The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Finishing

Plan by Ana White, built and finished by Old Paint Design with Rustoleum Spray Paint in Dark Grey
I LOVE to build.  It is my favorite thing in the entire world.  But, as most of you know, building is about more than just screwing some boards together.  It takes planning, sketching, gathering materials, THEN building... and finishing.  I'm really good at the first 4 steps.  I can usually find something I love and sketch it up during the week in my "spare time".  Saturday mornings are dedicated to visiting my bffs at the lumber yard.  (Where they all know me and can almost predict my orders.)  Saturday afternoons are my building time.  And then I have to finish the pieces.  Which is by far the worst part.  It's so important for the piece to have a beautiful finish, especially after you've put so much time, money, and sweat into it.  It's just so... time consuming.  And boring.  I want my beautiful finish and I want it now... which is why sometimes it's taken me a day to build and weeks to finish a project. It's taken me quite a bit of trial and error, but I think I've finally figured out the quickest, easiest ways to get a beautiful finish.  It's all about the tools and products that you use to get the job done, and since I build to save money, none of these options break the bank. Before I start, I also need to say that I get $0 for anything I post on this blog, so none of the products I talk about are officially endorsed... I just really like them.

SANDING

I have quite a few tools in my garage, but the biggest "bang for your buck" tool that I have is my electric Black and Decker Mouse Sander.  I paid $35 for it, and it's lasted forever.  It goes into even the smallest areas with its pointy front tip, but you can also very quickly sand larger areas with it.  I never use a block sander.  Ever.  I have three different grits of sandpaper that i change out intermittently depending on what I'm doing: 80 (course, for the initial sanding if the wood is rough), 120 (medium, for the initial sanding of normal, planed wood), and 220 (fine, for sanding in between coats of spray paint or poly).  I know that some people recommend that you go through all of these different grits before you begin painting or priming, but this lazy girl does not.  I use either the 80 or the 120 to sand the piece and lightly round my edges and then I move on.  When you sand in between coats of paint/stain and poly, I always seem to get any extra splinters lingering around from the first sanding.  Once you're ready to move on to paint/stain, make sure to wipe down your project with a damp low-lint cloth to remove all of the dust.

PRIMER

To start off, I must say that sometimes I don't prime.  In some pieces, I like to see a little bit of the wood grain peeking through.  But, most pieces, I really like a clean, even painted finish, which means you have to prime.

I always avoid using a paintbrush, so I love this KILZ Odorless Primer.  Quick, easy, not messy, and unlike most spray paints, it doesn't kill all of my brain cells with the smell.  Lightly mist, and in an hour you're ready to paint.  The primer is about $7 per can, and it's worth every penny to me to not have to get into every crevice with a paintbrush.

SPRAY PAINT

Plan by Ana White, built and finished by Old Paint Design with Rustoleum Spray Paint in Antique White. Modeled by my dog, Piper.
Ah, yes.  Spray paint.  A lazy girl's best friend.  I will spray paint anything.  Nothing in the house is safe.  (Like Sherry from YHL, I love me some ORB.)  Sherry gets a lot of things right when it comes to talking about spray paint.  My personal favorite is "If you’re a-sprayin’ your arm better be a-swayin’".  So true.  As long as your arm keeps moving, it's hard to screw it up.  Sure, you can get it on a little too thick, but it's nothing a light sanding can't fix.  Which is another thing I love about spray paint: It's really hard to screw it up. The most important thing to remember is to sand in between coats with a fine grit sandpaper.  I cannot stress this enough.  When I first started using spray paint, I couldn't figure out why the surface was so gritty... it was because I wasn't sanding.  Once you put on that final coat, your surface will be silky smooth to the touch. Speaking of ORB... whenever you're in a hurry and don't want to stain, ORB it.  I used Rustoleum's Oil Rubbed Bronze spray without primer on the double chaise that I built, and it looks a lot like a sparkly dark stain.
Modified plan from Ana White, built and finished by Old Paint Design with Rustoleum Oil Rubbed Bronze Spray Paint

Whatever you do, do not buy regular paint in a can.  It has killed many of my projects that still live in the garage, and they will probably never see the light of day unless I sand them down and spray paint over them again.  It was a rookie mistake.  Applying paint with a brush is a time suck, and just about any color you would want to paint your project is available in a beautiful can of spray paint.

