Nordy Rockler founded Rockler Woodworking and Hardware in 1954.
Over the last half century, Nordy has spent thousands of hours
in the workshop, building projects and perfecting his finishing
techniques. He's regarded as a finishing expert, and has
developed a number of Rockler exclusive finishes. We recently
met with Nordy to discuss the art of finishing and some of his
Woodworkers often say that finishing is the part of the process
they struggle with most. Do you share that struggle, and why do
you think that is?
Nordy: Years ago it was more of a struggle because there wasn't a
variety of good products available. In the earliest times a
person would just use an oil pigment, wipe on stain, maybe a
coat of shellac as a sealer, and then a varnish, which maybe
took 24 hours or more to dry. Because it was so slow to dry
you'd get a lot of dust particles settling in it. Today we have
such a multitude of products available it is much simpler,
especially once you get familiar with the products and use the
ones you like. Finishing is the culmination of doing a project.
You can put a lot of time and money into the material, and you
can botch the whole thing with a bad finishing job. Finishing is
a critical part of the whole project.
When did you develop such a strong interest in finishing?
Nordy: Well, when we started the business. Finishes are a crucial
part of doing woodworking, so it was just sort of a natural
process that I became interested in it. Through looking at
various lines and talking to different salespeople, I learned a
lot about finishing. I tested a lot of products, and I still am
today. To keep on top of it, you really have to keep on trying
them and testing them.
What is the main key in getting a great finish on a woodworking
Nordy: Two things. First of all, you have to be very patient;
don't rush it. And the crucial thing is to test it on some scrap
wood and make sure you get the desired effect you really want.
Another reason for testing is you have a schedule of finishing
materials; test them all the way through the whole process, from
beginning to end, and you will get a really good feel for what
the end result will be.
How do you decide which finish to put on a particular piece?
Nordy: The type of project really dictates what type of finish you
put on it. If you're building cabinets or a bookcase, an
oil-type finish is very simple and pleasing, and very easy to
repair. I wouldn't recommend an oil finish for a dining room
table, because you need more protection. You need something
harder, more durable, and waterproof. It all depends on what
you're building. It also has to do with personal preference. Do
you want a gloss, a semi-gloss, a flat finish? Does the piece
need a lot of protection? Does the piece need to match another
piece in the room? There's a lot of considerations.
are the benefits of shellac and
Rockler's shellac kits?
Nordy: Shellac is a different type of material, and not
necessarily used as a top coat. It's a multi-purpose product. It
was very popular in the 1700s, and a lot of the antiques were
finished with it because that was the only finish available at
the time. It has its advantages. It dries very fast and gives
you a nice appearance. But it does have its drawbacks. It is not
completely water resistant, and it can be brittle. Sometimes
it's the finish you have to use, especially for the furniture
restoration people who want to get a piece as close to the
original as possible. The pre-mixed stuff you buy off the shelf
in a hardware store has a limited shelf life. It's usually only
good for six months after you open it up. If you buy shellac in
flake form you can mix it yourself very easily just by mixing
with denatured alcohol in different proportions. If you want to
use it for a sealer, or wash coat, you use a thin solution, what
they call a two-pound cut shellac. If you're using it as a top
coat or finish you want it a little thicker, you want a
four-pound cut. We came up with our new shellac kit because we
had previously been selling it by the pound, which is a lot of
shellac flake for the average consumer. So we packaged it into a
smaller 2 oz. size, and they can make a two-, three- or
four-pound cut, whichever they want, and it has a graduated
scale on the container showing what proportions of denatured
alcohol to shellac to use. It simplified the use of it. We're
also going to be offering it in a half-pound container.
what projects does a woodworker want to use a
Nordy: You can use it anywhere you want a urethane finish.
Urethanes give you a hard, durable, tough and, in most cases,
waterproof finish. A lot of people prefer the gel type for
application as opposed to the liquid type you have to brush on. It's
just a question of personal taste.
did you develop a relationship with Sam Maloof, who is regarded
as one of this country's greatest woodworking craftsmen?
Nordy: I met Sam about 20 years ago at the Southern California
Woodworkers Association. They had a big event. That was the
first time I met him, and I visited his home, which is really
like a museum. He's a great collector himself. He collects
Navajo rugs, and he collects pottery. He used to trade some of
his stuff for Navajo rugs and pottery. We have a nice
relationship. Rockler packages
Sam's poly/oil finish. The mere fact Sam Maloof still uses
it gives credence to the product.
Another highly-regarded finishing expert is Michael Dresdner.
How did you meet him?
Nordy: I knew him because of his work. He's a very popular writer
and has written a couple of books. I met him a few years ago at
a trade show. We sell his books and he writes articles for
Woodworker's Journal. He's a contributing editor to our
a water-based, wipe-on polyurethane finish, is one of Rockler's
newest products. What are the benefits of
Nordy: It's so easy to use. It's in a flip-top bottle, and you
just pour it out and use a foam rubber brush over the surface.
It dries in about 20 or 30 minutes, although our label says one
or two hours. It doesn't require much sanding (with 220 grit
paper) between coats, then you can re-coat it. I've done that in
half an hour after I applied. it. What's nice about a
water-based polyurethane is it dry's faster, is very easy to
apply, and easy to clean up. What's different about our finish
is others tend to have a plastic look to them when they're
finished. Ours has a slightly amber cast to it so it looks more
like a varnish finish.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about the finishing
Nordy: Like any skill or acquired labor, the worst part is fear of
doing it. Half the battle is just trying it. There's such an
abundance of products out there that there's something for
everybody. There's just no end to products. There should be
something anybody can apply for a very professional-looking
We're constantly on the lookout for new products that we're
testing. We try to have a real wide selection on the internet
and in our stores. Usually in each store there's someone that
specializes in finishing, and then we have classes at our
stores. Mostly it's getting up the nerve to try it and getting
used to the products you're using. In a lot of cases it's fun,
especially when you have a beautiful project and you want to put
the finishing touch on it that enhances the whole project.