201 Tips for Woodworkers, Window Seat Bookcase
Comments 19

Window Seat Bookcase: Taming Tear-Out

IT IS NEVER GOOD TO HEAR loud sounds while sending a nice piece of cherry through a planer. This happened a few months ago while fabricating the slats for the back panels of my window seat bookcase. With each pass through the planer, I would look at the boards being surfaced and note the grain and how I am glad I heard Matt Kenney say cherry is his favorite wood. If cherry is good enough for Matt, its  good enough for me. All I wanted to hear was the extremely loud hummmm of the planer doing it’s work. Hearing additional loud things made me cringe because I knew a problem was underway. As this particular board (see photo above) slowly exited the planer, the problem became visible. Instead of wood being cut away by the planer, some of it had been torn away. While inspecting this board I am sure a few cuss words were spoken. But as Charles Neil says, cussing is part of the creative process.

Cherry is a luscious wood with finish applied; wipe-on poly gives it an instant glow. But, as cherry’s beautiful grain changes direction, tear-out becomes possible. I guess most woods are candidates for tear-out, even when paying extra close attention to grain direction. A couple of the back panels had particularly bad divots. I didn’t want to throw out these board and start over, so a I decided to attempt a repair.

Fortunately, I have Taunton’s publication 201 Tips for Woodworkers (now out of print). There is a section devoted specifically to fixing finishing problems. Tear-out isn’t a finishing issue, but applying finish in a specific way can fix it. Follow along as I implement a tip from this magazine so as to make the somewhat nasty looking board shown above less nasty.

The recipe for the fix: cherry dust and wipe-on poly.

The recipie for the fix: cherry dust and wipe-on poly.

The tip, which was provided by Chris Minick basically says to add sawdust to a solvent based finish. Minick wrote…

I use dewaxed shellac as the binder in my sawdust putty, but you can use any common solvent-based wood finish (such as lacquer and varnish). Note that putty made from oil-based varnish takes a very long time to dry (several days if the patch is deep).

Most of the problem areas in the subject board are small, but the upper two in the photo are sizable and the upper left one is also somewhat deep.

There was a nice pile of cherry dust on my bandsaw, so that became the basis for the putty. I added wipe-on polyurethane and began to blend this mixture with a nail. The first batch was sort of stiff; clumps developed. I held my breath and applied the dust/poly clumping putty to a problem board…

Putty applied.

Putty applied.

I was not sure how long to let the putty dry since the tip stated a deep patch could take several days. After a day and a half, I got my sander out and levelled the putty and cleaned up the board. The first application was only partly successful. Ultimately, I applied four batches of putty; I tried adding more poly to the cherry dust which seemed to work better.

Cherry board filled with dust/poly putty.

Cherry board filled with dust/poly putty.

Pretty good results for putty.

Pretty good results for putty.

Overall, I am pretty pleased with the results. With the larger damage, there is no denying that there is a repair, but the cherry dust/poly putty is much more natural looking than traditional filler. The smaller areas of tear-out look great. I could have added one more application of putty, but this is good enough. I am interested in what filler you have used with good results – please let me know in the comments below.

The last two weeks have had me repairing, planing and sanding a variety of boards prior to adding satin wipe-on poly…

This bookcase build has been full of “firsts”: the first furniture project using cherry, the first project where hand planes have been used extensively; the first project with a lot of curves, etc. Now I have completed another first – using something other than home center wood putty to repair lumber.

Yesterday, at the Alabama Woodworkers Guild meeting, one of the guys was showing the group a beautiful walnut chest of drawers he recently completed. He told us about contemplating adding in-layed walnut burl to the top. Thinking how awesome that would look, one man asked why burl was not used. The reply: “I was just ready to get the chest finished – I had other projects I wanted to start.” I am starting to feel the same way with this project. Adding three coats of poly front and back of most parts is a slow process – I’ll continue to apply finish this week, then it will be back to some more glue-up.

* * * * *

Have a question or comment about this post? Leave me a comment below; but I also like email. Use my contact form to send me an email (click here).


