Finishing as an Integral Part of Design

I want to address a dilemma that we all face as woodworkers. The primary material we work with is not homogenous. Okay, we all know that. Its variations include visual elements that are an essential part of its beauty. On the other hand, that same variation can result in what many people see as imperfections. So, the problem is that we are creating a product in which the quality of the wood we choose is subject to interpretation.

This problem obviously doesn’t apply to painted wood products, only to wood finishes where the grain of the wood is an important aspect of the design. The more we enhance the beauty of the wood with our finishes, the greater the potential disparity among opinions.

Generally, we have two possible scenarios when creating wood products. If we create a product and then try to sell it, we need to find someone who shares our opinion about its beauty (and, of course, its usefulness). The wood we use will be a major contributor to this beauty and the potential buyer must appreciate it enough to pay the price.

The other scenario is building a product to order. When we do this, we need to visualize what the finished product will look like before we build it. The wood we use will, again, be a major contributor to the visual appeal. Since it’s the client we must please, he or she will need to share our vision and so we must make sure they have a clear and complete picture of the finished product. For the designer, this creates a substantial challenge since such a wide array of colors and patterns are possible in wood.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the full impact of the figure in the wood can’t be fully realized until the finish is applied. The variations in the color of wood even have a three dimensional quality called “chatoyance” or “birefringence.” This gemlike quality of wood actually causes changes in color when the lighting changes or the angle from which you view it changes, similar to iridescence. This aspect can’t be shown in pictures; it must be seen in real time and space. In order for the visualization to be completely accurate, a product must be seen in its planned environment, as well. This is, of course, impossible if the environment doesn’t yet exist, as is often the case with architectural millwork. So, we can go only so far to convey the full visual effect.

Partly due to this dilemma, what the furniture industry and many woodworkers have done is to limit the variations in the wood grain by making its appearance more homogenous. They can readily accomplish this by applying opaque colorants in the finish. The result is more consistent color throughout, but at the cost of losing much of the beauty of the wood and making it more like an artificial material.

It’s a shame that many of us feel we have to resort to this. God created wood with a natural beauty that can’t be duplicated by mankind. We obscure its beauty because we worry about complaints based on natural variations in color and texture. Can you imagine if sunsets contained only one color? How boring!

The public has grown accustomed to seeing homogenous, muddy wood finishes and they tend to reject variations that they aren’t accustomed to seeing. What we need to do as woodworkers is to educate our clients as to the potential beauty that wood has to offer. We need to show them as many variations as possible, pointing out that these variations are part of the beauty. Shying away from this hurts all of us in the long run. When we design and create a product, we do need to utilize these variations in a manner that is aesthetically pleasing. We can’t have a piece of furniture where a drastic change in grain pattern occurs only in one corner. Neither can we have a single board in the middle of a panel that stands out from all the rest. Our wood selection must be done carefully and with the complete product in mind.

It’s a good idea to provide more than one finish sample of each wood type (species, cut, figure) that we plan to use on a product. Samples should show the extremes of variation. This goes against convention and requires more effort, but it can clear up a lot of misunderstanding before fabrication. It’s still important to include a disclaimer that explains wood as a natural material where variations are expected.

While I realize that going through this effort does cost more, I believe it will pay off for each of us personally in the long run. I also believe that it will elevate the status of the woodworking industry as a whole. Only by educating our clientele on the potential beauty of wood can we make them appreciate wood for all it can be. As we do this, we actually endow them with a greater appreciation of our profession, as well. It’s a privilege to work with a material that has such a great natural beauty. Let’s not let ourselves be coerced into making it something less than it can be.