Finish before or after assembly?

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Forum topic by Babieca posted 04-14-2014 01:46 AM 1735 views 0 times favorited 13 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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178 posts in 1921 days

04-14-2014 01:46 AM

Topic tags/keywords: finishing mortise and tenon oak shaker

I’m working on a shaker inspired coffee table (and end tables) and am a little stumped about how to proceed.

I plan to finish it with a light stain and several coats of wipe on poly. I’m not sure if it would be better to glue it up and then stain and poly the whole thing or to do the individual pieces and then put it together with he finish on it.

If I do the finish before putting it together, what is the best way to protect the mortises and tenons? Just masking tape? Do I need to mask the shoulders and the area around the mortise?

I’m a little worried that if I finish after it’s glued up, I’ll have a hard time getting in the nooks and crannies.

It’s red oak from the big blue box.

13 replies so far

View guitchess's profile


85 posts in 4126 days

#1 posted 04-14-2014 02:43 AM

As for me, I vote for assembly then finish. I can definitely see that there would be benefits to finish first, especially since there always seems to be a nook or a cranny that I find unsatisfactory. However, I don’t like how joints look when finished first. They have a separate, knock down furniture, look to them. It is also very easy to get color variations that would be easily noticed on a complete piece.

Different strokes for different folks though.

If you decide to prefinish, yes the shoulders should be masked as well, at least partially.

Arguably, the most efficient approach would be a hybrid method. Finish the top as one unit, and the legs/skirts as one unit. This would be the best of both worlds

View Ted's profile


2875 posts in 2628 days

#2 posted 04-14-2014 03:18 AM

I prefer to assemble first because it can stand on it’s feet. Finishing the individual pieces means having to prop everything while it’s drying.

-- You can collect dust or you can make dust. I choose to make it.

View Finisherman's profile


227 posts in 2267 days

#3 posted 04-14-2014 03:22 AM

As far as possible, I’d suggest that you pre-finish your work, especially if you’re going to apply a stain. In that way, you won’t have to worry as much about glue spots etc. Pre-finishing also makes it easier to apply your finish to all of the surfaces which helps prevent warping. Just be sure to mask off the surfaces which will have glue applied to them. This will keep the finish from interfering with the glue’s ability to bond. You can use green painter’s tape to mask off the joints.

View Brianthesawdustmaker's profile


31 posts in 1925 days

#4 posted 04-14-2014 03:23 AM

I think there are benefits to both ways, but I have come to find finishing before final construction is my preference. I typically use brush-on polyurethane and do several coats of it and by finishing before construction it eliminates runs in the poly. I’m not sure if this will be an issue with wipe on poly as I have never used this method. Another benefit is that once poly is applied, any excess glue that squeezes out of your mortises will be easy to simply wipe off.

When I am finishing (pre construction), I don’t do anything special with my tenons except to not stain them. If I drip any poly on them, I just take a chisel and clean it off, making sure raw wood is exposed so glue can effectively do its thing.

Best of luck to you!

-- Brian, Omaha, NE... So many projects, so little time!

View TheDane's profile


5653 posts in 4080 days

#5 posted 04-14-2014 03:28 AM

I pre-finish to the greatest degree possible, protecting the surfaces to be glued with painters tape. There are a number of ways I use to hold the pieces and parts when finishing … my go-to method is Painter’s Pyramids on a lazy-susan-type turntable.

-- Gerry -- "I don't plan to ever really grow up ... I'm just going to learn how to act in public!"

View waho6o9's profile


8670 posts in 2994 days

#6 posted 04-14-2014 03:35 AM

+1 for pre-finish before assembly.

View a1Jim's profile


117652 posts in 3994 days

#7 posted 04-14-2014 03:37 AM

I agree with prefinishing where you can ,in things like boxes and cabinets I at least prefinish the inside with the exception of areas that need to be glued .

View TheWoodenOyster's profile


1326 posts in 2352 days

#8 posted 04-14-2014 04:53 AM

+1 on the prefinishing. I can never get finishes applied to the same high quality if I finish them after assembly. I think you might be able to with a spray finish or a rub on finish, but if you are staining and doing poly, prefinish is the way to go. Masking tape will work just fine. I am doing that exact thing right now on a dining table.

-- The Wood Is Your Oyster

View Monte Pittman's profile

Monte Pittman

30375 posts in 2755 days

#9 posted 04-14-2014 10:57 AM

For me, stain before assembly, but finish after assembly.

-- Nature created it, I just assemble it.

View IndianJoe's profile


425 posts in 2667 days

#10 posted 04-14-2014 02:00 PM

if you are staining be for make shear your stain is mixed good so all pieces get the same color and the same set time I have pieces not the same shad because I did not keep mixing the stain or I let one piece sat longer just keep a eye on what you are doing and it will be fine to stain be for .
Take care my friend Nimkee
Ps. I like the look of the wipe on to me it give it lets the wood show all it has brush on can give it to thick a look at times to me and it can take a way what the wood got to show .

-- Nimkee** Joe

View Babieca's profile


178 posts in 1921 days

#11 posted 04-14-2014 02:12 PM

Thanks for the input everyone.

I think I’m going to do the stain and finishing disassembled. Now I just need to make sure I mask everything well.

Also, I think I’m going to just drive some drywall screws through some scrap pine for cheap painter’s points unless there is another great idea I’m missing.

View Ted's profile


2875 posts in 2628 days

#12 posted 04-14-2014 02:31 PM

I never realized prefinishing was so popular. I have to admit part of my reason for finishing the completed piece is that I’m anxious to put everything together. But for me, finishing the completed piece generally doesn’t pose any problems.

There are exceptions, such as doors because of hinges, or parts that are to be stained different colors.

The screws through scraps in lieu of painters points works very well. I have a dozen or so 2” x 2” x 3/8” plywood chips with 1” screws through them that I made a long time ago, which I keep in a coffee can. I made them before I heard of painters points.

-- You can collect dust or you can make dust. I choose to make it.

View Babieca's profile


178 posts in 1921 days

#13 posted 04-22-2014 12:14 AM

Thanks for all of the suggestions. You can see the finished (for now) project here:

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