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Finishing End Grain

July 10, 2012

Raise your virtual hand if you’ve ever put a finish on a piece of wood.

(Hopefully, that snagged pretty much every reader.)

Now keep your virtual hand raised if you’ve ever worried about the finish on your end grain being darker than the finish on your face grain.

(Do you still have your hand up?  If so, read on…)

When I first started building things with wood, one area I always struggled with was the finish. It never seemed to go on easily. No matter what kind I tried – varnish, shellac, polyurethane – I never achieved the kind of finish I felt I should have. One of the things that bugged me more than anything else was having any exposed end grain end up significantly darker than the face grain. So I read up on it on-line to see if I could figure out what my problem was.

The first thing I learned is that it had nothing to do with the kind of finish I was using. You can achieve a bad finish with any of them!  And you can achieve a good finish with any of them, as well! The most common answer I found was that I needed to sand the end grain with a higher grit than I used on the face grain. But this gave me more questions than answers. How much higher of a grit should I use? Can I use too high of a grit? How do I know when I’ve sanded enough?

It raised enough questions I started to doubt that answer, so I decided to figure it out for myself. I pulled out a few scraps of wood and treated them like they were finished projects. I experimented with different sanding techniques, but I limited myself to one of the finishes I’d come to love – General Finishes Armor Seal – in order to simplify the process. With four or so different grits in front of me, I went to work on my test pieces, sanding and taking notes and applying finishes and taking more notes.

In the end, it turned out the solution was quite easy. The key to achieving an even finish on your face grain and your end grain is that you just have to sand it enough. If it is important not to skip grits when sanding your face grain, it is imperative you don’t skip grits on the end grain! Sand until you have uniform scratches of the grit you’re using, then move on to the next grit and sand until you have completely uniform scratches of that grit. Continue working the end grain right along with all of the faces of your boards. After a bit of practice, I figured out what to look for and it became quite easy to tell when I’d sanded enough.

Today I have a stack of high grit sand paper I rarely touch because I never use anything over 320 grit on wood anymore. And I never have to worry about my end grain being darker than my face grain. Still have doubts? Check out the picture. All three sides of that mahogany board were sanded to 320 grit and I have a nice, even, uniform color on the face grain and the end grain. Now what do you think? Give it a try on your next project. I think you’ll be happy with the results.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ethan permalink
    July 11, 2012 4:52 am

    Thank you for answering the question that bothered me for a long time. I have a question though. I am using #100, 150, 220, 320. Do you consider this “skip grits”? Do I need to add 120, 180, etc. in between?


  2. July 11, 2012 8:23 am

    (This is going to look weird. Seriously, there are two Ethans here. I’m not commenting on my own blog post to try and inflate my ego. If I were, I’d pick a totally different name, like Ace or Buck… or Rochester)

    Ethan, thanks for asking!

    The short answer is… it depends. 🙂

    The long answer is… You want to start with the lowest grit that will get the job done and then move up from there. If I start with 100 grit sand paper, whatever I need to use next must remove all of the 100 grit scratches before I can move on to the NEXT grit, right? So if I use 150 next, it might take me a little bit longer than if I use 120. But is the difference that noticeable? I don’t really think so. You might spend a little more time with the 150 and 220 and 320, but you’ll have to buy less sand paper (or fewer different grits, anyway).

    I never used more than the four you first mentioned. And, depending on how and where I got the wood, I might not even use the 100 grit; those scratches are hard to remove and highly visible in a oil-based finish like I use if you don’t get them all out. So if my board came off a clean planer with sharp blades and no huge tear out, I might just start with 150 grit. If, after a few passes, it looks like it will take a while with the 150, then I’ll quickly drop down to 100 or 120 before I waste any more time.

    Nowadays, I don’t even use all of those, if possible. I’ve done a pretty good job of integrating hand tools into most aspects of my woodworking, so instead of prepping my wood for finish with 100 or 150, I use a #4 (as in a smoothing plane). Then I just have to go over it lightly with 320 grit to even it out (I’m still very much a novice when it comes to hand planes).

    Normally, I try to use a block plane on the end grain, always planing towards the middle of the wood to avoid blowout on the ends, and then follow it up with 320 grit. But in the board in this blog post, I cut the end off with my old Stanley miter saw (nice clean, straight cut!) and then hit it with 220 grit and then 320 grit before applying a few coats of Armor Seal.


    • July 11, 2012 9:11 pm

      “Removing scratches before moving to next grit” makes perfect sense. Thank you for answering, Ethan. 😀 (and for the tip on hand tools)


  3. March 3, 2019 5:59 am

    Great post. Long shot, but do you know where the Arm-r-seal can be obtained in UK? Struggling to find it, perhaps it’s been renamed or no longer available?


    • March 3, 2019 7:00 am

      Unfortunately I don’t. It’s made by General Finishes, so you might try their website for UK distributors.

      Or Amazon. I am able to get several UK products easily because they are resold via Amazon.

      Lately I’ve been using a newer product – Odis’s Oil – with wonderful results.

      The other thing you might consider trying instead is Shane Skelton’s Peacock Oil. Wonderful saw maker and now a wonderful finish maker.


      • Alan Wilson permalink
        March 10, 2019 4:56 pm

        I’ve since found that they do not sell it in UK or most of Europe! I’ll give their high performance poly waterbased topcoat a go instead. Thanks.


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