Dry Paint

December 22, 2013

rocking-horseSome years back I learned the chemistry of drying — paints and oils and sweat — and knowing that stuff matters plenty if you’re engineering or inventing or experimenting, but it don’t mean a whit when you’re joining and polishing maple and walnut and cherry and holly and good old fashioned oak into a little boy’s first rocking horse wrapped up and tucked under the Christmas tree. There’s an art to letting things dry, turns out. And it’s the same craft that’ll build you a good rocking horse that’ll make you a good essayist and probably a decent dad too — at least one who hears his kids speaking full sentences no matter how long it takes them to spill their toddling wants and wisdom. Any carpenter will tell you: takes a good long tick on the clock to work tables and chairs to a fine finish. Any father will tell you the same: dadding’s not a hurrying man’s game.

There’s as many ways to finish and polish wood as there are folks working in the medium, and every craftsman’s got his own technique, peculiar and sacred and the only way to conduct himself. Don’t go telling him otherwise. All else is something between ill-mannered and plain old wrong.

purple.bird.2I’ve had plenty a joiner tell me I’m nuts for using any finer a grit than 220 per square inch on maple or walnut. They say it makes no difference and finishes can’t penetrate if you apply them to too smooth a surface. Well, that’s not true of urethanes since they’re non-penetrating anyway. And I can tell you it’s not true of oils either — full tung oil even — because I’ve taken some time and figured out otherwise.

It takes patience, not just science. I always wipe on finishes to a well-prepped surface. Sand the next finest grit you’ve got, wipe with a tack cloth then with a t-shirt sopped in mineral spirits. After about 600 grit, that step right there is spectacular because you start to see the grain texture pop. You start to see where it’ll be in a few days, after you work down to 12,000 microfiber.

Anyway, let the spirits dry, watch the texture fade down to wood again, and wipe on a thin layer of oil. I always used old t-shirts for everything. You’ll see dimensions start popping in the wood, the birds eyes of the best maple rising above the surface, hovering like they’ve separated off into their own new ether. As the spirits dry, it’ll fade back, but not as far this time. You watch it, study the changes. Look away then back, because watched paint dries no faster than watched pots boil. This is patience. Something you cultivate.

Powder dry your finger and run it down the wood and when it doesn’t rise up oily — takes a while to develop this sense you realise — then start the process again with the finer grit. Just keep working at it. Don’t give in to hurrying because it simply takes time and a keen eye.

Learning to watch paint dry is learning to see what difference it makes.


I guess what I’m saying is that a father is a sort of craftsman in his own right. He’s got techniques uniquely his own and if you tell him he’s doing wrong, he’ll just point to his results and give you a gentle correction: “You see, that’s what I’m doing.”

Dadding’s got its own aesthetic. So does writing. So does strumming a guitar and banging a drum. The pitch of your hat and the shine of your shoes — it’s all style. And that’s something you live more than learn. You can learn the chemistry of dessication and the ins and outs and theories of it all. But if you want to live, you’ve got to slow down, breathe easy, and take a little time to watch the paint dry.

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Larry Bernstein
December 24, 2013 @ 6:01 PM

I like the analogy. Who knew you could get so much out of watching paint dry?

    December 25, 2013 @ 5:04 AM

    Thank you Larry. I wasn’t sure there was all that much in it until I started writing it. Just a hunch that there was something worth exploring and I’m glad I did.

December 31, 2013 @ 8:37 PM

I like the idea of “a father being his own craftsman.” So long as that paint drying has texture that pops, then you’re doing it right.

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