 STAINING

Plan by Old Paint Design. Finished with Varathane Gel Stain in Dark Walnut
Let me start out by saying that if you are a lazy girl, you should only stain if you absolutely have to.  Like, if there is no more spray paint left in the world.  Or, if you're building something for your BFF and they absolutely have to have a Pottery Barn-like stain.  Then, and only then, do you consider this option. I only use gel stain.  What I love about it is that it goes on super thick like a paint rather than a thin, watery mess like a normal stain.  I've also found that with a gel stain I don't have to use wood conditioner (even with pine).  This means one less step to getting your gorgeous finish out of the way so that you can move on to build something else.  With a normal stain, if you don't condition, you get an ugly, splotchy mess as the stain sets in.  I've actually had very strange results when using wood conditioner with the gel stain - it feels like the stain doesn't absorb at all. The trick to getting a deep, rich color with a gel stain is pretty easy... just leave it on for the longest amount of time possible.  (For the Varathane Gel Stain that I love, it recommends no longer than 15 minutes, which equals out to about 4 songs on my Lady Gaga Pandora station.)  The longer you leave it on, the deeper it sets in, which means less coats you have to do later.  Since it's a stain, you can also really glop it on since you're going to wipe it off anyway.  I always stain in the direction of the wood grain to give it that professional touch, but I'm never precise about how much I'm using.  I also always sand with my 220 grit sandpaper in between coats to get the smoothest possible surface for my next coat.

POLYURETHANE

Plan by Old Paint Design. Finished with Varathane Gel Stain in Dark Walnut

Whenever I stain, I always finish off with a few coats of poly.  Not only does it give a beautiful, glossy, Pottery Barn-like finish, but it also protects the wood from everyday life.  I've gone through quite a few different kinds of poly, and I've finally found one that's perfect for me: Varathane's Crystal Clear Water Based Polyurethane (fastest drying formula, of course.)

This is the only time ever that I will break the spray-paint-vs-can-paint rule.  I've used spray poly before, but I never feel like it goes on right.  Coat after coat, I never get the seal and protection that I need from a poly.  If I'm going to add a step, it had better be worth it.  So, I use the can to get it right the first time.  The reason I believe this is excusable is that this poly dries within 2 hours.  Which, compared to any other poly I've used, is pretty amazing.  I've waited up to 8 hours to put another coat of poly on a project... that's an entire day wasted literally waiting for paint to dry.  SO not lazy girl friendly.  This stuff is also super clean and doesn't stick to your fingers for a lifetime like its oil based counterpart.

 FOAM BRUSHES

As mentioned, I avoid paintbrushes at all cost.  They are expensive, and I can never get them totally clean, so I usually have to throw them out after a few uses.  Since I don't use regular paint, my only use for a brush is for gel stain and poly, and foam brushes are the answer to my lazy girl prayers.  They're super cheap (at under $1 per brush), so you don't feel guilty throwing them out after using them a few times.  I usually use two to three different sizes depending on the project when I'm staining so that I can quickly finish coating the large areas with the big brush and still get into those tiny corners with the small brush.  For those of you who haven't tried them before, they're definitely worth the $1 investment.   My final words of advice regarding a quick and perfect finish: remember that it's okay to screw up.  You can always sand it down and paint or stain over it, so don't be afraid to try something different.  The inside of Brina's side tables were a pungent shade of orange when I decided to try out a new shade of gel stain, but with some vigilant sanding and a few coats of my tried and true favorite color, they turned out great. Oh yeah, and avoid using glazes.  Yes, they're pretty, but they're such a hassle.  I still have a media center in the garage with my name on it because I don't want to glaze the back.  No joke.  

18 Replies to “The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Finishing”

  1. I was just home in CA this weekend (to move some stuff in my parent’s house around) and had you and our future building escapades on my mind for a good portion of the time. Those daybeds are as good as *built* in my head (so happy you are OK with helping me – rookie alert!) and will definitely get some glossy white spray paint. Plus, I have two side tables that I plan on refinishing as soon as I get home. I absolutely plan on spray painting them as well, but I have no idea what color yet. *Sigh* So many options. You’ll have to give me your two cents when I finally get a chance to send photos!

    1. OMG – you have no idea how excited I am to build with you! And yes – please send pictures of those side tables! I can’t wait to see what you do with them – that will be so fun!

      1. What’s funny is that I am a total perfectionist, and my personality bodes well with semi-tedious, attention-to-detail duties. Finishing off projects sounds like a good time to me! Together we could crank out some wicked projects! 🙂

  2. “Let me start out by saying that if you are a lazy girl, you should only stain if you absolutely have to. Like, if there is no more spray paint left in the world. ”

    You crack me up but it is so true! Unless it’s the wood tone finish you’re after paint in a can is your friend!

    love love this post — I am addicted to building as well, my husband.. not so much (he likes the finished product, and the whole ‘hey we built that’ aspect, but the actual building part? not so much). It’s really inspiring to see someone else taking on so many awesome projects and rocking it.

    Just the motivation I needed to get off my duff and finish the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf plans I have on the drafting table. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Martina! My husband is exactly the same way – definitely does not love to build like I do. I can’t wait to see pictures of your beautiful bookshelves!

      I just stopped by your blog and am so impressed with your projects! I’m loving your new roof!

  3. Thank you so much for this post! You’re such an inspiration! I’m a beginner woodworker and this is really helpful for me so I can side step some of those ‘rookie’ mistakes!

