Creating a Contemporary Finish

By Bruce Johnson

When it comes to furniture, I’m a traditionalist. Give me any shade of brown and I’m happy. But I recognize that not everyone feels the same, including Alex, my office assistant, who prefers to mix traditional with contemporary. So, when she asked for help turning a piece of unfinished furniture into something more contemporary, I was up for the challenge. Want to see what we came up with?

The piece she picked for her house is this unfinished end table or plant stand, made of alder, a durable, fast-growing hardwood.

Even though it looks smooth, I have learned that we need to give any piece of unfinished furniture a light sanding with #180-grit sandpaper to remove scratches, round sharp edges, and open up the pores to accept your stain and finish.

When I asked Alex what color or colors she wanted, she was clear: a steel-gray stain on the legs and skirt, while keeping the top and this lower shelf completely natural for a sharp contrast, typical of many contemporary styles.

To make the staining easier, I suggested that she remove the shelf from the legs, which only required a screwdriver and two minutes of time.

Quick Tip:  The best way to predict how the wood will respond is to test your stains on the underside.

She selected Minwax® Water Based Wood Stain in “Slate” and applied it with a synthetic bristle brush. The combination of the open pores of the alder and the fast drying water based stain meant she only had to wait about three minutes before wiping off the excess stain.

Quick Tip:  Always wipe the excess stain off going in the direction of the grain to insure you won’t have any unsightly streaks left by your cloth.

To keep the top and the lower shelf as light as possible, Alex chose the aerosol version of Minwax® Polycrylic® Protective Finish, selecting the gloss sheen for a contemporary look.

Since her stain was water based, Alex could also use the water based Polycrylic over the legs and skirt, giving the entire piece a uniform sheen.

Quick Tip: To clean the tip, turn the can upside down and depress the nozzle until only a clear stream of propellent emerges.

A high gloss finish over two contrasting colors — neither of them brown! — and you’ve got the making of a contemporary piece of furniture, all at a fraction of the price you would pay in a furniture store!

Now that’s something I can identify with!

Until next time,

Thanks for stopping by!


PS – Be sure to check out the Minwax® Facebook page for even more tips and techniques!




About Bruce Johnson

Author-craftsman Bruce Johnson has introduced millions of do-it-yourselfers, craftspeople and antique collectors to the world of wood finishing and antique restoration. As the official spokesperson for Minwax®, the leading manufacturer of wood finishing and wood care products, Bruce motivates people to take the initiative to beautify their surroundings. Through his many books, magazine articles and columns, as well as frequent appearances on national television talk shows, Johnson is recognized as an authority in the do-it-yourself community. Appearing on PBS, HGTV, The Discovery Channel, and currently hosting “DIY Woodworking” and “Build A Log Cabin”, on the DIY cable network, Johnson has brought the illustrious craft of wood finishing to the forefront of the American home. An expert in wood refinishing, antique restoration, and home improvement, Bruce has published more than a dozen books on these topics, including Fifty Simple Ways To Save Your House, The Wood Finisher, The Weekend Refinisher, and The Official Identification and Price Guide to the Arts and Crafts Movement. For more than 20-years, he penned an antique refinishing advice column, "Knock on Wood," which ran in dozens of antique/collectibles publications. Currently, he writes a column on Arts & Crafts for Style 1900 magazine. A rare combination of craftsman and journalist, Johnson began his career as a high school English teacher, but left teaching to set up his "Knock on Wood Antique Repair & Restoration" shop. He spent the next 10 years as a full-time professional refinisher, but eventually returned to writing. Yet, Johnson says, he won't ever be without a workbench and a couple of refinishing projects down in the basement. Johnson is also the founder and director of the Arts and Crafts Conference and Antique Show held every February in Asheville, North Carolina, at the Grove Park Inn. The conference, which includes the largest Arts and Crafts antiques show, attracts more than 1500 Arts and Crafts collectors each year to its many seminars, tours, demonstrations and exhibits. Johnson is proud to have played a role in reviving interest in designers like Gustav Stickley, who founded the Arts and Crafts movement. His latest book, “Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Furniture,” was awarded the 2009 Thomas Wolfe Literary Award. These furnishings are treasured by such collectors as Steven Spielberg and Bruce Willis, among many others.

12 comments on “Creating a Contemporary Finish

  1. Jordan Page

    Hello! Jordan from funcheaporfree here, wanted to introduce myself and let you know how excited I am for you to be sharing your expertise with us all! XO

  2. Nat & Holly

    Hi there, Bruce! We are sisters that blog at My Sister’s Suitcase and we can’t wait to see you again at SNAP! We attended your class last year and loved all the new colors of stain – this gray is AWESOME! I absolutely love this project. Going to pin now!

  3. Jill Greenlaw

    What a fun project. I love having a place for phone, keys and notepad. Your work is incredible. My name is Jill Greenlaw and I work for a company by the name of Mom It Forward. I can’t wait to connect with your brand at Snap!

  4. Carissa Bonham

    I love this project. What a great look, Alex!

    I’m stopping by from SNAP. I met the Mixwax team there last year and look forward to seeing you again in April!

  5. Mindy Cone

    I love the look of the final product and love how you tested the stain on the bottom of the piece! looking forward to chatting more with you all at SNAP!

  6. Jillene@inkhappi

    Hi Bruce! I met you at SNAP last year and really enjoyed watching you “at work”. It’s evident that you love what you do and are good at it. My husband is an expert carpenter himself and I really can appreciate a good carpenter! What an awesome post to bring traditional and contemporary together. I like a two toned look and this combination turned out great. I look forward to seeing more of you at SNAP conference this year!!

    jillene @

    1. Bruce Johnson Post author

      Hi Jillene, thanks for reading! I think Alex enjoyed it. It was a fun project and a nice break from all the dark brown furniture around here! See you soon at SNAP.


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