Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is It Soup Yet?

I've been at this floor and stair shellacking business since the wee hours of December 13th.  Aren't I finished by now?

Well, maybe.  Not quite sure.

You see, one thing I always liked about the shellac finish on my upper staircase is the effect it gives, not so much surface-shiny-glossy, but that the wood is somehow under water, and you could reach down into the clear finish and touch the warm golden surface an inch or two below.

In October and November of 2010 it took me about ten coats of 1.5 pound cut Kusmi #1 buttonlac to achieve that, and regardless of color issues, when it came to the 2nd floor hallway floor and the main stairs down to the 1st floor, my resolution was to keep on adding coats of the untinted buttonlac until that's what I got.

Have I?

Well, I can say that watching the grain emerge more and more with each coat has been almost a poetic experience.  It's felt like each floorboard was a rough gem I was polishing, each with its own distinctive beauties, and I've been laboring to bring those beauties to light.

So has that been accomplished?

Maybe first I should say something about how I've been going about this project.  I have to laugh about all the stuff I bought eons ago to make the job easier and didn't use.  Like the lambswool pad and the three-part screw-in mop handle.  Ha.  Can you imagine me keeping any sort of control with that rig in my little L-shaped hall?  With my lousy eyesight?  Not to mention how much shellac it'd soak up and waste!  Instead, I chose to follow the advice given on a post here by Ralph the Woodworking Guy.  That is, I followed him as regards the sanding and wiping-down prep work, and especially as to the use of the 1" fine brush.  Two or three years ago I bought several good, if not luxurious, artist's brushes of various sizes just for the shellac work, and I had a  nice 1" model right at hand.

Well.  Early into the first coat (the one that should have been untinted-- sob!), I discovered what a blinking long time a 1" brush requires and how little shellac it actually carries to the surface.  Yeah, Mr. Ralph was probably working with skinny modern 2-1/4" floorboards.  Mine measure nearly 4" in breadth.  So I moved to a 2" brush of the same type and haven't looked back.

I think I'm getting better at the application, keeping the brush well-filled and making long, smooth strokes.  Ralph's recommendation is good, to do it floorboard by floorboard.  Works well in maintaining the all-essential wet edge, and the joints make a good boundary at the sides.  Though given how I filled the cracks with sliced-down strips of old disused floorboards, my floor is pretty tight and a little overlap was inevitable.  (*smiles*)  Standing up, you can't really see where the filler strips are, unless you're purposely looking for them.

I assuredly did not use the 2.5 pound cut he advises.  Yeah, I guess that'd give you good build in three coats, but I know myself and my brushing abilities.  I left enough weird streaks on the upper staircase with a 1.5 pound cut to try that.

No, this time I took to heart something said in a comment on The Prairie Box blog.  There Mr. (or Ms.) Anonymous recommended more coats in a 1-pound cut for quicker application and drying, and ultimately for a stronger, more durable floor.  Well, anybody who's successfully shellacked a floor in a house with "3 brutal cats" with claws is worth listening to.  I've also heeded his (or her) advice about the increased and increasing waiting times between coats.  For the upper stairs I only waited an hour or so between each coat.  And of course, I let myself and the four animals (brutal, with claws!) onto the finish way too soon.  Not going to make that mistake again!

Which is why it's over three weeks since I started this project, I've worked pretty steadily on it, barring four or so days at Christmas, and only today have I finished applying the sixteenth coat of shellac.

Yeah, ten-plus-six.  Sixteenth.  Hey, that would have been ten or so coats at a 1.5 pound cut, right?

But for whatever reason, I haven't yet achieved the "under water" effect I'm looking for.  I'm judging by the shellac's finish on a certain large piece of soft/open grain on one particular floorboard, and it doesn't look limpid and even with the hard grain next to it, it looks mottled and glisten-y.  What can be wrong?

Nothing, maybe, except different wood on the T&G boards than on the upper treads.  It's all yellow pine, but the treads are more close-grained.  And-- this is the kicker-- I don't have any artificial lights shining obliquely on the upper stairs, as I do in the hallway.  The fact that I couldn't get the effect I wanted was bugging me, so I took a light and shone it on the stair treads.  Yeah, in the stairwell I get some of the same glistening effect, though there I can't see it.

Which is why I'm saying Enough with sixteen coats.  On the hallway at least.  On the main stairs I really have glisten where I want limpidity, and I was thinking they were going to need four more coats, at least.

But maybe not.  I was on the FAQ page earlier this evening and it said something about rubbing-out.  Rubbing out?  On researching this, I find that that's what I really need to do to even out the finish and get the effect I want.  I think.  I've heard you don't want to make it too glossy, or every last (claw) scratch will show and scream.

Maybe I'll first experiment with rubbing out the main stair treads.  They look dull the way they are, whereas the overall effect in the hallway is just fine.  Very likely it won't gain me a thing to coat the main stair treads any more, and it might be counterproductive.

So can I say the shellacking on the stairs and hallway floor is done?

Maybe.  I'm not sure.  Because "everybody" says that dewaxed shellac is what you really need on top to shed water, and I have a nice can of Zinsser SealCoat I can use.  Or I can dewax some of the Kusmi.  But I recall Ron at telling me that the Kusmi #1 buttonlac is fine and hard for floors just as it is.  And really, once it'd had time to cure on the upper stairs it had no trouble resisting the wet snow the cable guys tracked in last January.  The water beaded right up.  And if I lay down a coat of dewaxed shellac, isn't there the likelihood that it'd just get rubbed off in the polishing process?

If I'm going to do the dewaxed, I need to get it applied tomorrow.  I definitely want to give the finish a good week or more to cure before I allow shoe and pet traffic on it, let alone think of rubbing it out.  And as it is the foam insulation people may well be coming to deal with the attic late next week.  So time is at a premium.

So is it soup yet?  Yes.  No.  Give it several more days to simmer.  But it's getting there!


dynochick (Jan) said...

It looks fabulous!!!

Kate H. said...

Thank you. I'm steeling myself to how it's going to look once the pets get on it-- the soft parts of the wood, I mean, not the finish-- but a little wear can't be helped.

Karen Anne said...

Can you mess with your lighting - bulbs of different spectra? or something?

Kate H. said...

That'd be nice. But from what I read, it's the simple physics of how light of any kind hits a surface. And the artificial lights (especially the wall sconce) are nearby point-sources, so the irregularity is more obvious with them than with diffused sunlight filtering in from an ENE and a NNW window.

Anonymous said...

You may want to try using dutch oil and steel wool to buffing in circles it removes the little ripples and bumps out of the shellack that happen when you are applying it and creates a very smooth glass-like finish. After 16 coats I bet you will have that deep finish you were looking for. Hope that helps :)