Joe Abbott's Weblog

Letters home to mom

Finishing this thing up

Posted by joeabbott on December 22, 2013

Yesterday I cut the toe kick for the cabinet and was about to nail it into place when I considered how to finish it once it was mounted below the couple-inch lip of the lower cabinet frame. Not easily. And so I shifted my consideration to applying a finish to parts of the cabinet before they were installed.

I’m not much of a finish sorta woodworker. It’s tough to make it look perfect and I generally like natural wood. Which means that I nearly always opt for an “oil and wax” approach. That, however, provides nearly no protection from the bumps and dings that furniture suffers, and only helps with a bit of “oops, I dripped a bit of water on here” sorta mess. So it was time for me to try a few out.

In my shop on an untidy shelf, I have a handful of sprays and pastes and tubes of this and that to improve the surfaces of wooden products. From that shelf I grabbed four items and over the day, applied them several times to a section of bamboo so I could compare the end results. Here’s what it looks like:


I lack the photographic expertise to capture a picture that represents the material with the same qualities as actually looking at it, but that basics are here. From the right-hand side:


The pure wax finish leaves the surface feeling good but fails to bring out the tonal qualities we’d like. It’s easy to apply and relatively quick, not needing to dry or sink in, but the surface is a bit dead.

Oil and Wax

This starts to improve the color quality along the lines we’re looking for: a deep golden hue that pulls out some of the texture. This treatment, as noted above, doesn’t really help to safeguard against some of the scratching and minor surface damage like you would get with the next two options.


This is a tried and true finish that is relatively easy to apply (I have a spray can) and really brings out the colors we want. While it looks like a big winner, it’s also very shiny … which is not at all a look that we’re going for. I had some success with pulling a fiber pad over the surface and knocking off some of the shine, but I wasn’t completely happy with the look it took on … it appeared scuffed. Which it was. So big points for color but too much shine.


This treatment has the satin finish we like but didn’t improve the color the way that oil and shellac did. But, it protected the surface from scratches. So while varathane may be part of the solution, it will need a little help.

What to do

The clock is ticking and I need to get a move-on with this project. I’ll continue running more tests and tweaking my plan … I really benefitted from this exercise … but here’s my current thinking:

  • For the toe kick I’ll use the oil and wax approach
  • I’ll continue to use oil/wax for interior and vertical parts … pieces that won’t likely see wear and tear
  • For the top panel, I’ll want to apply a finish that provides some protection … my thinking now is oil with a varathane coat

How’s it coming along?

The project continues to crawl along with some modest progress. In addition to the finishing exercise from yesterday, I cut the lumber for the toe kick and fitted it, cut out the underlayment panels for below the bottom sub-layer, and I created a number of shims to be used for leveling the cabinet and ensuring we didn’t get creaks and wobbles and odd results when we set it in.

Thanks for coming by!


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