Toolchests Part 13 – Finishes

Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.

Neil Gaiman

In this post I will briefly summarize the finishes used, mistakes made, and latest improvements to “Moby-Dick; or, The Toolchest.”

The Original Finish – A Tale of Woe

More than 26 years ago when this toolchest was new, I applied a rubbed-out catalyzed lacquer finish inside and out which showed the grain pattern and color of the wood nicely, but was not as durable as anticipated. I refinished the chest once, but after years of rough use, many moves over many years, and painful encounters with trucks, shipping containers, forklifts, and one-legged meth-head moving company employees, the finish was in poor condition. I concluded that lacquer, varnish and even polyurethane do not really qualify as durable finishes for a piece of working casework with a target useful lifespan of 200 years, at least if it’s not to be pampered like a baby grand piano in grandma’s drawing room.

Exterior Refinish

While living on the Pacific island of Guam in 2011 and with free time on my hands due to international political corruption (difficult to imagine huh (ツ)), I gazed upon my toolchest and despaired for, yea verily, it was in bad shape, cosmetically that is, covered with scratches, dings and gouges topped off with yellowed, crazed and crumbling varnish. It had been a good and faithful servant for many years and deserved better so I girded up my loins, scraped and sanded off the old finish, leveled the scratches, dings and gouges with auto body filler, and refinished it.

Mr. Michael Dunbar and those sexy knees.

When considering how to refinish my toolchest in a way that would provide improved UV and abrasion resistance while also concealing past external cosmetic damage, I was intrigued by an article in a woodworking magazine by Mr. Michael Dunbar about milkpaint. Mr. Dunbar is a retired professional Windsor chairmaker, not just a scribbler, so I take what he writes seriously.

I removed the old varnish finish inside and out and, following Mr. Dunbar’s recommendation, applied multiple coats of red, green, and dark, almost black, burgundy-colored milkpaint to the bare exterior wood surfaces. I then sanded and distressed the paint to expose the various color layers, and applied one coat of thinned clear Epifanes flat polyurethane as a protective topcoat. This was a 2 week process.

This milkpaint finish has proved effective not only in concealing past cosmetic damage and the Bondo used to repair it, but has endured one international move by ship, two local moves inside Japan by truck, and months banging around inside hot humid shipping containers and dank warehouses since it was applied. It has only improved with age and abuse. Thank you Mr. Dunbar.

View of the lid’s frame & panel joints
View of the lid’s top, warts and all. Often used as a working surface, it has endured a lot of abuse, but the distressed areas with exposed red and green milkpaint are original to this finish. You can, however, see areas where the clear polyurethane top coat is failing. Again, so much for clear coats.
The right front corner of the skirt/base joined with through dovetails. These corners take the most abuse and are especially tough. The skirt is attached to the sides by glue and white-oak dowels.
The lockplate. The burgundy-color top coat of milkpaint as well as the green and red undercoats, and even a little bare wood, are visible.
The top front corner of the lid, joined with through dovetails. The perimeter frame of the frame & panel top is connected to the sides with dowels, which have pushed out round spots in the clear Epifanes polyurethane top coat as the frame has shrunk around them over the years since the toolchest was refinished in constantly high-humidity Guam, an unavoidable reality in wooden casework. Someday I will need to shave these flush and refinish the round spots, but since the finish is milkpaint, the repairs will disappear entirely.
The front right corner of the lower case. What were once flush through-dovetails joining the sides have become visible as the wood has shrunk in thickness due to the relatively lower humidity of Tokyo. No joints have been repaired and all are still tight as a drum.
Front-view of the sawtill. The through-dovetails joining the corners, as well as evidence of the dowels connecting the horizontal F&P divider panel above the drawer have become visible as the wood has shrunk in the drier Tokyo humidity. Nosireebob those are not plugs concealing screws. Removing and replacing prickly saws has been hard on this little chest, but doesn’t look any worse now than when newly refinished, and will only improve in appearance with future wear and tear.

Milkpaint is an interesting material. It is non-toxic, which is nice when applying it. It doesn’t out-gas toxic compounds into the air either which is even nicer.

It has a water carrier with mostly mineral solids instead of volatile resins, so when cured it forms a hard, abrasion-resistant, non-shrink, no-peel surface unaffected by UV light, unlike latex, lacquer, varnish, and polyurethane.

