- Use the Layout Sheet
Sounds simple, but too often overlooked. Each kit has a parts layout
sheet in the instructions. Lay it flat on your workspace and put
each part right on the sheet as you sort them. Have four drawer-bottom
pieces? Make a stack and count them out. Seem silly? Do it anyway.
This step will accomplish two important things: first, you know if
you are missing something. Yes, even sealed kits could have parts
missing. Best to know before you start. Second, it helps you to get
the right parts as you are building. Laying them out helps to identify
them, which is no small chore with a chest-on-chest or a highboy!
- Glue vs. Stain: An Epic Battle
The instructions say to assemble your kits, then stain. That is
becaue glue does not stick well to oily stain, nor does the glue
sink into the pores well when stain is already in there.
However, you will soon find out that stain won't sink into glue,
either. The best thing would be to never get glue anywhere but inside
the joint you are gluing, but there is always some that squeezes out
or gets into the wrong spot. Even is you wipe it off right away it
has still sunk in to some degree.
The right answer is tinted glue. If the glue is a near match for your
stain then you can sand it down and blend it in when it is time to
apply the finish. So, where do you get colored glue? HoM used to sell
it, but you really can't find it anymore. Don't despair. See the next
tip to learn how to make your own!
- Tint Your Glue
You will likely use either a white glue or a wood glue for assembly
of your kits. Wood glue is strong, but unforgiving. White glue is
usually strong enough and might be a bit more flexible if a slight
mistake requires partial disassembly. That said, I use wood glue
because of its enduring strength and stronger initial tack.
First decide what color and shade of stain you will be using on your
finished piece. Most Colonial era furniture had fairly dark stain,
but walnut, cherry, and maple each have their own characteristic hue
that is better matched to different glue colors. You may wish to put
some stain on a piece of scrap wood or the underside part of a drawer
to use for matching.
In a small container, like a paint cup or cap of a soda bottle, put
a thimble-full of glue. Then add acryllic paint one drop at a time,
stirring between each drop and checking the color against your sample,
until you have a near match. For paint, I like the little bottles
of Americana brand from the craft store (Michael's or A.C.Moore) and
find that Burnt Umber is the color I use most often. I usually go a
shade darker with the glue color than the stain. Dark joints give
the furniture an antiqued look.
Once you have created your mixture it will only last an hour or less.
Once it starts to thicken it is time to mix a new batch. Be careful
to keep from using too much, just as you would with untinted glue,
and wipe off any excess.
- Prefit Everything
Another obvious one, but too often forgotten. Before you apply any
glue, make sure that you pieces fit together well and figure out if
you will need to use clamps or a squaring jig to hold the joint
while it dries. Nothing kills your enjoyment so fast as things that
don't fit right, especially when you have glue drying in a joint!
In general, HoM kits fit very well right out of the box, but I like
to lightly sand all of the pieces plus the butt ends and test fit
everything so that i know where my challenges lie before I meet them.
- Align It and Clamp It
Alignment is critical if you want your pieces to look their best,
and moreso if moving parts are to work properly. Right angles must
be square or things will look funny, or wobble of jam up. Laying
your pieces against a straight edge or a fixed right angle will help
you to get them properly squared. Here are a few ideas for keeping
things squared up:
1. Buy a little square... it is not cheating. Full-sized cabinet
makers and furniture designers use them and so should you. I get mine
out of the Micro-Mark
is my favorite.
2. Buy or make a gluing jig... the Micro-Mark company mentioned above
has a really lovely mini magnetic jig setup, but it is pricey (about
30 bucks.) I made a larger copy of it using a metal door skin and some
magnets, but before I did that I had a great make-shift alternative:
Legos®! I swiped some Lego bricks from my son and made an L shape
about six inches by four inches, and two bricks high/thick. I also
made a one inch by one inch jig for inside squaring. Check out my
3. Leave it alone until it dries... once you have glued, aligned and
squared your joint, don't touch it until the glue dries completely.
Patience is a virtue!
4. When things need to fit tightly or if the top of your dresser is
warped and needs extra convincing to lie flat, mini clamps are a
real godsend. I have a small
. There are many choices when it comes to clamps. I've
gotten some at Sears, some at Wal-Mart and some from X-Acto. Keep your
eyes open for bargains because getting them retail can be costly.
- Sanding, and Sanding Again
HoM kits come with a pretty smooth surface on them, but there are
three types of sanding that I usually do. First, the butt ends need
a careful sanding with a 220 grit paper to help smooth them out (if
they will show whien finished), then I will usually give them a light
coat of polyeurethane to keep them from going super dark when
stained. If the butt end (ugly, spongey end cuts) is to be glued, as
with drawer sides, don't sand. The open fibers hold glue better.
The second place that usually needs sanding are any grooves that have
been cut for other pieces to fit into, like on chests of drawers. I
will normally check the fit and then run a small, square file or a
folded piece of 220 grit sandpaper down through there so that it is
clean and ready for glue. If the fit is real tight then a little bit
more sanding may be needed. Snug is good, but tight makes it hard
to position things correctly.
Finally, after the piece is assembled I use 320 or 400 grit to prepare
all of the surfaces that will show when the piece is complete. The
fine grit prepares the surface for stain and gets rid of any blemishes
that have happened during storage or assembly. I also do some work
between coats of stain and poly, but we can cover that in the tip on
A word of caution about edge detail: Don't do much sanding at the
edges or square corners. The wood is quite soft and the edges will
round of very easily. That can be good if you are intending to make
a piece look worn, but wear patterns need to be make in places that
make sense. We'll cover that technique in the advanced tips on wear
- Stains and Staining
Okay, here comes my opinion, which you are welcome to ignore... I
really like Minwax stains. And their poly. And their pre-stain. Oh,
and their stain pens! Sorry to gush or sound like a commercial, but
there you have it. I buy a pint of whatever and it lasts for ages. I
can get it about anywhere and the prices are reasonable. The pens
are a little pricey, but they are amazing little tools (and they are
refillable, if you are a die hard.)
Step one for staining is (oddly enough) not staining, but pre-staining.
Pre-stain is a Minwax product that you apply to the wood a few minutes
before the stain. It helps to even out the finish and gives you more
time to work on the details.
If you are going for period authenticity then your choice of stain
should match your piece. Dark stains like walnut or mahogany for
Queen Anne furniture, cherry or pecan or a dark stain for Chippendale,
and Early American for Hepplewhite. I find the pens most useful for
drawer fronts and edges where pooling of stain could be a problem.
Having both the can and the pen version of my favorite stain shades
is a real time saver.
Plan to do a few coats of stain, working to get the right shade and
evenness of finish. Between coats it is helpful to run a bit of 0000
steel wool over the surfaces to smooth them out. Staining can bring
up little fibers in the wood that need to be worked off. A smooth
surface is especially important when you are preparing for the gloss
coat(s) to come.
Follow the directions on the can for mixing, storage, etc. As for
the actual application of the stain, there are different schools of
thought. Some like to use a rag or a Q-tip to apply the stain,
thereby applying and removing the excess in one step. You soak a
corner of a cotton rag with a little stain and rub it in, sweeping
away any excess as you go.
Some prefer doing the application with a brush then removing the
excess with a rag or paper towel. This technique delivers more stain
and usually requires less coats. I prefer it for the first coat since
it is easier to soak stain down into imperfections this way. Then I
do subsequent coats with a Q-tip or stain pen so that I can even out
There is a spray technique, too, which I have never used. You need
several light coats with thinned varnish. Leaves no brush marks, so
it gives excellent shine, but you need the compressor and air brush,
plus a vented spray hood and temps of 75 degrees or higher. However,
it was apparently the method used on the preconstructed furniture
sold by Xacto in the early 1980's.
- Poly Who? Shiney Finishes
Shiney finishes on Colonial furniture were achieved with oils or
varnishes of various kinds. Combined with certain techniques, such
as "French finish" shellac, varnishes can produce a very
glossy finish and excellent protection for wood. Oils, such as Tung,
offer good protection and are easy to apply, but have a low sheen.
It is up to you to decide, based on what use a piece of furture will
be put to, to decide how glossy your finish should be. Perhaps a fine
dining table should have a French finish, a wardrobe a simple varnish,
and a tavern table a tung oil finish.
Again, I recommend Minwax poly. It comes in several varieties and
level of gloss. Use a high gloss to simulate a French finish and a
semi-gloss for standard varnish. Tung oil takes a long while to dry
and takes a number of coats to do correctly. You may prefer a satin
poly to simulate the oil finishes.
Surface prep is the key to a good finish. Make sure to smooth out
the horizontal surfaces especially well. I use fine steel wool (000
or 0000) followed by a moist rag to prep before the first coat and
between the first and second coats. I run my finger over the surface
to find rough spots and make sure they are removed before the next
coat goes on. If you are using oil, wiping with a rag between coats
is usually good enough.
The first coat of finish is going to sink into the wood, which is
what you want, so always do at least two coats. Follow the instructions
on the can for temperture and drying times and let one coat dry hard
before using the steel wool.