water. Goes on fast with a brush, dries very rapidly, and can put on multiple coats in little time. Hit the cane, or whatever with my ROS before the finish, no sanding after. Looks good, holds up well, and very easy to apply touchup coats. It does give the finish sort of an amber color, which I like - not tried a glue that would dry clear, but assume it will give about the same results, less color. The Titebond really makes the plies standout.

Understand, I am making something much simpler then you, with entirely different wood; so I don't need to take the steps you do. However, do have some projects in the thought mill, mostly a chest for the grand-daughter, and am really going to have to step up the finish, and the work quality; so thinned glue is not going to be on the agenda, nor is plywood, unless I use a piece for the bottom. I will likely copy some of your steps. Thanks.
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Malcolm you gave away all your secrets to making those magnificent boxes you make. Now you will see thousands of boxmakers springing up all over. You write a good book too.

All you box makers starting out, Malcolm's technique above is a must read , he is the master at what he does and that is all great information to get on the right track to start out with. Great looking boxes take a lot of care and time to build as you can see by reading the above.
Thanks for posting that, Malcolm, I enjoyed reading it.
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Great tutorial Malcolm. I recently made a couple of boxes for my wife and sister in law. I used sandpaper to level as you describe above. The sandpaper I used was a sheet for a floor sander like the paper in this link: The 12" x 18" sheet provided ample area to use and the paper is quite stiff so it lays nice and flat. It comes with an adhesive back but I didn't bother using that feature. This worked much better than trying to use standard paper sheets.
Malcolm I appreciate the hard work you put in to your explaing how you finish your boxes. Most people don't understand how much work goes into making a box like yours.
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Malcom ~ Great write up. This should be a "sticky" post. Bob
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Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Malcolm. Very informative.

Only a true woodworker can appreciate the effort injected into this type of work. Well defined step by step procedures like this helps everyone THANK YOU! You are a True Master Craftsman.
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Only a true woodworker can appreciate the effort injected into this type of work. Well defined step by step procedures like this helps everyone THANK YOU! You are a True Master Craftsman.
Gary that is what I wanted to say but it didn't come out as nice as your post. :|
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Malcolm, Thank you for that great write-up. No wonder your boxes are so outstanding.

A few questions. Since I’m not familiar with the Zar line of products I looked them up on the Zar website. Do you use the Semi-Gloss Interior Ultra, Ultra Max or the Quick Dry?

I have a Bosch 5” orbital sander. I’m interested in the 1/2" thick pad that you got from Supergrit but I can’t find it on their website. Do you have part number or description that I can use to find it?

For the plastic bottles you use to mix the poly and shellac, assuming you save what you don’t use, do you use clear or colored bottles? I don’t know if light has any effect on the stored finishes.

Last question. At 300 boxes a year when do you find time to sleep??
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Excellent educational review Malcolm. Always enjoy your work.
I use Zar Ultra interior semi-gloss. Here is a photo of the shellac and the poly.

I had been getting bottles from Walmart which were different colors. They worked just fine. I think they were 4 oz. bottles, but I go through a lot. Depends upon how many items I am producing a bottle of finish last a couple weeks. I generally don't reuse the poly bottles because the plastic starts to break down. When I get them from Midwest Bottle company they are a few cents each.

As for the 1/2" thick pad, you can call Super Grit. They have a wonderful staff there. I generally call instead of trying to order online because they can generally give me more info on the products. Don't remember the product number and the only thing written on it is 05NL and it is about 1/2" foam.

Spare time! What spare time? I am retired, but always working in the shop or doing housework - cooking, cleaning, etc.

Malcolm / Kentucky USA


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Thanks Malcolm. Once I get everything it'll be time for me to give it a try on my small cabinet. If it comes out good I'll post pictures. If it comes out bad I'll still take the pictures but from a distance in dim light.
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