178 – Sitting Bench Step Stool (Part 3 of 3)

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It’s time for everyone’s favorite topic: finishing!
I plan on using polyurethane to finish my Sitting Bench Step Stool, and this time, I’m not going to use an expensive specialty varnish. Instead, I’m making my own wiping varnish by diluting some good old Minwax Polyurethane 50/50 with mineral spirits. But before I apply the poly, I need to apply a single coat of Zinsser Bullseye SealCoat Dewaxed Shellac as a sealer. This is a good precautionary measure for just about any wood as the shellac seals off any impurities or oils on the surface. But if you happen to be using a naturally oily wood (many exotics fall into this category), this is a necessary step when using an oil-based varnish topcoat. If you don’t do this, the oil-based finish will have difficulty curing.

A Finishing Strategy

No matter what finish you use, the first coat is usually very forgiving. The wood is so thirsty that you aren’t likely to see any drips, runs, or streaks. So that’s why the first coat is the perfect time to establish your finishing strategy. Years ago, I created a DVD called A Simple Varnish Finish. The board I used for demonstration was nice and flat and as a result, the first question most people ask after viewing the DVD is “What about curved surfaces and assembled pieces of furniture?”. So to help fill in that gap, I decided to use the Sitting Bench Step Stool to demonstrate my personal strategy. Which part get’s finish first, second, and so on?

Two Rules

There are really only two rules that I like to keep in mind during this process. First, is to finish the least visible parts first. As you apply finish to any piece of furniture, there will always be a chance for drips, runs, and even fingerprints to find their way into the finish. So if I leave my “show surfaces” for last, I can be absolutely sure that the most visible surfaces look perfect. If a secondary surface has a slight flaw, it isn’t nearly as big of a deal. So in the case of this project, the underside is where I start.

The second rule I follow is to follow the finish. As you apply finish to any particular piece, let’s say the stool’s leg, you are bound to get finish on the connecting parts. So pick the part that seems to have the most finish on it already and start applying your finish there next. Since every piece of a project tends to connect to another piece of the project, you can simply move from piece to piece by “following the finish”. If you work quickly enough, you should be able to blend all of the parts seamlessly.

As with any project, you’ll want to sand between coats with a high grit paper and remove the dust with a vacuum or a damp cloth.

Finishing the Finish

Let’s face it folks: our shops are terrible places for wood finishing! As much as we might try to keep things clean, there will always be dust in the air and our finishes will inevitably have grit and nibs in them. So we need a way to smooth the final finish so that the end result is a silky surface that just begs to be touched. The secret is an old technique called rubbing out. The idea is to use fine abrasive compounds to get rid of any imperfections. But instead of using abrasive compounds and a ton of elbow grease, I have a quick and dirty method that still produces fantastic results. The secret is to use high grit abrasive foam pads with a lubricant to abrade the surface. You can use various lubricants including soapy water and mineral spirits, but I prefer to use a simple solution of 50% mineral oil and 50% mineral spirits (thanks to a tip from William Ng). Since the mineral oil doesn’t cure, you have plenty of time to massage the surface and get a nice even appearance. The grit I uses most often for this operation is 2000.

The end result is a finish that will simply blow your mind. Silky smooth and not something you would expect from the average dusty garage or basement shop.

I hope you enjoyed this project. Although it is small in stature, there are lots of little details that go into making it special. I hope you build a few for yourself!

Categories: Finishing, Projects


  1. Mark Gowans July 18, 2012

    Hi Marc

    I would just like to say how interesting your latest stepstool project was. Also its the first time I have seen yours and Nicole’s new baby and he’s absolutely wonderful :)


      Thanks very much Mark. He had the “deer in headlights” look during filming, lol. I will have to get him used to the camera. :)

      • Rick Roades July 19, 2012

        Although there were times he seemed to giggle on cue. I think it’s in his blood. And it really was great seeing the three of you on camera. I couldn’t help but chuckle a couple of times.

    • nima sobhani August 8, 2012

      Hi marc I have been watching many of your episodes and enjoyed every one, ur quite an insperation, and ur helpful to see. I had a question for u, its regarding shellacs. For the shellac finishes do you have to put on another type of laquere considering the multiple coats and its characteristic gloss thanks.


        Thanks for the kind words. Shellac can do quite well as a stand alone finish. We use dewaxed shellac as a problem solver in finishing, but there’s really no reason you couldn’t use it as a stand alone finish.

