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How to Get a Beautiful Wood Finish on Your Tropical Walnut Woodworking Projects

by Mark Stephens | May 26th, 2015

Tropical walnut might be a new wood to you, and that’s okay. This is a type of walnut that grows in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, and happens to be a close relative of American black walnut. The two woods have similar color, hardness, and general working characteristics – they’re both rather nice hardwoods to machine with power tools and shape with hand tools.

They have their differences, too. More about Tropical Walnut >>>

Tropical walnut has much more straight grain and less curly/swirly and irregular character. And it also rarely includes any pale sapwood in the lumber, which is unlike American black walnut. It’s increasingly more common for American black walnut lumber to have a fair percentage of light sapwood. That’s not to say one is better than the other; it just depends on your tastes, so we’re here to empower you with some on-the-ground facts about the material. If you like the dark color found in walnut and prefer a consistent straight grain and no pale sapwood, Tropical Walnut might be a good wood for you to try.

The video above will show you a couple of machining operations to give you an idea of how nicely this wood works, but it also demonstrates in detail the specifics of applying two kinds of grain filler and top coat. But here’s a summary of the finishing techniques.

Consider Filling the Grain

Using the basic, simple wood finishes on Tropical Walnut is a piece of cake. You can apply your favorite polyurethane, lacquer, shellac, or water-based top coat and there’s a good chance you’ll be happy. The wood darkens nicely and you’ll see a bit of the natural contrast pop out a bit. But you can improve both of these by filling the wood grain first.

Of course, you’re the builder and it’s your project. You get to choose what you like best, and the glass-smooth finish you get with a well-filled grain isn’t always the look you want. But it’s a good idea to fill grain for projects like table tops and desk tops, or in any finish in which you’re going for a glossy sheen. Grain filler also adds a little bit of dark color to the wood pores, and that results in slightly greater contrast and visual depth in the wood.

Fill the grain one of two ways:

  1. Apply a drying oil using a technique called wet sanding. This method mixes the wood dust with the oil to create a paste that fills in the pores. See a demonstration in the video above.
  2. Buy a grain filler in a can. Numerous types exist, but all are either solvent- or water-based and require slightly different techniques for applying them. Oil based grain filler is demonstrated in the video above.

In all of these cases they’re pretty easy to apply but they do add more time to your finishing process. Of course, good things come to those who put in the time. Take a look.

Click the images to zoom in.

tropical walnut finishes

Simple wood finishes look great on Tropical Walnut – frankly they all provide just about the same look, there’s no single best choice. Left to right: wipe-on gel polyurethane, satin lacquer, waterbased acrylic. The horizontal board on top is unfinished so you can see the comparison.

With a little side light, you can see how these basic finishes don't fill the grain. The dark spots you see are wood pores. Sometimes this kind of finish is just fine. Sometimes it's not.

Yes, there’s glare but that’s on purpose. With a little side light, you can see how these basic finishes don’t fill the grain. The dark spots you see are wood pores. Sometimes this kind of finish is just fine. Other times it’s not and filling the grain helps you achieve a very smooth finish.

Now compare. Both boards have 3 coats of satin lacquer. The difference should be obvious. The board on the left has not had the grain filled, whereas the grain in the board on the right was filled before the lacquer was applied.

Now compare. Both boards have 3 coats of satin lacquer. The difference should be obvious. The board on the left has not had the grain filled, whereas the grain in the board on the right was filled before the lacquer was applied.

This is Tropical Walnut with a nicely filled wood grain and a top finish of 3 coats of spray lacquer. But any film-forming finish can go on top. Shellac, wax, polyurethane, varnish, etc

This is Tropical Walnut with a nicely filled wood grain and a top finish of 3 coats of spray lacquer. But any film-forming finish can go on top. Shellac, wax, polyurethane, varnish, etc



Woodworking 101: The 3 Table Saw Blades Woodworkers Should Have

by Mark Stephens | May 5th, 2015


When you spend $2000 on a new a table saw, chances are it will come with a mediocre blade. And you’ll probably endure that blade until it’s too dull to tolerate, then you’ll finally decide to dip into the lumber budget to buy a new one.