  1. Interesting approach to repairing, I’d not heard of mixing sawdust with finish before, but I see the logic. I have a couple of tiny bits of tearout in my current project, I might try something like this.

    • Joe – you can’t avoid the look of end-grain with this repair, but to the casual observer, I think this is pretty good.

  2. I’ve done a lot of work in cherry, and I love it too, but it can be troublesome. Your repair looks good. One thing I learned is finishing with gel stain can help to control blotching and also blending with the sapwood. Is that what you used?

    • No stain, just wipe-on satin polyurethane. I can see some botching with just the poly, but it is not that noticeable.

      • After reading back over your post, I realize that was a dumb question. It sure looked like you stained it. Maybe a trick of the light. The boards looked darker than I expected them to look with just poly. Must be good quality cherry.

        • It is probably the lighting. The first photo is at my workbench with new LED overhead lights, bad for photos. The “after” photos were at my table saw with traditional fluorescent lighting. Much better for color in my opinion.

  3. Steve Stutts, member Alabama Woodworkers says

    Jeff, I was working from a slightly different perspective. I wrote an article for the guild a few months ago. I wanted to be at the meeting but I’m recovering from surgery. I am working brittle, 55 year old black walnut that has cracks and risks fall-out of knots when I plane. The wood is so knotty that I can’t cut much usable lumber to build my project. I filled cracks with a number of methods. Sawdust mixed with epoxy, epoxy colored and filled with coffee grounds. plane epoxy. So far. It is all good. I can sand it smooth and apply many coats. I like epoxy!

    • Hey Steve – so cool that you to stopped by. Hope your recovery goes well. I need to meet up with you and you can give me all the scoop on using epoxy. That sounds like it could be just the ticket. I’ll send you an email before the next meeting and see if you can make it.

  4. Hey Jeff! Nice repair job. All thru high school and college, I worked with my Dad who was a painting and decorating contractor. For some reason I was always tasked with the unpainted wood projects. I still think that I could revisit every job even after 40 years and point out every repair job I had to do. The trick is to not point it out to the customer! If 95% looks good, chances are no one will catch the repair. Even when they do it will be overlooked for all the other great work done on the piece.

    • Russ, you are so right. I don’t think anyone will notice, especially since the panel in question will be on the back. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  5. For smaller voids in cherry, I’ve had good success with Lepage’s “teak” wood filler. Mileage may vary depending on the colouration of the cherry you’re working with, but for the stuff that I get in my area, once the finish is applied, it’s a quite a good match. Another upside is that it dries very quickly. For smaller voids, you can be sanding within minutes.

  6. Jane Branch Bell says

    The cherry wood is looking beautiful! You have such an eye detail. Can’t wait to see the finished piece.

  7. Vince Granacher says

    I had built a vanity out of cherry several years back and drilled the hole for the handle on the door in the wrong corner such that when the door would be placed on the cabinet the shaker knob would be at the bottom of the door. I used yellow wood glue and lots of cherry wood dust to make a past to fill the hole. It turned out great. If I didn’t know about the mistake, it would be hard to find.

    • Vince, very interesting. I would not expect that with yellow glue. Good information. I’ll mess around with that and see how it works.

  8. They look great Jeff! I have a lot of Cherry I picked up from a guy for cheap and as you mentioned the grain is great but when it comes to planning, for me especially hand planning, tear out is a huge issue. I was of the school that you do not need to sharpen your planes to the 8000 grit school more just like 400. That has served me well until I got to this Cherry with that gorgeous grain. The problem is that the direction changes so much that it is hard to handle. So I finally broke down and started sharpening to much finer grits and noticed a very large difference as to the quality of the finish as well as a markedly reduced amount of tear out. I wonder if you used that technique with a planner if it would make a difference? Thanks, as always a great article!

    • I had trouble first getting tear out with my low angle #7 jointer. I was surprised by this. My stationary planer is better, but when it creates tear out, it is much more of a problem.

      My #7 caused very small tear out, but a few are larger. So I have more repair work when I get to the finishing stage on the legs.

      One reason I joined the Ala Woodworkers Guild was to get to a high level of sharpening. I am doing much better now.

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