Tough Stuff

Since I’m an old dog, I can be a bit lax in the new tricks department but I figure with all the environmental regulations coming down the pike, I’ll be forced to use water-based finishes sooner rather than later. So for the past year and a half, I’ve been experimenting with several of them. I also did some rigorous testing on five popular water-based topcoats for an article I wrote for Woodcraft Magazine, Issue 40, April/May 2011. At the time, General Finishes’ Enduro-Var water-based urethane was a fairly new entry in the waterborne marketplace and it performed quite well in most of my tests. I was impressed, so I’ve been trying to work it into my finishing routine as projects allow. It has a mellow amber color, so it really enriches the look of darker woods – an attribute that I like. On the other hand, the amber cast makes it unsuitable for use on lighter woods if no color change is desired.

Although I’ve used Enduro-Var (Semi-Gloss) with success on several small projects, I finally got a chance to use it on a large surface – roughly 60 inches by 20 inches. The project was a curly maple counter top for a kitchen addition that we started last spring. The counter top sits on a pass-through that we cut out between our kitchen and dining room. It will act as a serving area for food when we’re using the dining room and an informal spot for drinks or snacks once we get a couple stools. Regardless, it’s bound to get some abuse and I thought it would be the perfect trial for this tough finish.

My finishing room is piled high with lumber and it’s cold outside, so spraying was out of the question. Since most amateurs don’t have access to spray equipment, I wanted to see what challenges would be presented by hand application of the product. After flattening the counter top, I sanded to 220 grit, raised the grain with a damp cloth, let it dry, and sanded off the whiskers with 220 grit. Next I stained the counter top with Lockwood’s Medium Amber Maple #143 water-soluble aniline dye. When that was dry I slathered on a heavy coat of Enduro-Var with a polyester brush because General Finishes claims Enduro-Var is self-sealing. After four hours of drying, I scuff sanded with 320 grit paper, cleaned off the sanding dust, and applied a second coat. I used one of my favorite brushes for water-borne finishes – the Wooster “Alpha”  which has nicely tapered bristles and has worked like a charm when hand-applying General Finishes’ High Performance water-based topcoat (another one of my favorite water-based finishes). I was surprised at how quickly the second coat set up. It was so fast that I barely had time to work from the wet edge into the next stroke. I also picked up a lot of color from the aniline dye, which indicated this coat was softening the previous coat. I had expected to pick up some dye on the first coat of finish, but not on the second. By the time I finished the last brush stroke on the second coat, the rest of the surface was dry and there were lots of ridges to deal with. After a conversation with the folks at General Finishes, I did confirm that each subsequent coat will “burn” into the previous coat if the recommended window of four hours between coats is followed.

I waited for another four hours and leveled the ridges with 400 grit wet-or-dry paper, and cleaned off the surface. I decided to try a different applicator, so using a fully saturated 4-inch foam brush, I laid on the third coat as quickly as I could. Within a few minutes, the coat was dry to the touch and reasonably smooth. Up until this point, the shop temperature was 68 degrees and the relative humidity was 40 percent. After another four hours of drying, I scuff sanded with 400 grit paper, cleaned off the surface, and dialed back the temperature to 62 degrees. While laying down the fourth coat, I could feel that it was drying slower due to the lower temperature. Keeping the temperature at 62 degrees, I waited four hours; scuff sanded, removed the sanding dust, and applied another coat. Then I repeated the entire procedure for the sixth coat. At that point I decided I had a good film build and let the counter top cure for two days. Finally, I leveled the surface with 400 grit wet-or dry paper lubricated with a drop of dish detergent in a cup of water. After cleaning off the surface, I rubbed it out with Behlen’s Deluxing Compound. The final result is a surface with a medium-high sheen that’s indistinguishable from the typical alkyd varnish finishes I’ve applied over the past forty years. Although the procedure may sound like a lot of work, the same results using an alkyd finish would have taken three times as long. Add in the benefits of water cleanup, plus no odors and I think we may have a winner.  Only time will tell. For now, I’m happy with it, my wife is happy with it, and I’ve had several compliments from fellow woodworkers. With that said, I will clean out my spray booth for the next big project because this product is best suited for spraying on large surfaces. On a closing note, this is a “self-cross linking” finish and I’ve tried several common finish removers on samples that have cured for over a year with minimal effect, so I don’t recommend using this as a finish for antiques. In plain English, that means it’s almost impossible to get off.

The finished countertop