Contributed by Elias Saltz
Writing posts about specific misconceptions has got me thinking about the nature of misconceptions in a more general way. I have questions about their origins and their ability to linger, and how they differ from other types of beliefs.
Misconceptions, especially about the kind of things I’m writing about here, seem like they should be less tricky to dispel than other beliefs because they don’t usually embed themselves with their holders’ personal identities. I don’t see people getting emotionally attached to their beliefs and preferences pertaining to different types of sprayed fireproofing, for example. Still, it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to examine and question your knowledge. When incorrect information is passed along as ‘rules of thumb’ or ‘common knowledge,’ are you curious enough to ask the question, ‘what do I think I know and how do I think I know it?’ It’s difficult to tease out misconceptions because they feel like facts to us, and we’re subject to confirmation bias - that is, a tendency to use mental tricks to reinforce our beliefs to avoid being wrong. But every ‘fact’ we think we believe should be provisional, subject to updating when we’re presented with compelling contrary evidence.
In addition to misconceptions, there’s a lot of pure ignorance about some topics. We don’t know much about them, but hopefully we’re aware enough of our ignorance to not just make up an answer. I chose today’s misconception topic with that in mind; I think that woodwork finishing is a bit of a black box, performed behind the scenes, with systems that are little understood beyond their names. That’s why I approached Margaret Fisher from the Architectural Woodwork Institute, who is also a previous contributor of two articles on Let’s Fix Construction.
06 40 00 - Architectural Woodwork
There is much that can and has been written about architectural woodwork and it’s an immensely broad topic, so this post will limit its focus to finishing systems. AWI’s Architectural Woodwork Standards (AWS) introduces the topic better than I can:
“The purpose of finishing woodworking is twofold. First, the finish is used traditionally as a means to enhance or alter the natural beauty of the wood. Second, the finish shall offer protection to the wood from damage by moisture, contaminants, and handling. It is important to understand that a quality finish must offer acceptable performance and also meet the aesthetic requirements of the project.”
The AWS lists 13 different transparent and opaque wood finishes, including penetrating oils, varnishes, urethanes and lacquers. Each offers different appearance and durability properties, and therefore are appropriate for different applications. Note that the edition of the AWS referenced in this post throughout is the 2nd Edition, published in 2014.
Now some misconceptions. I asked Margaret this question:
“When you think about the questions and comments you hear from design professionals across all levels of experience, what misconceptions about architectural woodwork finishing do you find that you most commonly have to dispel?”
Finishing wood will make it waterproof.
No, please use coasters. Finishes do two primary things: a) enhance the beauty of the wood and b) protect the wood, but finishes have varying degrees of porosity. Most will allow some moisture to penetrate to the wood.
Anyone who applies wood finishes can apply ALL the finish systems shown in the AWS.
No, actually, some systems require special application equipment that only a handful of companies might own and know how to operate. For example, UV-cured finishes need to be mechanically applied to wood surfaces and then passed through a tunnel where they are exposed to UV light, which cures the finish very quickly. This finish is often used by companies that produce products that need to be shipped quickly, like stock cabinets, doors and moldings. Some custom millwork shops have UV-curing equipment, but most don’t.
AWI finishes that are ‘standard,’ meaning that almost any shop can apply them, include finishes #1, #4, #5, #8 and #12, typically single component or water-based, air curing types. Pre- and post-catalyzed and UV-cured finishes are the types that require special equipment and can only be applied by specially-equipped shops.
All finish systems can be applied on-site as long as you have adequate ventilation.
With the possible exception of hand-rubbed oil finishes (Finish #6) - a type you would generally only use on antique restoration - finishes that are factory applied afford a far greater degree of quality because the air temperature, humidity, dust particle filtration, hands-free application and other controls, are all possible in the plant, not at the jobsite. Applying finishes in the shop allows finishers to properly control all aspects of the environment. Also, as previously mentioned, some finishes require sophisticated, stationary equipment to properly apply and cure.
When using the AWS, the higher the system number, the better the finish is going to be.
No. The system numbers are not in relation to any kind of ranking. They are just numbers and should not be relied on for decision making. Instead, look at the quality and properties of each finish and decide which one is right for your project. AWS Section 5 - Finishing contains tables of properties and performance characteristics which have the information necessary to determine how each finish should perform.
Everything on the project needs to have the same finish.
No, individual items can be finished differently.
AWI has tested every finish listed in the AWS2.
No, AWI has not tested finishes. Manufacturers test the finishes according to methods published by ASTM.
More sanding and finer grits will give you a more even finish.
Actually, it is possible to oversand wood. This can cause stains to appear blotchy, especially in close grain woods like maple and birch. This happens when oversanded wood becomes burnished, closing the pores and making it harder for the stain to have a place to rest.
Site finishing costs less.
The quality of the factory finish will be superior to a site applied finish and a sealer coat can also be applied on the backs of items prior to installation making it more stable in the field. Additionally, site labor rates, especially if union, will outpace the shop applied labor rate. The hours needed to apply a factory finish will likely be less as the operation is more concentrated and hardware does not need to be uninstalled and reinstalled for each item. In every step of finishing, labor is decreased in factory finishing operations. The only applications that really make sense for site-applied finishing are things like wood stairways that need to be put together at the site before finish can be applied.
As with any complicated topic, there is always more detail than can be posted in a ‘most common misconceptions’ discussion, and more to be learned. When it comes to working with construction products and systems, all have complicated qualifications regarding their use. Experienced product reps and industry associations have seen and helped solve many real-life problems that have arisen through incorrect product selection, bad detailing and poor specifications. They are a critical resource that can help us update our knowledge and dispel our misconceptions.
My thanks to Margaret for participating in this project.
 Architectural Woodwork Standards. Architectural Woodwork Institute, 2014.
(Editor's note: Elias Saltz, a primary contributor to the Let's Fix Construction site, is an experienced specifier looking for his next professional opportunity:
Elias is an architect and construction specifier with a total of 23 years in the industry. He has spent the past ten years writing construction specifications almost exclusively, first as an in-house specifier and for the past 11 months as a specifications consultant. He has experience writing specifications for nearly every building type, and extensive design and technical documentation experience with healthcare facilities.
He is looking for work as an in-house specifier for a architecture firm that believes in the importance of specifications and that has great energy and dedicated leadership, or for a specifications consultancy looking to grow its talent base.
Reach out to him on LinkedIn to inquire.
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