  2. Mark Loughran July 18, 2012

    Hi Marc

    Excellent video series, really nice piece, would love to try this at some stage! Brass dowels are really nice, and finishing technique is brilliant!! Many thanks!! Best wishes to Nicole and Mateo!!

  3. Scott July 18, 2012

    Hey Marc, another great series. I’ve not had chance to try the wiping method yet, but hopefully it will be soon. I’ve just been given a couple of mahogany boards that would be perfect for this stool.

    I don’t know if you know this, but if you pour those cans of mineral spirits sideways, they don’t glug.

    Scott :)


      I like the glug. :) Actually, every time I pour mineral spirits on the show, someone is kind enough to remind me of that fact. Yet for some reason I always seem to forget.

      • Scott July 19, 2012

        Haha, I thought you must of heard about that before. I would like to see you do it in the next vid please :)

  4. stefan_sk July 18, 2012

    I think that Nicol’s new hair color goes great with the finish you picked for the project. Also I recommend taking Mateo’s clothes off before bath….


      oh shoot, I knew we were doing it wrong! lol

      • Jay July 20, 2012

        Sorry to argue with Stefan, but you’re doing it right Marc. You just have to take the diaper off at the right moment. Washing the baby with clothes on results in clean baby and clean onesie. One a serious note, nice project and great videos Marc. Again, you set yourself above other podcasters out there by putting together the show and tell at the end with the prototype stool and the new stool. Also including tricks and tips about tools and construction (such as noting how using metal dowels can affect the final surface when sanding) push you to a higher level. Thanks again!

  5. Tony from Pandora July 18, 2012

    Thanks for the time you devote to the finishing. You make me almost want to work on that more… almost….

    One thing I noticed is you need a new battery for that clock behind you… I always look to see what time of day you’re out there…

  6. pagel July 18, 2012

    Oh my, Mateo is so adorable. Great series, Marc, and what a wonderful way to cap it off. In years to come, you’ll look back on this and other videos and it’ll make you home sick – trust me. Despite the hectic pace of everything now, you’ll long for all those precious moments you and Nicole had with little Mateo. It goes quickly, so relish every minute of it. And then you’ll become grandparents…

  7. Joe O July 18, 2012

    Hey Marc,
    I really appreciate the timely episode on finishing today. I don’t usually leave comments, as I prefer to participate from afar, but today’s video was just perfect for the stage of my current project and I had to comment. I have been following you for a while now and have watched a lot of your shows. With you as inspiration, I’ve begun my woodworking hobby in earnest. After having saved up for over a year for a table saw, I was excited to finally start building stuff this year. I built a bookshelf headboard for my daughter’s bed as my first attempt, and it came out okay. And then I decided to just dive headfirst and make a large furniture piece. My mom asked me if I could make a shelf/entertainment system for their TV at their lake place. So I decided to build a boat shaped shelf system that will hold their small flat screen TV, made out of maple, maple veneer plywood, and some mahogany. After a few long months, it’s come out great and I’ve learned a lot. Every time I get to a point where I get stumped, I just revisit your videos and I’m back at it. I have been finishing the “boat” this past week and it looks fantastic so far. I’m a few coats of wiping varnish into it and begun thinking about how to make the final coat of varnish silky smooth, and then I come in and see that you put out a video covering exactly what’s on my mind. I’m excited to try out your method.

    Thank you so much for all your awesome work and guidance you give us hobbyists out here. I look forward to seeing what’s next and getting even more involved in the community.


  8. John Davidson July 18, 2012

    Love the finishing strategy. Great little project. “It’s 809 somewhere”

  9. Mark Nicholson July 18, 2012

    Great project and video series Marc! Thank you for all the tips.

  10. Jose McMurphyschmidt July 18, 2012

    Well done! I’ve got a week’s vacation coming up in two days and this is on the “to do” list (walnut version). It’s been a hectic summer so far and I’m looking forward to this, perfect project for easing me back into the shop.

    Really like the subtle changes you’ve done from the original one-off’er.

  11. Nick D July 18, 2012

    Very nice project. Like most woodworkers, the finishing part always has me a little nervous. I see that in between coats you always use sand paper, do you not like steel wool for that, and is there any particular reason or just personal preference? I’m definitely going to get some of those foam pads for finishing the finish. Great tip, Thanks.
    I always get a chuckle over the clock, makes me think of the old “Saturday Night Live” news skit with the way they set up the clocks on the back wall.


