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Discussion Starter #1
Looking for recommendations for a coffee table I'm planning to build out of sapele.

I plan to put Behlen's Rock Hard table varnish on top, though I'm open to other suggestions.

Also, I have no sprayer, so this will all be brushwork.

As to stain - any recommendations? Was thinking of getting some of the Behlen's red mahogany as well as Sherwin Williams, and experimenting.

As I was planning on using a grain filler, next I'd apply a wash coat, right? This should be what - Zinsser Seal Coat/ Minwax Sanding Sealer? Scarcely matters?

For the grain filler - Pore-O-Pac? Something else? Mahogany or neutral?

Any other suggestions?

This will all be done in my unheated garage, and it's nearly December. What's minimum temperature for applications?

Thanks
 

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Staining wood is a sin and should be punishable by revoking your woodworking card. Let the natural beauty of the wood shine through.
 

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What is the final look you are going for here? With woodworking, as with anything, the fewer variables you introduce the greater likelihood of a satisfactory result. In all honesty, when I read that description the first thing that pops into my mind is Why even spend the cash on Sapele? When you wet the (well sanded) sapele with mineral spirits you will see the color you will get if you just oil varnish the table. If that color isn't exactly what you want you need to adjust from there. DO NOT go buy a stain that is the color you want. Actually don't buy a stain at all. You will not find a single well respected "Fine Woodworker" that uses stain. That doesn't mean none of them adjust color. If all you have the money for is pine and you want it to look like cherry, that's perhaps a different discussion. Stain lays pigments on top of the wood. Sapele has a lot of beautiful nuances and chatoyance and you will lose most of them the moment the stain touches the wood.

You don't want to change the color, you want to adjust it. The best place to start would be shellac. You can get shellac that naturally has multiple tones from garnet to rudy to orange or blonde. If you look at the wet sapele and want it to be a little darker brownish red, put a thin coat of garnet shellac on it, and so on.

The next option would be a water based dye, not quite as easy to do as the shellac but a great product. With dye you have a wider range of colors to choose from and you can adjust the density of color by diluting just like with shellac. Most fine finishers use one of these two products. There are others but frankly, you don't need them for this project.

After you get the color you want you need to decide what you want the surface to look like. By this I don't just mean high gloss or satin; I mean do you want to see the wood pores or do you want a glass smooth surface? If the latter a pore filler may be the way to go. Fill the pores before using the shellac.

As for the final varnish, a lot of people like the Behlen's, though I'm not one of them. I'm a fan of Waterlox original or (gasp) Minwax poly. The Waterlox is fairly similar to the Behlen's except that it uses Tung oil instead of Linseed oil. Both the Waterlox and the Behlen's are pretty amber as far as "clear" finishes go so take that into account when deciding.

My finishing schedule would be: Tone if you decide to (with shellac), Two coats of whatever varnish you choose applied with a foam brush, Wait a couple of days and block sand the finish flat, Wipe on maybe two additional coats of the same varnish this time using a rubber or balled application pad wrapped in lint free cloth(sanding at 400-600 between.) If you want to rub out the finish with abralon or compound you need to wait until the finish is fully cured first, which will vary by product and location.

With sapele this should give you a pretty flat finish, I don't see the need to fill it but that's up to you.

P.S.- Please don't stain it.
 

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Also, the temperature for application varies slightly between products, I try not to apply anything other than maybe shellac under 50 degrees. Consider using a space heater to bring the room up to temp before application. I kill mine while applying, and then turn them back on in about a half an hour or so. Invest in a small digital temp and humidity gauge for your shop (about $10) it will really help you avoid any issues.
 

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I don't think stain is necessary on Sapele unless you're interested in changing the color. I recently finished sapele using Waterlox and it really, really popped the grain. The tabletop varnish may very well also pop the grain if it has an amber cast. Alternatively, I think you could fill the grain, then put on a coat of tung oil to pop the grain, then topcoat with the varnish. -Or- you could seal with lemon yellow/orange shellac (to pop the grain), then fill, then topcoat with varnish. If you do want to change the color, I'd suggest a dye instead of a stain. Stains tend to obscure the grain which would seem a shame on sapele.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Final Decision and a Couple More Questions

Thanks to all who responded. By the way, when I said stain, I meant a dye. I had enough spare Sapele that I was able to do six different tests (on a few uncharacteristically warm days before Christmas):

  1. Behlen’s Rockhard on bare wood.
  2. Rockhard over shellac.
  3. Rockhard over light red mahogany dye.
  4. Rockhard over medium red dye.
  5. Light coat of shellac over the light dye covered with the Pore-o-Pac mahogany filler – Rockhard on top.
  6. Same as #5 with the medium dye.
I’d read Pore-o-Pac reviews saying it was hard to work with and figured “what a bunch of whiners”. Then I tried it. OMG. Think I’ll fill with shellac.
I actually like the color of Behlen’s light red mahogany dye – the medium is way too dark – but even the light obscures the grain more than I want. You were right – I was wrong.

