Choosing a wood finish to enhance colour and grain

After all the love and care we put into our CNC projects their success often hinges on how well we finish the exposed wood surfaces. Sometimes we may just want to leave them plain, even unsanded, but usually we’ll be wanting to bring out the colour and grain structure to show off the beauty of the wood we’ve chosen. So what is the best way to do that? Should we just cheat and use clear-coat, or should we use traditional techniques like Danish Oil or Shellac sanding sealer? How much work is involved varies a lot depending on which we choose, so is the best way the one that involves the most perspiration, or can simple ways provide more inspiration?

To try to answer some of those questions I decided to do some tests with six of my favourite woods: Basswood, Oak, Cherry, Walnut, Mahogany and Birch plywood, as shown in the photo below. I then decided on four finishes: plain unsanded wood (A), Plasti-Kote aerosol clear-coat (B), Danish Oil (C) and Shellac sanding sealer (D). The last three were all done in two coats and after light sanding with 400 and 1000 grit sanding paper/pads. I think one of the most interesting things the photo shows is that all three surface finishes, even the simple spray-on clear-coat, enhanced colour and grain significantly.

Comparison images of the six woods before and after applying surface finishes

The unsanded woods (A) were obviously a little plain and dull, but still nice for many uses. The simple clear-coat (B), however, was much more interesting as it’s a very simple finishing process yet brought out the colour and grain structure very well. The main comment in comparison to the other finishes is that it gave a slightly darker look to the wood, although not in an unpleasant way. In comparison, I think the Danish Oil (C) gave a slightly nicer look to the grain, as well as bringing out the colour of the wood beautifully. Probably that’s due to it being mostly oil (see my post here) and so likely soaked deeper into the wood surface before hardening.

The sanding sealer (D) also gave a nice finish, although it was slightly duller. That’s not surprising though as its’ purpose is mostly to provide a sealed surface that can be lightly sanded smooth before applying other coatings. In the past I’ve used it with a finish of wax polish for a traditional look, and I think that would work well with the results here. The only other thing to note is, for me anyway, that the finishes improved the plain colours and grains of the Basswood and Birch plywood, even giving them some of the look of pine which could be useful for many projects. However, for a more exciting look they may benefit from a little wood stain/dye: in the case of the Danish Oil that can include darker oils that are commonly available.

Overall, I think the main conclusion from my tests is that simply applying a synthetic clear-coat to a carefully sanded wood surface is just as effective as more traditional techniques. Certainly it enhanced the colour and grain of all of the woods as well as giving an extra level of darkness if that’s what you want. Of course, using the other, more traditional, techniques gives subtly different effects so they still have a role to play and can be used with a final clear-coat too for some nice effects. Really it’s all down to our judgement, but without any need to feel guilty that using a cheap and simple clear-coat is cheating: in fact it’s a useful technique that compliments traditional finishes very nicely.

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Finishing wood using Danish Oil

There are many choices for wood to use in CNC projects, and just as many ways to add a surface finish. But, whichever choices you make on materials and finishes the important thing is that we’re trying to bring out the beauty of the wood colour and grain structure. It’s perhaps one of the big joys of working with wood that it can start off looking really quite plain, even dull, but change completely with a little bit of loving care finishing it off. So, I thought I’d write a post about Danish Oil as I find it a very easy and effective way to bring out the traditional look of hardwoods.

A definition of Danish Oil is hard to pin down, as there’s no set recipe, but it’s usually around a third varnish and two thirds oil (click here to read more on Wikipedia). That means it needs to be mixed-well before use and dries hard, so can be used with or without a later clear-coat. It can also be bought with lighter and darker stains mixed in, to help give a variety of finish effects, so is very versatile. Personally I like to use the natural version, which has very little stain in it, to retain the natural beauty of individual bits of wood.

As an example, below is a photo of my routed Mahogany fish before and after finishing. After a light sanding (very important to open up the surface for a good oil finish) it had two coats of Danish Oil applied simply using a bit of cloth to rub it in. Once dry I added some gold enamel paint to the routed grooves to add detail and then the fish was very lightly sanded to remove over-paint and give a smooth finish. That’s all the finishing it had and hopefully you’ll agree that it looks a lot nicer than it did before.

A routed fish with and without finishing

Another example I can give is the photo below of my Walnut Darth Vader head routing project. The image on the left is before finishing and, even though the Walnut already looks good, it was rather plain. To get to the look shown in the right-hand image it had two coats of Danish Oil, and a light sanding when dry, to bring out the grain and the beautiful colours. The gold enamel paint was then added to the grooves, as doing it before the oil can make the gold look duller because of the small amount of stain in the oil (which sometimes can be a nice effect, but not for this project). I then gave it three coats of Plasti-Kote spray on clear-coat as I wanted a shiny finish. Then, a couple of red Swarovski crystals added a bit of sparkly bling to the eyes.

A Darth Vader project with and without finish

Hopefully you’ll have enjoyed seeing the hardwood projects above come to life using simple finishing techniques. If so, perhaps you’ll think Danish Oil something worth trying out on one of your projects too 🙂

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Routing Darth Vader from Walnut 1.5mm sheet

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Recently I bought some 1.5mm thick Walnut sheet as I wanted to try it out with my CNC router and see how good the results would be. Walnut is quite a dark wood with a nice dense grain, so it seemed like an excellent opportunity to take my CNC intergallactic by making a small inlayed Darth Vader from Star Wars. Hopefully George Lucas will approve if he happens by, so below is my completed Darth Vader head (at around 10% water content, in case you’d like to know).

The finished Darth Vader router project

I was quite pleased with the results, the details being routed to 0.75 mm deep in two passes, and the edge being cut in three passes, using the 1.2mm diameter end-cutting bit shown above (which gave finished grooves almost 2 mm wide). As the image at the top of this page shows, the Walnut sheet cut quite well and cleanly with the spindle at 1000 rpm and a feed rate of 50 mm/min to minimise potential breakage of the bit. The above photo is then after I’d given it some sanding with a fine grit paper, which took little work. Even sanding out the recesses with folded over sandpaper was quite easy, with a little patience. So overall I’m looking forward to some more small projects using this lovely wood.

If you fancy making your own Darth Vader head, whether in Walnut or some other material, the SVG file is below for you to download, or click here to launch it in the GCoderCNC web-app. And, click here if you’d like to see how this project turned out after some Danish Oil finishing.

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Cutting 1.5mm Walnut with a 5W diode-LASER

Walnut is a beautiful and widely used wood that should enhance any CNC project. For that reason I was quite keen to see how well my 5W diode-LASER can cut through a 1.5mm sheet of it. Obviously thicker sheets are available but for small projects I find thin sheets are very useful. Besides, cutting thin sheets gives a good idea of how well we can cut thicker ones too. The sheet I used here had a water content of around 10%, according to my small meter, so the results were likely not too affected by the wood being overly dry.

So, above is a photo of my cutting test at a feed rate of 100 mm/min, which I find a sensible speed for a low-power LASER on a small CNC machine. I was quite surprised as it was much easier to cut through 1.5mm of Walnut than for the same thickness of Mahogany. In fact, it was cut cleanly through at 80% power in just a single pass. It also didn’t burn excessively or flame, which was a bonus making it easy to work with. And, as the photo below of the back shows, it cut with fairly minor cleanup work required.

The back of the walnut laser cutting test

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