      I was never a fan of using steel wool between coats. The primary reason is because I feel I have more control over the scratch pattern by varying the grit. And although steel wool does come in more or less abrasive forms, 0000 is usually the only grade we use on wood projects. So I find it easier to stick with the paper and the results, in my hands, are better.

      • Jay July 20, 2012

        You also have to watch it if you’re using water based finishes and leave any little pieces behind. You’ll have little rusty spots stuck between layers of finish. Nick, if you really like using steel wool, they do make synthetic pads in varying abrasive levels that are very similar to traditional steel wool.

  12. Rick Roades July 19, 2012

    You’ve met your standard for excellence! I showed the first episode to my father-in-law (who is NOT a woodworker) and he was amazed at the project – the attention to detail in what would seem a simple project (step stool), but when I told him that yours is not a big production TV show, but a one man “I do it all” product, he was – well – amazed. This is the best of the Guild as a token of appreciation to the Free Site, and with the Finishing the Finish as a follow up it was a perfect project capper.

    Thanks again.

  13. Ben July 19, 2012

    Hi Mark

    Great little project.

    I’ve been drowing in literature about getting that sheer finish so it was great to see you cut through the redundant steps to the important ones!

    You mention Festool’s Platin range of sanding pads – but would a sheet of silicon carbide stuck to a foam pad do the same job? Or is there something special about the Platin range that makes it important to this method?




      Flexibility is the real selling point for me. While paper on foam is a little more flexible than just paper alone, it is still less flexible than one of these foam abrasive pads. They give me the perfect gentle touch that’s needed on corners and edges. Paper just isn’t that forgiving.

  14. Ben July 19, 2012

    Ah, I understand.

    One more question, did you leave the finish any time to cure? Or was it just another 6-24 hour drying??



  15. Johnathon July 19, 2012

    One thing you don’t mention in this video (or in your finishing book) and hardly anyone else ever mentions either is what to do with your finish while you are waiting the 4-6 or 24 hours. In the video you mixed up more 50/50 finish than you needed. What do you do eith the excess while you wait for it to dry? And, once you have finished the project, if you have left over finish mixture what do you do with it?

    Hopefully the answer isn’t obvious…..



      Between coats you put a lid on the container and re-use it. At the end of the project I usually just throw it away or put some on a shop project. I try not to mix it back with the stock since it has had a lot of air exposure and probably has wood particles and other stuff in it.

  16. Andrew Pritchard July 20, 2012

    For the 50/50 mix of poly, would Varsol be ok to use? It says it’s got mineral spirits in it (in the “what to do if you poison yourself” section), but there’s no other information. I’d rather not buy more mineral spirits if I’ve already for a bottle of the stuff!

    Also where do you get your rags from? Do you buy them specially, and if so what do you use? I just don’t have that many t-shirts I can rip up!

  17. Klas July 20, 2012

    Nice bench and finish but i feel sad by your tine out joke.

    Time out chair is not good parenting.

  18. S.Wellington July 20, 2012

    Thanx Marc, for spending as much time as you do on finishing as actually building. Finishing is always a challenge for me because my knowledge is limited. You have helped increase my knowledge as well as making a boring process seem fun. Well, almost fun. :) I have to force myself to take my time because I want to “rush” to get to the finished product. Your videos are awesome as usual!

  19. Tom Hoffman July 20, 2012

    Mark: Great video. I Googled around for the foam abrasive pads and couldn’t find what you were using. Can you provide a link or specify the exact name of the product?

  20. Tom Hoffman July 20, 2012

    Thanks. Silly me. I should have looked before leaping.

  21. Rafael Rodriguez July 22, 2012

    Ditto on pagel’s remarks, looks like Mateo is being trained to be a star on your show, glad to see you all are doing well, lots of luck in future.

  22. Shawn July 23, 2012


    Andrew Pritchard asked a good question that I was hoping you would respond too, but I haven’t sen anything yet, so I will re ask it. What type of shop rags do you use to finish and for just general shop use for that matter? As Andrew said, I don’t have a lit of extra shirts I could use, so I would like a good solution. I read some posts of people using Scott’s Shop Towels, so I gave that a try and they seem to work pretty well. Would there be any downside to using something like those shop rags?



      Oops sorry. I occasionally miss a comment now and then. I actually still use cut-up shirts and socks. I have yet to purchase a bag of rags so I don’t have a recommendation to make from personal experience. You’ve seen my t-shirt collection so you know why I go through so many. :) Also, my entire family knows to save old shirts for me and that’s how I stock up. I do actually use the blue shop towels for initial coats of varnish so that’s one way to avoid wasting more cotton cloth than necessary.

