Nordy Rockler founded Rockler Woodworking and Hardware in 1954. Over the last half century, Nordy has spent thousands of hours in the workshop, building projects and perfecting his finishing techniques. He's regarded as a finishing expert, and has developed a number of Rockler exclusive finishes. We recently met with Nordy to discuss the art of finishing and some of his favorite products.
Woodworkers often say that finishing is the part of the process they struggle with most. Do you share that struggle, and why do you think that is?
Nordy: Years ago it was more of a struggle because there wasn't a variety of good products available. In the earliest times a person would just use an oil pigment, wipe on stain, maybe a coat of shellac as a sealer, and then a varnish, which maybe took 24 hours or more to dry. Because it was so slow to dry you'd get a lot of dust particles settling in it. Today we have such a multitude of products available it is much simpler, especially once you get familiar with the products and use the ones you like. Finishing is the culmination of doing a project. You can put a lot of time and money into the material, and you can botch the whole thing with a bad finishing job. Finishing is a critical part of the whole project.
When did you develop such a strong interest in finishing?
Nordy: Well, when we started the business. Finishes are a crucial part of doing woodworking, so it was just sort of a natural process that I became interested in it. Through looking at various lines and talking to different salespeople, I learned a lot about finishing. I tested a lot of products, and I still am today. To keep on top of it, you really have to keep on trying them and testing them.
What is the main key in getting a great finish on a woodworking project?
Nordy: Two things. First of all, you have to be very patient; don't rush it. And the crucial thing is to test it on some scrap wood and make sure you get the desired effect you really want. Another reason for testing is you have a schedule of finishing materials; test them all the way through the whole process, from beginning to end, and you will get a really good feel for what the end result will be.
How do you decide which finish to put on a particular piece?
Nordy: The type of project really dictates what type of finish you put on it. If you're building cabinets or a bookcase, an oil-type finish is very simple and pleasing, and very easy to repair. I woudn't recommend an oil finish for a dining room table, because you need more protection. You need something harder, more durable, and waterproof. It all depends on what you're building. It also has to do with personal preference. Do you want a gloss, a semi-gloss, a flat finish? Does the piece need a lot of protection? Does the piece need to match another piece in the room? There's a lot of considerations.
What are the benefits of shellac and Rockler's shellac kits?
Nordy: Shellac is a different type of material, and not necessarily used as a top coat. It's a multi-purpose product. It was very popular in the 1700s, and a lot of the antiques were finished with it because that was the only finish available at the time. It has its advantages. It dries very fast and gives you a nice appearance. But it does have its drawbacks. It is not completely water resistant, and it can be brittle. Sometimes it's the finish you have to use, especially for the furniture restoration people who want to get a piece as close to the original as possible. The pre-mixed stuff you buy off the shelf in a hardware store has a limited shelf life. It's usually only good for six months after you open it up. If you buy shellac in flake form you can mix it yourself very easily just by mixing with denatured alcohol in different proportions. If you want to use it for a sealer, or wash coat, you use a thin solution, what they call a two-pound cut shellac. If you're using it as a top coat or finish you want it a little thicker, you want a four-pound cut. We came up with our new shellac kit because we had previously been selling it by the pound, which is a lot of shellac flake for the average consumer. So we packaged it into a smaller 2 oz. size, and they can make a two-, three- or four-pound cut, whichever they want, and it has a graduated scale on the container showing what proportions of denatured alcohol to shellac to use. It simplified the use of it. We're also going to be offering it in a half-pound container.
On what projects does a woodworker want to use a polyurethane gel?
Nordy: You can use it anywhere you want a very nice urethane finish. Urethanes give you a hard, durable, tough and, in most cases, waterproof finish. A lot of people prefer the gel type for application as opposed to the liquid type you have to brush on. It's just a question of personal taste.
When did you develop a relationship with Sam Maloof, who is regarded as one of this country's greatest woodworking craftsmen?
Nordy: I met Sam about 20 years ago at the Southern California Woodworkers Association. They had a big event. That was the first time I met him, and I visited his home, which is really like a museum. He's a great collector himself. He collects Navajo rugs, and he collects pottery. He used to trade some of his stuff for Navajo rugs and pottery. We have a nice relationship. Rockler packages Sam's poly/oil finish. The mere fact Sam Maloof still uses it gives credence to the product.
Another highly-regarded finishing expert is Michael Dresdner. How did you meet him?
Nordy: I knew him because of his work. He's a very popular writer and has written a couple of books. I met him a few years ago at a trade show. We sell his books and he writes articles for Woodworker's Journal. He's a contributing editor to our finishing department.
WunderCote, a water-based, wipe-on polyurethane finish, is one of Rockler's newest products. What are the benefits of WunderCote?
Nordy: It's so easy to use. It's in a flip-top bottle, and you just pour it out and use a foam rubber brush over the surface. It dries in about 20 or 30 minutes, although our label says one or two hours. It doesn't require much sanding (with 220 grit paper) between coats, then you can re-coat it. I've done that in half an hour after I applied. it. What's nice about a water-based polyurethane is it doesn't smell, it's not carcinogenic to the user and harmful to the environment. It drys faster, is very easy to apply, and easy to clean up. What's different about our finish is others tend to have a plastic look to them when they're finished. Ours has a slightly amber cast to it so it looks more like a varnish finish.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about the finishing process?
Nordy: Like any skill or acquired labor, the worst part is fear of doing it. Half the battle is just trying it. There's such an abundance of products out there that there's something for everybody. There's just no end to products. There should be something anybody can apply for a very professional-looking finish.
We're constantly on the lookout for new products that we're testing. We try to have a real wide selection on the internet and in our stores. Usually in each store there's someone that specializes in finishing, and then we have classes at our stores. Mostly it's getting up the nerve to try it and getting used to the products you're using. In a lot of cases it's fun, especially when you have a beautiful project and you want to put the finishing touch on it that enhances the whole project.