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Finishing the Back of Wood

finishing the back of a mirror

Finishing the back of a large wall mirror.

Dan once told me that when he’s building something small like a run of boxes, he imagines a master craftsman coming across it years from now. He imagines that box in their hands, and how they would look it over, inspecting the joinery, the design, the matching cut of the grain. Doing this helps him keep a standard of quality even after he’s done a single operation multiple times.

As the person who finishes Dan’s work – and really it’s a lucky job, to be able to come in at the end and give life to the language of the wood – I always ask him the same question. Do I really have to finish the back? And always he answers the same.

Dovetailed cherry jewelry boxes, one finished, one unfinished.

I enjoyed it at first, making the back as beautiful as the front, imagining the surprise somebody would get when moving their dresser or desk away from the wall. But it’s been eleven years now, and I never really asked him for an explanation. I know how he feels about the way a person interacts with functional art, which is why Dan places his signature on the back. But now that he trusts me with larger pieces, I have to know. Do I really really need to put all those coats of oil  and do all that sanding on the back, the underneath, the part no one sees?

What you do to one side of the wood, you have to do to the other. It’s like dealing with siblings – you have to be fair.

Drying the back of the mirror

Laying down thin rails of wood can help the air to circulate around the back of a piece so the finish can properly dry.

Wood is a living material, affected by moisture and humidity over time. A shelf that has been finished on one side and not on the other will eventually cup and bow, becoming at war with itself and falling apart due to the uneven swelling.  So, yes, we really do have to finish the back. Not finishing the back, the underside, the part no one sees can compromise the structure of the whole piece.

It reminds me of something a Frenchman one said to me after viewing Dan’s work. He shook his head, smiled, and said, “He builds the old way – doing the hard work that no one will see.”     

Next week: See the finished mirrors on display at The Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul.

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