The Times, They are a-Changin’
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Even in the wood finish.
One of my favourite songs In the 1960s it was by Bob Dylan, The Times, They are A-Changin ‘. This theme applies today to what is happening in wood finishing.
It is natural for us to believe that things should be as they were in our youth or young adulthood. Change always brings with it the need to adapt. I had to make a lot of changes to the finish of the wood. The main areas are finishes, solvents, spray guns, paint strippers and adaptations to the widespread consolidation that is occurring.
The biggest change is the introduction of water-based finishes and the slow disappearance of nitrocellulose lacquers and paints. In fact, the use of the term “paint” alone is becoming obsolete. There aren’t many paints left. They have been replaced by “polyurethane”, which is a type of paint and which was widely vilified in the carpentry community in its early days as “plastic”, as in “I don’t allow plastic in my shop”. (In fact, all paints and lacquers are plastic.)
Back to water-based finishes. While the manufacturer’s labeling tries to make you think they are just like lacquer or paint, they are a whole new and different type of finish. The main reason, of course, is the inclusion of a lot of water. Water lifts wood grain, is more sensitive to weather than organic solvents, increases the difficulty of applying decorations (stains, glazes, pore fillers and toners) and causes rust on metal cans.
The industry has significantly converted to water-based finishes to comply with VOC regulations, especially the local regulations where their factories are located. But these finishes haven’t caught on as much in the amateur woodworking and small shop community because they’re more difficult to use than solvent-based finishes and don’t look great on quality woods.
The change in solvent availability has not yet happened everywhere, but it is coming. The driving force behind the change is air pollution, to which VOCs contribute. So some areas of the country, particularly California and parts of the Northeast and Midwest, are restricting the sale of certain solvents.
The most affected finishing solvents are lacquer thinner and mineral spirits (paint thinner), although denatured alcohol has just made it onto the list in California. To make these solvents compliant with VOC laws, manufacturers have added a lot of acetone because this solvent is much less polluting than MEK, toluene, xylene and petroleum distillate
traditionally used. Acetone can be used because it is classified as “free” VOC.
Acetone has two characteristics, however, that you need to be aware of because it changes the way paint thinners and paint thinners work. First, acetone evaporates very quickly, so you may not have all the time you used to be. Secondly, acetone is a very strong solvent that dissolves or blisters many dried coatings (finishes and paints). So, rubbing on a coating, for example, to remove the wax, with a reformulated paint thinner can attack that coating. Read the ingredients on the can to verify that acetone is not included.
Spray guns have almost totally changed since the early 1990s in response to the desire to put less finish in the air. Traditional spray guns operate without high pressure air, which bounces much of the coating off the target and is discharged into the atmosphere.
To reduce bounce, spray guns have been developed to deliver a soft spray. At first, these guns worked just outside a turbine, which is like a reverse vacuum cleaner. In fact, older Kirby vacuum cleaners as early as the 1930s were equipped with a spray gun attachment. Slowly, spray gun manufacturers figured out how to design their spray guns to produce a soft spray with compressed air. Both the turbine and the compressed air spray guns are called “high volume, low pressure” or HVLP. Not counting airless and compressed air-airless spray guns, nearly all spray guns sold today are HVLPs because they lower costs by reducing waste and produce equally good results.
Unlike the difficulties of adapting to water-based finishes and the disappearance of some very useful solvents, the adaptation to HVLP guns is quite simple.
I have written several times, both in this magazine and online, opposing the forced removal of methylene chloride from paint strippers. Unfortunately it happened. First, under pressure from consumer groups, department stores stopped selling strippers containing methylene chloride, then the EPA issued a ruling banning the sale of methylene chloride-based strippers in the consumer market. Methylene chloride is by far the most effective solvent for removing paints and finishes.
Hence, as manufacturers continue to provide more and more durable paints and finishes, their removal will become increasingly difficult. This will result in increased damage to the wood, which may not be a problem with most modern finishes and furniture, but will reduce the value of old surfaces, especially antique furniture.
You may not have noticed this, but there are far fewer companies now providing finishing products than in the past. This happened partly due to the larger companies buying smaller ones and partly because the companies simply closed. It appears that all the paint and finish companies are consolidating into just three: Sherwin-Williams, PPG and Akzo Nobel. The result is that we have far less choice than before.
The most obvious example is the current dominance of Minwax, owned by Sherwin-Williams. This company was tiny back in the day I was making and restoring furniture. At that time I used two brands of stain that no longer exist. One was an oil based cleaning stain that closely mimicked the colors on antique furniture and the other was a “lacquer” stain that I added to the paint to change the color and get a closer match.
It was difficult to find substitutes. Adapting to change is difficult.
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