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A workbench finish that works

For something that gets its picture taken on a regular basis, our workbench in the WOOD magazine photo studio could have looked better. The tinted Danish oil finish on the maple top was easy to touch up, but came across as yellow and blotchy in photographs. (See the  ”before” photo.) But not any coating would do as a replacement. The new finish would need to make the maple more attractive, be easy to touch up, and because the bench is often a photo background, contrast with the unfinished wood on projects being photographed.

A workbench finish from Steve Mickley, our finishing forum host, seemed to meet all those requirements. So, I picked up a chunk of beeswax from the candle-making aisle of a local crafts store, and brought in a nearly full can of turpentine from home. I dissolved 2 ounces of grated beeswax in 16 fluid ounces of turpentine. Then I added 16 fluid ounces of boiled linseed oil, as per Steve’s formula, and let the mixture blend overnight in two separate canning jars. (You can cut this recipe in half for most applications.) I hadn’t smelled turpentine in close to 40 years—way back when my mom used it to rinse artists’ oil paint off her brushes. It’s still just as fragrant—and strong. Nearly all the beeswax had dissolved overnight, aided by leaving the canning jars in a sink full of hot water for the first couple hours. (DON’T warm this stuff over an open flame.)

There was just one problem: the old finish. Fortunately, we had a Festool Rotex sander with a 6″ pad and a coarse setting that ate through the old finish in no time. (“No time” being a couple of half-hour podcasts on my iPod.) After resanding the bench up to 180 grit, I wheeled it down to the Meredith building’s paint room. You don’t need an explosion-proof fan and spray booth to do this at home, but give your lungs a break and ventilation your benchtop finishing area. Remove the benchtop and haul it outdoors, if possible.

I’m a big believer in finishing test boards before moving on to the main event, and the finish looked good on a piece of sanded maple scrap. Unfortunately, it also turned the wood about the same color as the wood pieces we’d be photographing—photographers hate this—so I needed to add color. For blotchy woods like maple, the answer seemed to be a water-soluble dye. Mixing a few squirts of TransTint honey amber dye in warm water, I applied dye to a test board. By adding more squirts to the water, I brought the color up to something distinct from other pieces of wood that we’d photograph on the bench. (See the “after” photo.) Now it was time to apply the finish.

I warmed the mixture jar in hot water, gave the jar a good shake, and poured it onto the benchtop. After spreading it around with a cloth, I reapplied more finish where it had soaked into the wood. I rushed the finish and wiped the surface off after less than an hour. As slow as this dries, you could probably wait two hours before wiping away the surplus. Remember that you’re dealing with boiled linseed oil in this mixture, so spread out finish-soaked rags to dry before discarding.

The next day, I revisited the bench down in the paint room, gave it a second saturation, and wiped it clean about an hour later. For your bench at home, give the turpentine a day or two in open air to bring the odor levels down to a less nose-punishing level. Then buff off the surface and you’re good to go.

There’s just one problem. The finish brings out a wonderful depth and sheen in some of the wood strips. It looks so good, I’m thinking of cutting a pad for the benchtop so it doesn’t get damaged.

Before. This bench finish was showing its age (and wear).

Before. This bench finish was showing its age (and wear).

After. The color turned deeper for better photo contrast. And glue globs pop right off.

After. The color turned deeper for better photo contrast. And glue globs pop right off.

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10 Responses to “A workbench finish that works”

  1. Are you kidding? The picture on my computer is green. Nice going!

  2. Looks a beautiful aged brown to me. Nice job

  3. Nice going guys, this is the second web site from wood magazine that I have looked at that had major problems with viewing it. You need to get some one with better computer skills to update and issue you web pages. I like the information but you can do better with presenting it.

  4. Google chrome shows after picture as green. Use Explorer and it’s a nice deep brown.

  5. Wilson,
    I’m sorry you appear to have problems viewing Wood sites….I have an XP, a Windows 7 on different computers and I’m doing this on an original IPad and have never run into your problems….do you have virus scan/ firewall blocking this?
    I’d like to hear what the magazine folks have to add to your problem. Good luck as it is a good reference source.

  6. Guy’s nice job with the workbench, looks mint(great) to me and BTW the web page worx fine with no problems, I also checked the source code as well and that’s fine, the trouble with people using computers these days is that most of them don’t know what the hell they are installing on there machines and then when a web page doesn’t show correctly to them its all your fault, when infact its there fault for going to questionable websites and not having the sense nor the protection to stop it.

  7. The pic looks green with Firefox but looks great using IE. This is why I have both browsers installed.

  8. All the photo’s look great on my MAC – always have :)

  9. Roger is correct, FF has issues with the pic and IE works fine. Looks like Barrie Love should retract his harsh statement and learn to English correctly.

  10. Speaking of English Barrie, Its THEIR not there. E.G.> I put THEIR wood over THERE. Hope that helps.

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