Wood Finishing on the Lathe – A Basic Guide

Wood finishing on the lathe is a fun process. It takes a lot of the time out of finishing, and the results happen almost instantly in front of your eyes. You also have the ability to control the level and intensity of your stained finishes. For these two reasons, I love to finish while the piece is still on the lathe whenever possible. The following covers manipulating dye stains while on the lathe.

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Finishing on the Lathe – How to Start

wood finishing on the latheThe first step for finishing your piece while still on the lathe is to apply your stain. I like to use pieces of paper towel, pipe cleaners, or small gun cleaning patches that are made from cotton.

Dip one of these in your stain, and turn on your lathe. I leave my lathe at whatever speed I was using last, as long as it’s in the low to medium range. Super high speeds can turn your stain into a geyser, which is funny and tragic at the very same time.

It can also be dangerous, so be careful. Touch the applicator to the piece, and rub it across until the entire surface of the wood has been coated. In this case, black is used on Briar, which turns the wood from a tan color to a jet black.

If you need better coverage, simply wipe on another coat. I use alcohol based dye stain that you can find in leather working shops. The brand is Fiebing’s, and they are inexpensive. The big advantage is that they color deeply, and dry very quickly.

In a few seconds, a second coat can be applied. For more about dye stains, I have another article that shows more detail.

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Lathe Finishing – Cutting Back the Stain

wood finishing on the latheThe beauty of finishing right on the lathe is that you can cut the finish back quickly and easily. The lathe does the majority of the work. All you need to do is know when to stop.

Turn on the lathe and use either 0000 steel wool, or 600-800 grit sandpaper. Begin removing stain, stopping the lathe periodically to see what it looks like.

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You will have to wipe off the piece to see where you are. You will notice that the stain being removed exposes the natural wood color again, and you can make a decision as to when you want to stop.

On Briar, you want to sand until you see that only the dark stain remains on the grain lines, and nowhere else. This sounds easy, but it’s a trick that takes a little practice.

If you are working with a different wood, some species will benefit from this look, and others will not. Species that have deep pores, or large differences in the densities between the grain and flake will show more contrast. Pieces with a more even hardness and closed pores will not. The only notable exception is figured Maple.

This is because the undulating grain absorbs liquid at different rates depending on the cut, and is the real reason that figured Maple takes a finish so well in the first place.

Adding Another Color to Your Lathe Applied Finish

wood finishing on the latheThe beauty of a contrast stain comes out when you add a second color. Finishing on the lathe is perfect for seeing this process transform quickly.

In this case, I am applying a Saddle Tan dye to the entire Briar bead. Turn on the lathe, and touch the applicator to the piece as it spins. Check for evenness, and add a second coat of the first was not deep enough for you.

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Let the lathe spin a little, and you will see that the piece dries out very quickly. Again, make sure that you do not dunk the applicator in the stain.

This can spin off the lathe very quickly, and if it gets into your eyes it can cause a real problem. Less is more, and it will apply quickly either way.

Seeing the Subtlety in a Lathe Applied Finish

wood finishing on the latheThe real trick to seeing a finish develop on the lathe is being able to turn the lathe on to reveal the color density. The spinning lathe will blend the colors together, and you can see where you need to make adjustments.

In this case, I want a lighter area in the middle, because I want the stain to have some life and variation. I intentionally pull back stain from the middle (and added yellow on top of it) to give more depth and detail to the look.

Anyone can apply one color of stain across a whole piece. Carefully and using subtle blending techniques like this create interest and depth. This wooden bead had far more life with the three colors and the blending between them than if I just finished it with one brownish stain.

The details are important (and fun) when you are staining. If you play around with your stains, and see what they do, you can really discover interesting and creative ways to make certain looks. Contrast staining and color blending/fading can really enhance the look of your pieces, and give them a more appealing depth and life.

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If you have any questions about Wood Finishing on the Lathe – A Basic Guide, please leave a comment and I will be glad to answer them. Also, please share my work with your friends online. It helps me spread the word, and lets me reach more new woodworkers. Happy building.

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