That’s when you’ll discover a sea of choices, and the experience will probably be absurdly confusing. 10″ blades can come with as few as 20 teeth but go up to 120 and the teeth all have different shapes and angles. And the cost is even worse: from $30 up to $200. If all you want to do is cut some wood for building furniture, how in the world do you figure out which one is right for you?

So let’s simplify the matter. The three styles of blades below are the ones that will do you right if you’re into building furniture and cabinetry using hardwoods. We’re not talking about brands or models here, just styles of blades.

Should you spend a lot of money on a good blade? Um . . . yes. The reason why is not just for quality of cut, which trickles down to better precision, better joinery, and a happier experience with woodworking — but it’s also for the longevity of the blade. Pricier blades boast meatier and more durable carbide teeth that stay sharp longer, and can withstand more sharpenings over the long haul because there’s more carbide to work with. In the long run you’ll actually spend less on blades, and hopefully more on the actual joy of building projects. So even though a blade like this could set you back $100 or more, you’ll get longer service life than you would with a lower-end blade.

With that, here goes. read more

“And The Winners Are . . .” Here are The Top 10 Lidded Boxes in This Woodworking Contest

by Mark Stephens | March 23rd, 2015
Entries at Practical Art

What good is a lidded box if you can’t open it to see the details? You’re allowed to handle the artwork at this event.  It was a packed house on March 21 in which visitors to the reception could check out the box contest entries and vote for their 3 favorites. The top 10 boxes are below.

We host two woodworking contests per year, and if nothing else, we’re having an awful lot of fun admiring and showcasing the beautiful work our customers do. In this third installment, we asked people to make a lidded box no larger than 16″ in any direction. It could be any shape or style – it just needed a lid.

So who won, right?

Below is a gallery of the top 10 winners as decided by the general public. Even though these 10 had the honor of taking home a prize, every participant deserves recognition and thanks for being willing to put their effort and creativity on display for critique. But I’m sure you’ll agree (more or less) with the finalists below.

How Voting Worked

There were two ways to vote, and voting was open to the public. Vote online, or in person at Practical Art in downtown Phoenix where the boxes were on display. The ballot system was the same for both venues though:

  • Choose your three favorite boxes
  • You must pick three, and they must be different boxes
  • Ballots that voted for the same box more than once were discarded

In these contests we want to reward effort, skill, and creativity, which is a task that’s easier said than done. Therefore we believe that if you come in to see the boxes in person that your vote should be worth more than a vote submitted online. Makes sense right? Those who take the time to admire these boxes with their eyes and feel the lids, joints and finishes with their hands have a better perspective than those who see a picture online or just make a few clicks in favor of their friends. So all the votes that were made in person at Practical Art were worth two.

Total Votes: 1,924

1,512 votes came in online, and 412 came in in person. The “bonus” for voting in person made a big difference in the results. And I’m quite pleased with how it turned out.

ribbon-blue 1st: The Guitar by Dale Schmitt

Woods used: Curly maple, Pacific quilted maple, purple heart, cherry

Finish: Catalyzed lacquer (spray)

Dale’s small jewelry box easily stands out from the rest because of its guitar shape. But lift the lid and you’ll find a unique tray that spins and reveals hidden storage underneath. In Dale’s words: “I find that paying attention to detail is very important to achieve the best results.” Indeed, click the images to get up close to this winning box. You’ll see he built a snug display stand, made authentic guitar parts like the bridge, neck and frets, and sprayed a glass-smooth clear finish. Congratulations to Dale.

Prize: Tormek T-4 wet grinder sharpener

Click to enlarge:

ribbon-red2nd: Art Deco Box by Bill Barrand

Woods used: Mahogany, zebrawood

Finish: Conversion varnish (spray)

You can rely on Bill to produce a completely original design when he’s faced with the challenge of a woodworking show. He’s entered a piece in every one of our contests, and for this one he chose a bent lamination project. Bill used some mahogany from his 25-year-old stash of the good stuff to contrast with the striped zebrawood.

