Finishing End Grain
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.