      • Shawn July 23, 2012

        Thanks Marc!

        One other quick question for you, when you wipe your projects down with a damp cloth between coats, what do you dampen the cloth with? Do you use just water or do you use mineral spirits? Also, do you use the same method after your final sanding and before your initial coat (on the bare wood).

        Thanks again for everything you do for the woodworking community, you truly are an incredible resource.

      • A good source for cotton rags is actually at your local good will or other charity/thrift store. They regularly receive clothing that is in such a shape that they can’t sell it so they will turn them into rags and sell them for far less than the bag of rags you find at larger retailers.

  23. I really like the simple things. This bench is perfect!

  24. Bill August 5, 2012

    Hi Marc, I really enjoyed this series on the step stool, and already purchased the wood I need to make my own. Being an absolute beginner, I don’t really have much wood lying around my shop!

    I am really intrigued by the shop cabinets behind you. Any chance on getting a video or article on how to build them? They would look fantastic on my shop wall!

  25. Brice Arnold August 13, 2012

    If using general finishes arm-r-seal do you still cut it with mineral spirits? I know in an older video you mentioned that this product was already diluted.

  26. JohnNW August 15, 2012

    Hi Marc. Great video. :)

    Is it possible to do the rubbing out part when the finish is a water borne poly?
    I imagine I can, I’m just wondering what I can use as a lubricant instead of mineral oil, or if that’s ok on a water borne clear coat.

    Thanks, and congrats on the new addition to the family. :)

  27. steve September 7, 2012

    when you wipe the dust off in between coats do you use water or thinner ?

  28. Chauffage Stephanie September 15, 2012

    Finishing is an the most important stage of construction. Whatever to build maybe a small stool to a big cot, everything looks bare and untidy without finishing. Thanks for sharing some unique and helpful details about the same. If finishing is not good, then the product becomes unattractive and sometimes may not fit to be use also. The author here has given some of the available methods and some of his own, which can be adopted.

  29. Chris Horn October 19, 2012

    Hey Marc, great video as usual, and even greater family. I love that you can just see how much they mean to you. Now for the question. If you had not put the shellac on there before the finish, how much would it have changed the end color of product? If you had done another one with out the primer, would it be lighter (in color, not weight, smart guy)?


      Thanks for the kind words! Concerning the shellac, it really makes no difference on the bubinga or mahogany. On something lighter, like Maple, it might initially take on a slightly different color. But honestly, as the varnish and the wood ages, the long term impact will likely be neglidgable.

  30. NiteWalker October 20, 2012

    Hi Marc.
    I tried this with mirka’s Abralon pads (pretty much the same as the platins) today on a small box I sprayed with a gloss waterborne poly and it worked well, but I did it dry instead of using the mineral oil/mineral spirits solution. It left some dust so I’ll try the solution next time.

    Now, what do you do with the solution once you’re done with the wet sanding? Do you put a top on it and save it for later? Or toss it? Also, do you save the pads? If you do, do you rinse it out or anything?


  31. NiteWalker October 20, 2012

    Thanks Marc. :)

  32. NiteWalker October 21, 2012

    So I did a bit more research on the platin pads, and found that mirka makes abralon discs that are pretty much the same thing. Searching a bit further, I came across some bowling forums where most of the guys there use siaair pads. They last a lot longer than the abralon according to the guys that use them. I grabbed a few on ebay to try out. I used some 2000 grit abralon on a recent box and it came out ok, but I prefer a tiny bit more gloss, so I ordered 3000 and 4000 grit to try out.

    About the lube, I just used distilled water with a bit of dawn dish soap in it. Instead of a small container I put it in a spray bottle and just occasionally spritz the pad. It worked really good.

    Just wanted to share my experience.

    Thanks again Marc, I wouldn’t have even known about this method until you showed us.

  33. I love the shape of this stool. Reminiscent of an Asian roof. Your varnishing techniques have given me courage to attempt my own finishes.

  34. Celtic Termite December 13, 2012

    Thanks Marc
    This is a very beautiful stool/seat and I especially like the fact that several generations in your family will be using it for slightly different purposes.
    The aspect that I appreciated most is seeing you adapt and evolve the design – this is very inspiring to be able to watch someone doing. I assume that this process is the type of thing that guild members get to see even more of in your build projects.
    Cheers !

