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Finishing Redwood to Bring out Grain

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I have read through the posts in this topic forum, but have found none that specifically address my issue, which is a desire to bring out the grain pattern in redwood.


BACKGROUND:  About 45 years ago a friend of mine was making split products from the stumps of 2000 year old redwoods near Eureka, California.  He cast many aside because their curley grain was not considered suitable for roof shakes.  I took a few, not because I then had a use for them, but because I liked the look of the grain.  About 15 years ago, another friend planed one of the slabs for me so that it is now about a 1/2 inch thick and about 24 by 9 inches in dimension (13 mm x 23 cm x 61 cm).  Over the years, I have lost or misplaced all but one of the slabs.  The slab illustrated below has oxidized over time but should lighten up with sanding.


After all these years, I think I have finally found a use for the slab as a support base for my Fram build.  In the distant past I have seen curly redwood when properly finished looking like a rolling sea.  I would like to treat and finish this slab so that its natural grain is strongly brought out so that it visually "pops" out. 


A couple of friends (not too knowledgeable and the local hardware guy (less knowledgeable)) have suggested tung oil or shellac.  I don't want to over-do my labor on this but I only have one chance to do this right and no longer have surplus stock to experiment on.


PROBLEM:  Does anyone out there have redwood finishing experience that can recommend a treatment that would accomplish my purpose? 


Thanks in advance.


The first photo below is the entire slab and although it is un-sanded, you get a sense from the subtle sheen of the rolling nature of the curley redwood grain.


The second photo is a close-up of the slab near the edge.  While redwood is a soft wood, this slab represents a little less than a century of growth, so it has good structural integrity. 



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Can't you cut just about an inch of one edge so you can experiment? Or use the underneath side? Or maybe buy a small piece so you can experiment?

Several oils will bring the grain out: Tung oil or Boiled linseed oil. I have used the later extensively in my pen turning activity, not so much tung oil. In any case, experiment is a must whenever you are attempting something like this for the first time.


Maybe someone with more experience can help more!

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Have you considered using a pre-stain conditioner or even a water-dampened rag, then applying WOP? I've done this many times on full-scale woodworking. It makes the grain pop a little bit, with the added benefit of a more even application of stain/final finish, giving it a less blotchy appearance.

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Best I have tried with curly walnut is BLO.  Sand to a very smooth finish and apply BLO with a rag wiping off the excess.  Let it dry and go over it with 0000 steel wool.  Wipe again with BLO let it dry and go over it again with 0000 steel wool.  Repeat until you have the finish you are looking for.  A couple of cavets, I have only done this with hardwood and don't know how a soft wood would preform.  Also as said above try it on a small piece or the underside of your slab first before committing.  Although it is not impossible to remove the BLO by sanding it is a lot of work.

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  • 2 months later...

In my guitar builds I have sought out curly maple for the necks and curly anything for the bodies.  I have tried many different finishes to make the grain pop.  For me, boiled linseed oil pops grain the best.


I have used BLO on curly maple, sapele, bubinga, cocobolo, koa... and redwood  (but no redwood on guitars).  With BLO you have to lay it on and let it get close to drying then wipe it off.  It takes up to a week to fully dry, depending on how thickly it was laid on.  I rub it in and wipe everything off until almost dry.  It is usually dry in about a day.


I always follow BLO up with dewaxed shellac.  The shellac seals the oil and prepares it for any finish. 



On this curly maple neck - BLO followed by super blonde shellac followed by 10 coats of lacquer.


In time, wood always darkens and this makes the grain pop more.  Whatever you see once the last coat of finish dries, will get darker as time passes.

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Looks like a Tele, what pickups do you use? Sweet BTW....

It is a Tele.  I don't remember the pickups used.  I built it for a friend and he supplied the electronics.  It was a fun build because he came into town and I had him do the final shaping on the neck.  He worked on it for three days as I guided him through how to do it.  When it was done, he loved it. That was fun.


Julie: Do you build Classical Guitars?

Not yet.  So far I've only built 5 guitars, 2 Tele-types, 2 Strat-types and 1 Ric bass-type.  I say "type" because I modify them, all except the Tele I mentioned above.


Figured woods are highly prized by many guitar fans.  The pros don't seem to be as enamored with it though.  I handed one of my guitars to the guy who is now the lead singer for Kansas.  Every non-professional I showed it to was gaga.  The Kansas guy was like, "Meh."  


I am far from a pro, really, really far, so maybe that's why I like figured woods.  When selecting lumber for the necks, I am always looking for woods that will really pop.  Some guitar builders don't use BLO because it adds a yellow tint, especially if you lay it on too thick.  They go to straight lacquer because they want a white maple look.  But if you like it to look aged, BLO will help give that look but you'll still need some tinting if you can't wait for nature to do its thing .


Something I forget to mention when making grain pop is using dye.  I use Trans Tint dyes,  They can be dissolved in water or solvent (like alcohol) and the color possibilities are endless.  It takes a lot of experimenting if you go DIY but some finishing pros have shared their formulas.  I have a finishing book by Teri Masaschi that includes formulas but most of the dyeing I have done was trial and error.


The beauty of dyes is how deeply it goes into the wood. (Stain just sits on top of the wood.)  Dye is great for closed-pore woods like maple but not so good for open-pore woods like pine.  I have not dyed redwood though.  The natural beauty of it seems best brought with an oil, like BLO.  And it doesn't seem to be noticeably affected by the yellow tinting.


We had a hot tub in the last house and the redwood paneling was shot.  I picked up some redwood 2x4s and 2x6s and milled them into replicas of the original panel pieces, being aware of the figured pieces (there wasn't much) and planning for them to go where they will be noticed most.  I then applied several coats of Penofin oil on each piece before I put it on the hot tub.  The figured pieces really popped.  But the Penofin didn't last. Three months and it was gone.




This is the start of the repaneling.  You can see the few figured pieces on the tub but the picture doesn't do the grain justice.  With figured woods, you have to view it from several angles to see the depth of the grain.  But since this is oil only, you don't get the same appearance as you would when putting a finish over it, such as lacquer, varnish or shellac.

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  • 3 months later...


February 16, 2015


I've taken the planned wood blank (First Photo below) and sanded it (Second Photo below).  I have been unable to find locally some of the treatments suggested by Forum responders.  I have used the back of the blank to test from left to right:  A satin urethane finish recommended by a woodworking specialty shop in Sacramento, Tung Oil and Danish Oil (Third Photo below).  Unfortunately, even trying to adjust the images, I have not been able to achieve "real" color.


None of the treatments have brought out the curly nature of the grain. They just seem to darken the overall nature of the wood.




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