Who am I? Why am I here?

I've been a professional woodworker for over a decade, the past few years of which I've spent as Cabinetmaker at Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia. I also teach woodworking classes, mostly at Highland Woodworking.

I'm writing this blog to try and show what can be done with very basic tools in limited space. I have a huge shop with big machines at work, it's true, but for my own personal projects I work in borrowed space: half of a two-car garage.

I also hope to write occasional posts about why I'm a woodworker: the pleasures of working and the beauty of the material.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fortified Paint: Looks Like Sprayed Lacquer, Goes on with a Brush

Here's a wood finish that looks like a million bucks, and you can apply it with minimal equipment and materials.
We don't associate paint with high-quality woodworking. Quite the opposite: who hasn't seen battered old cabinets somebody has tried to dress up with a couple coats of paint? The result usually works for a while, but latex paint, no matter how “scrubbable” the label says it is, simply can't stand up to the wear and tear it gets on kitchen cabinets.

Waterborne acrylic or polyurethane can be mixed with latex paint for a tough, durable finish that won't go gummy and sticky in humid summer weather like plain latex paint does. The finish will be the same color as the latex paint.

Prepare the workpiece by sanding through 150 grit and cleaning off the sanding dust. Stir both the waterborne finish and the latex paint thoroughly, then mix them in ratio of 2 parts paint to 1 part waterborne finish. Apply with a brush or trim roller. When dry, the first coat will be translucent and the second coat will give an opaque finish like straight paint. If you increase the amount of waterborne finish until the mix is 50:50, the final finish will be harder and more durable, but it will take more coats to become opaque.

This fortified paint is very versatile. If you use gloss paint and gloss waterborne finish, you can get the rich look of sprayed lacquer, with easier application and far less exposure to harmful fumes. Semi-gloss or flat mixtures can be an excellent choice for the interior of a set of cabinets.

You can also use this on entire cabinets. Here's a manufactured mdf cabinet that used to be black. My girlfriend put on three coats of white fortified paint, and presto!

The following photos show me applying green fortified paint to the back of a bookcase. I like a nice bold color like this peeking out from behind the books. My local hardware store had ZAR brand water-based poly, which I'd never tried before, so when I got the green paint (I was going for a pool-table color) I decided I'd give it a try. I was pleased to see it looks and feels a lot like my favorite brand, Ceramithane. I wanted a gloss finish, but our hardware store only had semi-gloss latex. Hopefully the fact that the ZAR is high-gloss will get us enough shine.

Notice the magic marker lines on the plastic tub I got out of the recycling? I measured out 8 ounces of water, put it in the tub, and traced the water level. The second 8 ounces filled the tub right to the top. I went for a 50/50 mix this time, to show you how the first coat can be fairly translucent. The ZAR poly is slightly thicker than heavy cream, and has a faint caramel tinge. I've never tasted it but I'm guessing it's doesn't taste much like either cream OR caramel.

Here the first coat is going on, and you can see how it's translucent, almost like a green stain. Why show you this? So you won't become frustrated and give up too soon when you try this for the first time.

Here's the second coat, still wet, next to the first coat. You can see how much more opaque the green is now.

Here's a no-no. Don't rush it - - leave the finish alone until it's thoroughly dry before you sand it. If you haven't waited long enough, your sandpaper will load up with gooey paint, and you'll see either little balls or little snakes like these on the surface. I don't know if “snakes” is the correct technical term, but to me they look like the snakes I made with modeling clay in kindergarten.

When you sand in between coats you should be seeing this: just fine green dust.

That tells you you've waited long enough. A dust mask is a good idea while you sand. Since this is a water-based finish, a clean rag dampened and wrung out makes a good tack cloth to get the dust away before the next coat.

Here's the third coat going on:

And here's how it looks after three coats and a few hours of drying:

Nice and glossy, nice and green. Over the next week or so, I'm going to put a clear coat on the adjustable shelves for this bookcase, and a fancy walnut stain under a clear coat on the bookcase itself. I'll be photographing the process for our forthcoming book; if anything seems like it should be on this blog, I'll put it up.

For now, though, it's sunny and 70 degrees, and I am going for a bike ride among the cherry blossoms and dogwood before the sun sets on this glorious spring day. 


  1. We had a great bike ride and I actually took the final picture afterwards, when the third coat had been drying for a few hours.

  2. Hi! Just discovered your blog, thanks for great tips. Please forgive me if I've missed this but, do you have any pictures of the finished product??

  3. Thanks for reading, autodidact! The finished product was a small bookcase, and the piece shown in the blog entry is the back panel. The body of the case and the shelves were all birch plywood finished with a clear coat. The bookcase was pretty plain and unadorned, and was made out of leftover plywood, so I'm afraid I didn't take good photos before I delivered it to my son's apartment.
    Thanks for reading!

  4. Phil, if anyone can do it, it's you. You know that blue/green they used on Bianchi bikes back in the 80's? When you finish building your AC Cobra, think about it.

  5. Thanks Jim! I'll be trying this out in the next few days. I've also bookmarked you're blog and can see that I'll enjoy many informative evenings perusing.

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  7. I want to try this on a previously finished piece of furniture, what sort of prep is needed? Rough up finish, sand down to bar wood? etc


  8. dsfasdf: with a well-dried, old finish, you can just rough up the old finish with 120 grit sandpaper. Try on a small area to test the adhesion of the new finish. If it doesn't stick, a coat of shellac over the old finish will work wonders.

  9. Instead of roughing up the old finish (it seems somewhat distressed already), would a coat of primer work?

    1. Veronica, a coat of primer will work as long as there isn't any grease or wax or dirt that would prevent adhesion. I am a big fan of TSP, available at any hardware store. It's cheap, odorless, not very toxic, and you just do a quick scrub with it to be sure the old surface is clean enough to paint. It's boring but it works really well. Good luck!

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    2. Loretta: I'm not sure exactly what it is. TSP used to stand for "trisodium phosphate" back before the role of phosphate in water pollution was understood. Now it's advertised as "phosphate free" so apparently it's something else that does the same thing. This is the last brand I bought: http://www.acehardware.com/product/index.jsp?productId=1308299 It will be either in the painting section or the cleaning section. You dissolve it in water and it's colorless and odorless. It does an excellent job of stripping off the grimy, greasy buildup you get on kitchen cabinets. I have never had a problem with paint sticking to a wood surface that has been washed with tsp, rinsed, and allowed to dry. I've never known anyone who reported an allergic reaction to it. The only safety equipment you need to use with it is rubber or plastic gloves. Good stuff! Hope I answered your question, and thanks for reading!

  11. Is it ok to use the min wax brand to mix with paint?

  12. Is it ok to use the min wax brand to mix with paint?

  13. JodyS: the answer is "maybe." Minwax makes several products. Their clear finish called "Polycrylic" is PERFECT for this approach and I've used it many times. It comes in an all-blue container. Their "oil-modified" and "oil-based" products will not work. Here's a link: http://www.minwax.com/wood-products/clear-protective-finishes/interior/ The Polycrylic is on the lower right. I recommend it highly for this use. The others, not. Good luck!