Charles Neil Lecture

I ran into some good luck a few years ago. I just happened to be in the local Woodcraft and Charles Neil was giving a free seminar on finishing. I spent almost 5 hours sitting there watching, taking notes and talking to him between breaks. After the first 30 minutes it was strikingly apparent that this man has forgotten more about woodworking that I have ever learned.  I used to think of myself as a pretty good woodworker until I met him.

Top 10 points of interest from Charles Neil’s Finishing Session

1. Trace Coats, I am now convinced finishing is all about the trace coat.  Charles took a really expensive (grossly overpriced) tiger maple board off the Woodcraft shelf and started to show us the benefits of trace coats. He shared with us his process of “Popping the Grain.”  “Trans-Tint Amber mixed in water makes the best trace coat” he said, “but you can really use any color.” Trace coats are used to identify defects and to intensify figure.

2. A trace coat is simply an applied diluted dye used to enhance the grain and defects before sanding. When I say before sanding, I really mean before sanding. Charles put a trace coat on a piece of stock before sandpaper ever touched it. You could see curl, planer marks and defects.  He then sanded (briefly) with 120, another trace coat, then 180. Another trace coat and he was done. He sprayed a little shellac on it out of a can, and I have to admit, this 5 minute finish was better than anything I have ever done. Chatoyance, depth, color, you name it this finish had it. I couldn’t believe it. Charles also mentioned that he will use a trace coat on lightly planed boards to match the figure more easily for a tabletop, etc.

3. Charles said the only thing BLO (Boiled Linseed Oil) is good for is pulling out dents in projects. He said it makes a wonderful finish, but there are better, more efficient products out there to use, i.e. Trans-Tint trace coat. Place a small amount of BLO on a cloth and use an iron (steam off) until the dent is pulled out. He also reminded us to get the iron back in the house before your wife realizes it is gone…oh and clean it really well.

4. How do you pull a dent out of a project with denatured alcohol you ask?  Well….Charles said to mix it with water (50/50) or “close enough”, fill the dent and light it on fire. Seriously, he said to light it on fire. In theory this makes perfect sense, but in reality I don’t think I will ever try it…well maybe once, twice if it was fun. The water soaks into the wood and starts to raise the grain, the alcohol (on fire) expedites the process, swelling the fibers, and pulling out the dent. Charles said it only flames for a few seconds then goes out. I think I’ll have to take his word for this one.

5. Sanding should be to effect not to exhaustion. Charles said that he will start with 120 then 180 and he is done. The exception to this rule is end grain. He will go 120-180-220-320-600. Anything below 120 is for shaping, not sanding.

6. Charles told several stories of guys who would count the drops of Trans-Tint in a particular volume of water to get their recipe for a particular color. “119 drops of dark mission brown in a pint of water…he laughs.”  How do you regulate the size of the drop?  What if you get to drop 100 and there is that little spray that has happened to all of us?  Charles has a simpler method of course. Mix 2 oz of dye in 2 oz of water and use this as a base. Add small amounts of this base to a pint of water until you get the desired color.

7. Want a cheap trace coat? Food coloring. He said it works like a charm and for pennies compared to the $21 Woodcraft charges for 2 oz of Trans-Tint.

8. Screw up the dye by applying too much?… spray on some Krud Kutter. He was able to take a very dark stain back to a very light and very manageable color. I asked if you could light it on fire and he just laughed.  I still don’t know if that meant yes or no.

9. One tablespoon of baking soda in one pint of water will darken cherry, mahogany and walnut as a pre-finish. It will give the effect of an older piece that has darkened with age.

10. “If you can’t finish it, you shouldn’t build it.”  “An excellent finish can elevate a mediocre piece to a good one, but a bad finishing job can make an excellent piece look awful.”  Charles Neil, 2014.

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