  35. Jeff Korbman December 13, 2012

    for what it is worth, I wote down how Marc “finished the finish” as a sequence of steps on an index card and put it up in my shop…..so far I have followed it twice for a glass-smooth finish on two projects…THANK YOU!

  36. Joe Dolan January 10, 2013

    Hey Marc,

    You mentioned that it may be a good idea to rethink the method used for rubbing out the finish if you are building something that a younger kid will be on. I was wondering if you would just skip the “finishing the finish” step, or if you would use a different solution instead of the 50/50 spirits/oil.



  37. Huge fan Marc. Really. Will be joining The Guild in June. And this video is in perfect timing for me, and it’s like you read my mind. “Don’t make yourself crazy with the finishing”…Perfect.
    I am coming to the end of a, rather massive and heavy, two tiered Walnut coffee table and I have been going INSANE on all the different ways I should finish it. I have been all over LJ’s and Sawmill, and still can’t find a really rock solid answer. But I think this vid gave me what I was searching for. I have been told time and time again, that you CANNOT rub out a polyurethane finish bc you will “burn through” it if you’re not careful, so you need a finish that melts into one another. Soooo…I can? Does it have to be thin to be able to rub out? Or can I brush on full strength and THEN rub out? What about “brushing” laquers?
    – I do not have a spray booth, nor reliable enough spray equipment. (I have over $600 wrapped up in this already. Don’t wanna screw it up with my crappy spray equipment)
    – I am “adjusting” the color of the grayish, slightly sap woody, steamed Walnut as followed. 1) Apply Dark Red Mahogany Dye (Mohawk Penetrating Dye ). 2)Thin sealcoat (Zinser blonde aerosol shellac). 3)Fill grain (ebony Elmers Max). 4) Dark Brown Walnut Pigment Wiping Stain, or DBWalnut Glaze (not sure yet which, but both Mohawk) 5) Tone with Medium brown Walnut (Transtint and Shellac). 5) FINISH.
    Do you see any areas in my schedule I should change? I’m going for a deep espresso/dark walnut finish, rubbed out to semi gloss. Thanks for any help you can offer.
    Sorry for the novel. Just really want to get this right.


      Hey Rob. I’m glad you agree with the comment that you shouldn’t make yourself crazy with finishing. Unfortunately, I must say you’re doing the opposite. I mean that in the most respectful way. Let me answer your questions first and then I’ll get on your case about the finish. :)

      Yes you can rub out poly. But it really isn’t the best material if rubbing out to a high gloss is your goal. You’ll get better results if you’re looking for a semi-gloss or matte rub-out. And yes, burning through is always a concern so you want to keep the rubbing to a minimum. You can stack the cards in your favor by making your last coat as thick as possible. That gives you more material to work with. If you go thin, you’re setting yourself up for a burn-through.

      As for brushing lacquer, that’s just lacquer formulated for brushing. Ultimately, it’s a better product for rubbing out if that’s your goal.

      Now let’s talk about your finish regimen. In my opinion, any finish that requires more than 3 steps or three products is probably unnecessarily over-complicated. That said, I do realize some specialized “looks” do require a little more effort such as glazing and toning. But most of these super complicated finishes are done to cover up mediocre wood. If you’re starting with walnut, you shouldn’t really have to gunk it up with a bunch of product to make it look good.

      So if you are sure this is the regimen you want to use, there’s no reason it won’t work. But have you tried simplifying things? For instance, have you considered trying General Finishes Java Gel Stain? That stuff does a great job of achieving that espresso finish people love so much. And if you try it on scrap and the color isn’t quite dark enough, simply hit the wood with a dark brown dye first, then apply the gel stain. Finish with your preferred topcoat. If you need to fill the pores, consider doing that over the raw wood first, sanding back, then applying the dye and stain. You can then cut out the sealing and glazing steps.

      Also, consider whether or not you really need to pore fill at all. Semi-gloss can still look good on a non-filled surface. The only time I think pore-filling is a necessity is when going for a full gloss. Of course, some people just don’t like the look of the pores so filling is a good option. But as mentioned above, you might be able to fill first on the raw wood and save yourself some work.

      Finally, decide if the pigment stain, glaze, and toner are truly necessary. With walnut as your substrate, I can’t see why they would be. To put it bluntly, with all that color on the surface you may as well just use paint. ;) Walnut shouldn’t need much help getting to an espresso color.

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