Finish and color samples

Building Bradley’s Crib Part 5 — Choosing the Right Finish

How do you choose the right finish? That is a question I’m often asked. In this final installment related to the 3 in 1 crib / toddler bed / adult bed building project I will walk through my own through process for how I picked the finish for this project.

Setting High Level Project Parameters:

Customer input — in this case, my wife Alyssa. We wanted something in that warm amber to medium brown color and tone range. She wanted something to potentially match a darker rocker and changing table we had and I wanted something more on the natural side given this wood was of higher quality and thought it would be a shame to hide all that figure.

I chose Cherry wood for this project as I like cherry’s grain, workability and warm tones once it has time to age. Given that the project is for my newborn son I wanted a child safe finish that would be durable. (So that has me think of shellacs, low or preferably no VOC finishes that cure to hard film that will protect the wood and be easy to clean)

Freshly milled cherry has a light, almost pink finish so I likely will dye or stain the project to get a jump on the aging process and even out the tones of the wood.

Cherry also has a tendency to blotch, so I always want to seal it with shellac as a sanding sealer to try and protect against blotching.

Color Sample Chips:

With some high level parameters in hand, I first take a look at the color chips and samples I have on hand.

I have a real nice collection of General Finishes samples that I use in my teaching and they are one of my go-to finish providers as I’ve found their products to be high quality and reliable.

Finish and color samples
Finish and color samples

PRO TIP: Whenever you test a sample on a cut-off or similar piece of wood, label it with the finish — maker, type, color, date, #coats and wood species. I keep a box of these sorts of samples in my shop and they can often help in this process as my samples are larger than the standard chips that are usually on paper or small bits of veneer plywood. As the samples age they provide that much more information on how the pieces you make will age with a given finish.

From looking at the chips in a few different lights and in the baby’s room we decided on the following three samples:

Cherry stains we liked
Cherry stains we liked

Test your top 2 or 3 choices:

In the photo below the wood is set up in pairs. The left piece of wood is raw cherry. The right piece of wood had a wash coat of blonde shellac applied to see how it would reduce the amount of blotching in the cherry.

Trying out the dye and gel stains I liked. Left samples are raw wood, right samples have a coat of shellac under the stain.
Trying out the dye and gel stains I liked. Left samples are raw wood, right samples have a coat of shellac under the stain.

 

PRO TIP:
You can help jump-start the cherry aging process by exposing it UV light. With the above samples I kept them on a sunny window sill in the shop for a few weeks to get a feel for how the finishes might look as the project ages.

 

I didn’t love the results from the above experiments, I wanted a warmer tone, so I decided to mix up a batch of garnet shellac (described here) and continue my experimentation. On my next round of sample boards I experimented with a few coats of garnet shellac to see what I liked best. The garnet shellac alone did a fairly good job of warming up the cherry.

Trying my favorite stain from the last round, but trying it out with garnet shellac
Trying my favorite stain from the last round, but trying it out with garnet shellac

The experiments continued with several pieces of wood scrap from the project to see how the recipe of garnet shellac and dye stain looked on knots, different grain orientations etc.

Testing the recipe with a range of woods on the project
Testing the recipe with a range of woods on the project

In the end my wife and I both liked the same samples, so in the end I wound up going with two coats of garnet shellac with the second coat having a small amount of dye stain in the second coat. All of the above experimentation was well worth the time as I would not want ruin a project like this with a poorly executed finish.

Top coat:

I decided to go with General Finishes High Performance Water-based Polyurethane Top Coat in a Semi-gloss.  I like this finish as it’s easy to apply by hand or via sprayer, low VOC,  it’s UV stabilized and once cured is a durable child safe finish. For fine furniture when it comes to a top coat I adhere to the mantra of ‘if I wanted it to look like it was made out of plastic, I would have made it out of plastic’, but for this crib it’s very nice but not super fine furniture and from what I know about babies the ability to quickly and easily clean off any accidents makes this higher gloss sheen all the more worthwhile.

Crib outfitted with mattress, sheets, skirt and of course stuff animals
Crib outfitted with mattress, sheets, skirt and of course stuff animals

For this project I applied the poly by hand using a folded up lint-free white cotton rag. I worried the sprayer would cause too many drips around the many slats and after all the work I put into the project I didn’t want to foul it up in the finishing room.

I’m very happy with how this project turned out and look forward to seeing how the cherry ages in Bradley’s very sunny bedroom.

If you’d like to read some other posts related to this project please check out this link here.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. How do you choose your finishes? Feel free to share your thoughts and tips in the comments section below.

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