    1. Thanks so much! I’m so glad it was helpful! Please let me know if there’s anything else that I could write about that would be useful as you start building. I’d love to help out as much as possible! I can’t wait to see some of your first projects!

  4. OK I hate the finishing too! I’m totally going to try the spray primer. But I must say that I love to stain, sure it takes a while to dry and you lose precious brain cells in the process, but I think its an easier process. Also, someday just for grins you should try a 320 sand paper…the smoothness might just change your life. Its pretty amazing. I met a builder once who goes all the way from 60 to 400something, his stuff his amazing, but I have way less patience than he.

    1. You will LOVE the spray primer! I promise! I will definitely try out the 320 grit sand paper – thanks for the suggestion! Have you ever tried wipe on poly after staining? I just discovered it, and I must say, it’s pretty awesome!

  5. Can I ask about filling holes? I can’t seem to perfect this and the perfectionist in me gets so dang frustrated. No matter how much I sand, no matter what grit, I never seem to get all of the filler from around the hole so when I paint, you can see the “dull” patch where the filler still lays. Any suggestions? I would really appreciate it. I’ve successfully sold a few pieces (mostly doll furniture) but am so self-conscious about those spots! Even a suggestion of the best type to use would be appreciated.

    How’s the most adorable Piper doing?

    1. Of course! I agree, filling holes is tough, particularly with those huge pocket holes. (Cutting the Kreg plugs for 3/4″ stock is too frustrating for me, so I just use filler.) This is on my list to be the focus of one of my “getting started” video posts coming up in the near future. Woo hoo! Video Fridays on the way!

      Anyway, here’s what I do. I use Minwax’s Stainable Wood Filler in the squeeze tube that I buy from Lowes or Home Depot. I’ve heard great things about Timbermate Filler, but I love how easy the squeeze tube makes things. (And, my filler usually doesn’t last long enough to dry out. Whether that’s a sign that I’m in the garage a lot or that I make a lot of mistakes is up for debate, haha.) You can literally squeeze your filler into the hole, then take a putty knife and smooth out the top of the hole. Once it’s dry in about an hour, I sand it down using medium grit. I’ve found that if I don’t even out the filler with the putty knife while it’s wet sanding is a huge problem as it hardens in some really nasty clumps. You may want to also try filler-ing in 2 stages if your filler is creating a bit of an “indent” hole. Just repeat the process over the sanded filler that you just made and it should even it out. I’ve also used stainable caulk for the tough ones (like when my miters for crown moulding don’t quite line up). That’s saved my butt quite a few times.

      My little monster is doing very well, thank you for asking! We miss her a ton right now while we’re on vacation, but we have a great babysitter who is giving us updates all the time. How is your little one?

  6. Thanx Shane, I’ll have to try that brand. I have one that has wood in it and it hardens really hard and even with the rougher grit, it’s a pain! However, when I bought another brand, it was non-hardening and I don’t understand why you would ever use that type, doesn’t that defeat the purpose? I did try some type in a tube, not sure what it was and did like it, but I did have to go back over it a second time and then same problem. I don’t build constantly as you, so it did end up drying up on me. I will definitely try the putty knife and see if that helps. I made the serving tray on Ana’s site and will be filling holes tonight. Have to get it done and ready to go for Friday. We are going out of town and it’s a gift for the friends with whom we will be staying.

    It’s so much easier now that Tucker is FINALLY potty trained (for the most part.) I think I’ve decided to take him to a trainer. We’ll see. He’s such a cutie. Wish I could post a pic here to show you. It’s your fault that I got him in the first place you know. You posted that picture of Piper and I was smitten. I said I’d never get a small dog. It’s true what they say….. never say never! 🙂

    Hope you are enjoying your vaca. It’s always good to get refreshed!

  7. Hey there,

    Really enjoying reading your blog!!
    I have a question about your painting style. When you say you use spray paint, do you mean you are using a paint gun or those cans?
    If you do use a gun, what brand is it?
    I am getting ready to paint the farm bed i just built for my son and ” forget the Freaking brush”… just wondering what is best..
    Thanks for you Bristol Outdoor Lounge Chair!!

    1. Hi Sandrine!
      Thanks so much! I’m so glad you found me!
      I use the spray paint cans. I really like Rustoleum and Valspar best. Between the two of them, I can almost always find the color I want. (Other than with my dresser, where I hand painted, ugh.) Please let me know if you find a great paint sprayer – I’m in the market, too!

  8. Hey there! I’m so excited I found your site and Ana’s site – I’m having so much fun buidling way too many things – I just finished the Bristol chair, I’m building another one, and the loveseat this weekend!

    Like you, I’m lazy when it comes to finishing, and I love, love, love the foam brushes …. but even more than that, I love getting regular brushes at the $1 store – same cost as the foam, and you can throw them away, too!

    The only thing I haven’t found a shortcut for is sanding. I can’t stand doing it – any suggestions?

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