Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Blog: Wood Finishing for Jewelers – Just a Starter Course!

Welcome guest blogger Aaron Barr, jewelry designer and fellow reckless creator. Aaron is going to give us a crash course on finishing wood, a material I used in my last blog post and one that Aaron specializes in. I know you will enjoy his work as much as I do! Be sure to check out his website at Thank you for joining us Aaron!

Aaron Barr

I’ve been working with wood as a major component in my jewelry for a while now (wow, I think it’s seven years!) and I’d have to say that I’m still just a beginner when it comes to finishes.  There are just so many options out there!  There’s varnishes and polyurethanes, lacquers and shellacs, sealants, oils and stains...oh my!  Books and books have been written on the possibilities, but most of them focus on working with larger pieces like tables or doors rather than the small, hand-held pieces we jewelers create.  Yep, we have rather different challenges to overcome. 

 Aaron Barr

Rather than get into all the possibilities, perhaps I can just tell you a few of the challenges I’ve had and what’s worked for me?  Sound good?  Alright then, here we go…

1) One of the biggest challenges I’ve had is how to apply a finish to such small pieces as pendants and earrings.  When you look at the cans of finish, they say things like “Brush on” or “Best used in a sprayer.”  Well, there isn’t really enough room to do much brushing and I’m certainly not going to set up a spray station for an earring, so I’ve pretty much gone with the Karate Kid method – wipe on, wipe off.  (Yes, I know it’s Wax On, Wax Off, but wiping covers more finishing options!) 

Wearing disposable rubber gloves, I basically take a rag (old t-shirt usually, though sometimes a paper towel works just fine), dip it in the finish (make sure it’s stirred according to the instructions on the container) and wipe the finish on the wood.  This is easy if your wood is only on the front of your piece, like an inlay, but what if your entire piece is wood?  That’s where I’ve found creating a home-made stand helps!  

Mine is just a couple of pieces of wood I nailed together.  I drilled some holes, inserted some metal rods (from the big box store – designed to hold up insulation) and voila!  A drying rack. With wood earrings I usually 2-part epoxy in the ear-wires first, then I can put the finish on easier and hang them to dry.

2) Now, what finishes do I actually use?  Here are three of my current favorites.

Zinsser Bullseye Sealcoat is an absolute essential!  It seals any wood with a hard shellac coating.  This is great for woods the wearer might be allergic to, like some exotics, and particularly great as you can also put either oil or water based finishes on top of it.  I often do two coats of Sealcoat and follow it up with a spar varnish.

Spar varnish, like Man O’ War, gives a very hard, waterproof surface which is nice for jewelry since it is against the skin and might get worn in the rain.  Not that anyone would do that… umm…  Anyway, the biggest plus of most spar varnishes is that they are UV resistant. Many woods tend to fade in color over time (yes, I’m talking to you Redheart!) and a UV protectant helps with that.  Note: different spar varnishes have VERY different color tones to them – Man O’ War gives a strong amber hue, so I use it for certain woods and other brands for when I don’t want to change the color so much.

Just recently I found Daly’s Kitchen Wood Treatment which is made right here in my hometown of Seattle.  It’s designed to be wiped on butcher blocks and cutting boards, so I know it’s safe to have on my hands.  I don’t even wear gloves!  Following the wiping instructions, it gives a warmth to the wood while keeping it still feeling like wood.  As opposed to Sealcoat and spar varnish, there’s no coating here as the product just sinks right in. Daly’s keeps the natural feel when it’s appropriate.  I definitely sand the wood with much finer grit sandpaper when using Daly’s (as high as 800 grit sometimes).  Also, (and yes, I’ve learned this the hard way) since Daly’s is sort of like a wax, don’t use it on pieces with tiny grooves or designs – it really needs to be rubbed in, which isn’t easy in those details.  Go with a liquid finish instead.

3) Finally, I do want to say that every type of wood reacts differently to each finish, so I HIGHLY recommend testing whichever finish you choose before applying it to your masterpiece!  Here are some test blocks of black walnut and lacewood.  See how the different finishes give different hues on each?

Some make the wood ‘pop’ and some just look horrid, so it’s definitely worth testing first.  I’ve started keeping a list of what works best for me with each type of wood!

It definitely takes some experimenting, but wood is truly a spectacular medium and I hope you try it.  With so many natural colors and patterns, I’m sure you’ll find a piece to inspire you!  If you have any questions, feel free to come by or my Facebook page at  Enjoy!


Note from Melissa: Join me in thanking Aaron! Drop him a note in the comments by March 19th and I'll enter your name in a drawing for one lucky winner to receive a small priority mail box of various woods, including some exotic scraps...perfect for jewelry making.


  1. My husband does wood working so you would think I would have considered jewelry with wood before, Aaron's pieces are beautiful. New furniture is about to be made so thinking I may have to raid some of the small wood scraps from my husband and maybe pull out my wood veneers as well. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  3. What a creative way to use scrap pieces of wood. I am really into craft but never thought about using wood for jewelry. The designs you show here are amazing. Do you use any patterns for these cuts?

    Considering to try some and be a pro in time for holiday season gift giving.

  4. I'm a jewelry fabrication student at The Glassell School of Art here in Houston. Our theme this semester is wood. I'm really enjoying working with and incoraporating this medium with my metal work. Thank you so much for the finishing tips would love to hear more tios and tricks.

  5. I'm a jewelry fabrication student at The Glassell School of Art here in Houston. Our theme this semester is wood. I'm really enjoying working with and incoraporating this medium with my metal work. Thank you so much for the finishing tips would love to hear more tios and tricks.

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