Furniture finishers sometimes think of the first finish coat as the scaler coat, and many recommend that the first coat be of varnish thinned with 1 part turpentine to 4 parts of varnish. This coat is brushed well into the surface, allowed to dry, and then sanded. This is usually recommended over water-based stains, but is not necessary with wiping stains. We are a bit leery of the procedure because of the thinning requirement, so we generally apply our varnish straight from the can unless otherwise directed by the manufacturer. This works for us because we usually employ pigmented wiping stains.
Place the can of varnish conveniently, so you can dip into it without traveling very far. Dip the brush into the liquid for one-third its length. Then lift the brush straight up without wiping it against the lip of the can.
Begin laying down the finish at the farthest point from you, and work from there toward you. The bare lamp should be opposite you to create a reflected surface. Apply this first coat across the wood grain. Brush on the varnish with deliberate, even strokes, and don't allow the strokes to overlap much. At the end of each stroke, lift the brush straight from the surface, dip it in the varnish again, and begin the new stroke on an unvarnished area.
Evening it Out When the entire surface has been coated, go back and, using just the tips of the bristles, brush lightly with the grain to smooth out the finish. Look for areas that seem to be heavy and run the tip through them to help level them. Be especially careful at the edges. It is easy to wipe varnish out of the brush by crossing over the edges, and this varnish will run down the sides. Avoid this by brushing with care near all edges.
Tipping Always remember that you are brushing the varnish on. You are laying down a fairly thick, even coat. You want to work deliberately and avoid creating bubbles, and you want to even out any areas with too much or too little varnish on them by "tipping" — working across the surface with the bristle tips.
Pattern Approach You might like the "pattern" approach to varnishing. In this, you lay down stripes of varnish from one end to the other, with each strip as wide as the brush is. Then you move over, leaving a stripe unvarnished, and lay down another stripe. You end up with alternating varnished and unvarnished stripes in one direction. Next, you apply varnish across the work to fill in the previously unvarnished areas. This method helps create a smooth coat by spreading the first varnish stripes into the unvarnished areas.
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