First question – on page 95 of Flexner’s Understanding Wood Finishing, he says if I’m filling grain with shellac I should apply a coat of finish first. Then my coats of shellac (thinned?), sanding back each coat to the finish coat until the pores are filled. This is to avoid “built up” shellac which he says could weaken the finish coat (described on page 116). Agree? Disagree? Thought I’d seen recommendations elsewhere for multiple built up shellac coats. Also, should I expect each shellac coat to cure quickly?

Second question – do I then apply multiple coats of the Rockhard – both for depth and to ensure that in leveling and rubbing I don’t cut through? And should I expect each coat to take some time to cure? (I’ll wait for better weather.)
 

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I haven't used Pore-O-Pac. I have used Behlen's water based and it was a pain, but wasn't awful as long as I got the bulk squeegeed off before it hardened fully. The residual I did have sanded fairly easily. I can't imagine trying to fill sapele grain with shellac.

I think you should have at least 2-3 coats of varnish. Regardless of how many coats you do, If you sand and polish to gloss or satin, you have to make sure you don't sand through the final coat. Varnish doesn't "burn in" to the previous coat like lacquer does, so you'll get witness lines where one coat of varnish joined the previous coat.
 

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Rick Mosher
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Don't give up on that filler yet. Do another sample and try this schedule.
1. Stain if using one.
2. Apply wash coat of the seal coat shellac. (1 pound cut)
3. Now apply your paste filler thinned to a heavy cream consistency. Wait until it turns dull and then squeegee off with a rubber window squeegee. Go across the grain to force as much filler into the grain as possible and get it as clean as possible.
4. I use SW paste filler and that says not to sand, read the instructions on your filler and do what it says. If the grain isn't fully filled you can fill again.
5. Now apply a full coat of sealer and after it dries scuff sand with 320 paper and start applying your varnish.

The wash coat of sealer makes applying the filler MUCH easier and prevents a condition known as grey pore where the wood leaches the resin out of the filler over time and it turns an ugly grey color.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
Don't give up on that filler yet. Do another sample and try this schedule.
1. Stain if using one.
2. Apply wash coat of the seal coat shellac. (1 pound cut)
3. Now apply your paste filler thinned to a heavy cream consistency. Wait until it turns dull and then squeegee off with a rubber window squeegee. Go across the grain to force as much filler into the grain as possible and get it as clean as possible.
4. I use SW paste filler and that says not to sand, read the instructions on your filler and do what it says. If the grain isn't fully filled you can fill again.
5. Now apply a full coat of sealer and after it dries scuff sand with 320 paper and start applying your varnish.

The wash coat of sealer makes applying the filler MUCH easier and prevents a condition known as grey pore where the wood leaches the resin out of the filler over time and it turns an ugly grey color.
Thanks, Rick

I've got more scrap and can certainly try again. I'd read that the reason for the 1st coat of shellac (which I did apply) was to keep the color of the filler from interfering with the previously-applied stain. As I've pretty much decided to skip the stain, I'd figured on skipping the pre-filler wash coat. I'll give it another shot, though. I thought I'd mixed the Behlen filler to about the right consistency (what a pain!), but I guess I didn't manage to squeegee enough off.

Is your SW filler water or oil-based? Do they make a neutral? If so, is the neutral invisible? I thought I'd seen others complain that the Behlen neutral left a grayish color.

What do you use to clean off the filler, besides the squeegee? I'd seen a recommendation of burlap around a block, but haven't had much luck buying burlap in December - tried some steel wool, but without much success. Ended up sanding with stearated 320, which loaded up in seconds.
 

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Rick Mosher
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One more thing. Is the SW filler you use SHER-WOOD natural filler?
Yes, that is the one. They will tint it to any color you want as well. I would at least tint it to the color of the wood if you don't want to highlight the grain. The SW product is oil based and you thin it 150% with VM&P Naptha and only have to wait 4 hours for dry time at 70 degrees. I wouldn't use the natural color on Sapele as it will look too light in the pores.
 
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