The user can mix most any color they want using the available powders providing an endless palette.

It’s easy to use, forgiving and doesn’t take special tools to mix and apply, just glass jam jars, stirring sticks, strainers, paintbrushes, sandpaper, an old blender, and paper shopping bags.

Milk paint makes possible an easily-applied, inexpensive, tough, UV resistant, non-toxic surface finish with an antiquish, unique appearance that not only resists damage but even improves with time and abuse. What more could you possibly want? Egg in your beer?

Interior Refinish

I refinished the toolchest’s interior surfaces with shellac to eliminate the stink of curing resins. Time will tell how well it holds up, but so far so good.

Conclusion

My toolchest is far from perfect, but it meets all my performance criteria and works pretty darn good for me.

If I were to do it over again, I’m not sure I would change the current design or finishes, other than the way tools are mounted inside the lid. Compared to the original design, the current arrangement is more functional, but there is always room for improvement.

I think the most important thing this series of articles about toolchests has to offer is not the design itself but rather the performance criteria developed and the decision process that led to the design and ultimate construction.

As I mentioned in Part 5 of this series, there are many decisions that must be made when planning a tool storage system. I hope you, Gentle Reader, got my point that you can either take the time and make the effort to plan, or neglect to do so and let the decisions be made through default and happenstance whirling down and around the porcelain scrying bowl of chance. Either way, the decisions will be made.

Perhaps reading the performance criteria and seeing the design and execution of this toolchest will stimulate your planning. Many of your requirements will be the same as mine, but others will be different, so the solutions and design details you employ will be different too. At the very least you now have a detailed practical example to reference when planning how you store your valuable tools.

I also hope you will see how tradition can provide solutions to universal challenges of tool storage, but that through careful consideration you can improve on tradition.

Thank you for coming along on the journey.

In the next and final post in this series I will explain how “repairability” was incorporated (or not) into the design.

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, incompetent facebook, or sneaky Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. Heaven forfend!

Other Posts in this Series:

6 thoughts on “Toolchests Part 13 – Finishes

  1. I have been meaning to give milk paint a try. I’ve looked into it many of times but haven’t yet given it a go. I will though as I am curious about it and I’m sure I will fall in love with it as I have with chalk paint. The beauty about chalk paint is that I can make my own home version which makes it very cost effective but I cannot with milk paint.

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    1. Salko, thanks for your comment. Always appreciated. I found your formula for chalk paint extremely interesting. Just as you have never used milkpaint, I have never used chalkpaint, so I have no way to compare, but there are homemade formulas for milk paint out there too. Milkpaint is surprisingly tough stuff, the casein and mineral pigments makes it that way I am told. In my opinion it works best when you don’t try to make a uniform, flat, even finish. I have used it a lot the 9 years.

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  2. “At the very least you now have a detailed practical example to reference when planning how you store your valuable tools.”

    Understatement of the series. At the least. Much, much appreciate the enormous time and effort you took to pull all this together. Craftsman will find this information useful for at least as long as your chest survives and hopefully much longer!

    Jonathan

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    1. Jonathan: Thank you very much for your kind words! I think you overestimate the value (and likely availability) of the article over the next 125 years, but it would be wonderful if it was useful to many people. There are some “fanboys” out there who do not appreciate the series because it directly contradicts the ideas behind another well-published example. I think, however, that once the Fanboys read the detailed explanation of the design process and saw the interior, they understood that my toolchest, not being a reproduction and too complicated/difficult to be the subject for teaching classes, is a horse of a different color. Cheers, Stan

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      1. You may be right about the availability of this information but it would be a very sad day for the woodworking community. You capture centuries of experience in your articles and access to that kind of information is fading far too quickly. The amount of “information” (better called white noise) out there is growing at a rapid, rapid pace and is quickly overwhelming quality and useful information. It used to be that more often that not what one read could be trusted as coming from years of hard earned personal experience as well as the experiences of others as is the case with the information you share. It’s too tiresome to weed through the mis-information these days. Articles such as those you publish will be treasured as more and more white noise is created. Fanboys come and go and too often speak without having put tool to wood or tested out the theories they promote. But this you know well.

        Jonathan

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