Prize: Wilton Tradesman Vise

Click to enlarge:

ribbon-yellow3rd: Jewelry Box by Ron Beauregard

Woods used: Lacewood, curly maple, bubinga, black palm

Finish: Tung oil

Ron put his skills to the test to create this sophisticated jewelry box. While he used several types of woods with different colors and grain types, it’s not overboard.  The lacewood sides feature some gentle angles instead of strong perpendicular lines and the corners are reinforced with contrasting splines. But look at the lid. It’s just a nicely figured piece of curly maple but the narrow and off-center inlay strip of lacewood ties it to the box sides without much fanfare. The interior top tray is attached to the lid with a pin-and-arm hinge that lifts and supports it as the lid is opened. The black palm knobs are rounded and slightly tapered. These little details, and more, tells the story of the time and energy he put into this box – he earned every vote with this stunning box.

Prize: Tenryu Gold Medal Table Saw Blade

Click to enlarge:

4th Place: Nature’s Gift Keepsake Box by John Porter

Woods used: Cherry, bubinga, satinwood, curly maple

Finish: Satin lacquer

As you can surmise, John made this box as part of a birthday gift. It worked as the presentation of his wife’s new iPhone. To create the bow, he laminated blanks of bubinga and satinwood cut them to the shape, but drilled out the inner loops and used a bandsaw to cut out the remainder. The gift tag is laser engraved curly maple, and the lid is simply a fitted left-off lid. Naturally, this box drew a lot of attention for its unique lid. John happens to be the manager of the Woodworkers Source store on I-17 in north Phoenix.

Prize: Bessey clamps

Click to enlarge:

5th Place: Rustic Live Edge Box by Rick West

Materials used: Eucalyptus, ebony

Finish: Laquer

Rick used some unique eucalyptus from a tree that fell down in his friend’s yard. Working with eucalyptus is tricky, as Rick says, because it’s hard and brittle. Plus the wood formed numerous cracks, but he filled them with epoxy and crushed turquiose. While the figure and wild look of the box lid grabbed a lot of attention, Rick applied a flawless finish to the box that really helps make it looks its best.

Prize: General Tools Moisture Meter

Click to enlarge:

6th Place: Memory Box by Betsi Packwood

Woods used: Chakte kok, walnut, lacewood, sirari, bamboo, ebony, holly

Finish: Old Masters Gel polyurethane

Betsi worked long and hard to create this segmented masterpiece that’s 12″ in diameter. Her style is to turn in a way that leaves the facets on the sides while also including numerous intricate designs throughout. In case you didn’t think she did enough, Betsi also included a fitted, removable tray. Her finish is a satin sheen wipe-on gel polyurethane.

Prize: Portamate Roller Stand

Click to enlarge:

7th Place: Small Jewelry Box by Brett Eichmann

Woods used: Wenge, zebrawood

Finish: Satin lacquer (spray)

Brett chose the stunning combination of zebrawood and wenge for his box. At first glance, the box just looks like a simple rectangle, but he knows how to pay attention to details. Brett cut and assembled the box sides in way that forces the grain to wrap around it in sequence. He also crafted removable trays that are just flawless. Two things draw your attention to this box. First, the perfect lacquer finish. Second, Brett’s command of proportions. It’s a small box, and therefore the parts are thin – such as the 1/2″ thick sides, the 1/4″ thick lid, and trays assembled from 1/8″ thick wenge strips.

Prize: 3-piece Chisel Set

Click to enlarge:

8th Place: Triangular Box by Oscar Witham

Woods used: Fall offs

Finish: Danish oil

The lid on Oscar’s box is a captivating visual puzzle, much like a mosaic. He used just small pieces that fell off from a different project and came up with this unique box.

Prize: Zona Miter Box and Saw

Click to enlarge:


9th Place: Displacement by Chris Ewald

Woods used: Walnut, maple

Finish: Boiled linseed oil

The basic design of this box is a rectangle with an inward angled bottom. You can see the inspiration on the cover of AJ Hamler’s book The Box Builder’s Handbook. But Chris basically “displaced” it on a peculiar axis. It’s certainly a whimsical take on the basic lidded box. Chris’s work turned a lot of heads.

Prize: General Tools digital t-bevel

Click to enlarge:

10th Place: Scrolled Jewelry Cabinet by James Butler

Woods used: Oak, walnut, bloodwood

Finish: Satin lacquer (spray)

A scroll sawn box takes a lot of time and patience, but it paid off here. While James says the pattern was “relatively simple” (side note: that’s simple?!), attaching the sides to the legs was tricky thanks to the angle.

Prize: Powermatic shop apron

Click to enlarge: