Shop Tips & Tricks #27: Small paint jobs and touch-up painting.

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Blog entry by GnarlyErik posted 11-12-2019 01:27 AM 756 reads 0 times favorited 2 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 26: Naturally Grown Wooden Crooks and Knees Part 27 of Shop Tips & Tricks series Part 28: Pencil Nub Therapy »

Sometimes I use only small amounts of paints and varnishes out of a fresh can. I use only oil-based finishing materials since I can get a much better finish on wood with those. Plus, as an ancient old codger, almost all of my finishing experience has been with oil-based materials, so there’s that. I feel like a vanishing breed since good oil-based paints are getting harder to find.

A common problem however, is once you open a can of paint and use only part of it, the remainder skims over in the can. And, the longer the remainder is undisturbed, the harder the skin gets. That is a function of the relationship between the surface of the remaining paint, and the volume of air in the can.

I used to take a knife or chisel and cut around the edges of the skin, and lift it out of the can. Not only is that very messy, but it takes good paint with it, and the remaining paint begins to skim over again as soon as you put the lid back on the can. And if you’re like me and commonly use only a few ounces or so of paint or varnish at the time, you are constantly removing skins each time you reopen the can, and the more you use out of the can, the more the air volume left and the worse it gets!

I’ve tried just about everything, including leaving a thin film of paint thinner on top of the paint — which is not only hard to do, but doesn’t work well since the thinner is the first thing to evaporate. However, over time I’ve found a way to mostly alleviate the problem.

I beg, borrow or steal pint glass containers with tight-fitting lids from my wife. Something tall and narrow like a jam jar works best. Pour the paint through a fine mesh strainer and fill the jar one-half to three-quarters full of paint and tightly seal the can back up. Incidentally, I DIP the paint out of the larger can with a paper cup and am very careful not to get paint into the grooves where the lid goes. I treat the paint in the jam jar just as I would any paint or varnish I intend to use right away, i.e, thinner as required, and a bit of Penetrol for good flowing characteristics. (I LOVE Penetrol!).

Keep a supply of small paper and plastic cups for use with small quantities of paint. Pouring from the jar into one of those, I now have just the right amount of paint for whatever project I need to paint or varnish. I make sure there is no paint around the lip of the jam jar and seal it tightly back up with the remaining paint. Of course the paint in the jar will skim over too, but here’s the deal: The volume or air in the top of the jar is only about one-fiftieth of what might be in the top of a larger can, so your loss each time you use out of the jar will be far less than using from the can. The paint in the can will skim over too, but since you are not reopening each time you need a small amount of paint, you will have only a single much smaller skin to deal with the next time you need paint from the smaller jar.

I do not even bother to remove the skims from the small jar, but just use a chisel or knife to cut a small vee-notch through the skim at the edge of the jar, and simply leave the old skins in place.(I keep a knife on my paint bench for just that purpose). Pour a bit out through the notch to use, straining it if you need to, and ipso-presto, away you go! It’s very handy and a good time saver too.

You may need to add a small bit of thinner (I usually don’t), or a drying agent, but generally you’re ready to go right out of the jar.

it’s good to leave at least one skim over the remaining paint in the jar to cut down on air getting to the paint remaining in the jar. It’s fine to leave two or three if you make your new vee-notch in the same location as the earlier ones.

On the subject of small paint or varnish jobs and touchups, it is nice to have brushes of higher quality than the foam type, although those have their uses. But nice brushes can get expensive so you don’t want to throw them away after every little job, and it can be a hassle to clean and store them too. I have a nifty solution for that.

The quality of the finish provided by artist brushes and especially Chinese calligraphy brushes is very good. You can order several for just a few bucks from eBay, and paint or varnish just flows like magic off them if it’s thinned and treated properly.

Once you have your brush(s), get a four to six ounce pill bottle with a plastic cap. Punch or drill a hole in the cap that you can slip the handle of the brush through, but size the hole so there’s enough friction to hold the brush suspended. Once the brush has been cleaned, push it through the hole in the cap handle first, and suspend it in about 3/4” of mineral spirits. Make sure the brush tip is a little clear of the bottom of the bottle. It will keep for weeks and months like this since the mineral spirits does not evaporate. Then after use, you can use the original mineral spirits to clean the brush, then squeeze it out gently on a paper towel, then pour in a little more mineral spirits for a 2nd rinse, squeeze it out again and pour in another 3/4” of thinner to leave it in for its hiatus until the next job.

You will save on mineral spirits too. You won’t use more than about 2-1/2 ounces to get your brush clean.

A word about today’s so-called ‘environmentally friendly paint thinner’: It may be environmentally friendly, but it definitely IS NOT a good paint thinner. In my experience, mineral spirits or turpentine are the only things which work well for oil-based paints, PERIOD.

-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

2 comments so far

View lightweightladylefty's profile


3630 posts in 4769 days

#1 posted 11-12-2019 03:31 AM


I’ve been doing similar for years, but I’ve pretty much alleviated the skinning over problem. I use a pretty good volume of varnish over a year’s time. I purchase quarts when they’re cheaper than gallons and use them up quickly enough to (usually) never have them skin over. I clean out the quart cans and save them for the gallon that doesn’t get used quickly enough. As soon as I use an inch or two from the gallon can, I divide it into the quarts. As long as I fill them full, they last indefinitely. If I’m not using a lot of varnish, I continually move it into smaller jars with little or no space for air. I’ve cut down my waste to almost nothing. I’ve even taken advantage of sales on 2.5 gallon cans of varnish (when their cost is about that of a gallon) and divided it up in the same way.

When cleaning brushes, I squeeze out all excess varnish with a piece of plastic (small recycled plastic bag or cut up bag) and place the brush into a container with a hole that just fits the handle drilled in the lid with enough mineral spirits to immerse and suspend the brush. I frequently use inexpensive foam brushes but still recycle them a few times.

It’s amazing how frugal we can be with a little ingenuity!


-- “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Benjamin Franklin -- Jesus is the ONLY reason for ANY season.

View GnarlyErik's profile


344 posts in 3191 days

#2 posted 11-12-2019 06:02 AM


Thank you for your comment.

Sounds & looks like you use way more paint and varnish than me, I sometimes build furniture too, but most of my projects lately have been pretty small, so I don”t use a lot of paint or varnish – and then only in small amounts of an ounce or so, which is why I fight the skinning. I always have though since I hate to throw away marine varnish which costs me $40 to $50 a quart. But you have a smart approach – keep pouring it into smaller and smaller containers. it’s the volume of air which causes the skinning. I’ll keep that in mind!



-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

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