Birds' Eye-Maple Mantel - Finishing

Although I generally prefer to finish pieces with oil (which looks and feels great, and frankly, is almost impossible to screw up), Birds-Eye Maple really requires a high polish to give it the depth and glow that it is known for. Therefore, for this piece I am going to apply about a half-dozen thin layers of shellac to build up a high-gloss finish. The first step is to hand-sand the piece down to 400-grit.

With the piece completely sanded, I can apply the first coat of shellac. For this particular application I am using Zinsser SealCoat Shellac, cut to 50% with denatured alcohol, with a couple of drops of TransTint "Vintage Maple" dye added in to give the grain some contrast. It took me years to realize what a difference having a quality brush made. If you plan on shellacing (shellac-ing? shellacking? boom-shacka-lacka? who knows?) any sort of showpiece, I would highly recommend investing in one.

After applying three coats of shellac, I will apply a light coat of glaze, in this case General Finish's "Burnt Umber." As I learned the hard way, you need to work quickly when brushing this stuff on, because it dries almost as soon as it is applied. I used a foam brush to really glop the glaze on, then immediately rubbed it out with a series of rags. That way, only the glaze that penetrated into the open grain of the wood will remain, and will add a further level of contrast to the wood.

Once the glaze has dried, I applied two more coats of shellac, and sanded between each coat. The grain should now be sufficiently filled to take a nice polish. In this picture, I am sanding with a cork block, which is my preferred method of applying a light, even sanding. Before I move on to applying the polish, I will sand up to 2,400-grit.

After the piece has been sealed, stained, re-sealed, and sanded, I can apply the polish. I like using Zinsser's "French Polish" solution, because it possesses three of the things I look for in any finishing product: it works like it says it will on the can, it is easy to apply, and (best of all) it is hard to mess up. Best of all, the entire process takes no more than two days (as opposed to weeks for some oils.) Purists will say that using a pre-made French Polish is cheating. They are probably right, just like using a table saw is cheating. Anyway, after three or four coats of polish (each one dries almost instantly), the piece is finished being finished, and is ready for installation...