News and Information for Moving Claims Adjusters
Polyester Finishes as seem for Moving Claim Damages
by J. Timothy Wilson
Originally seen on European imports and recently more frequently from most anywhere while they look shinny they are nearly impossible to repair. A reference discussion.
A Neophyte's Perspective
(written mid 1990s)
<see March 2005 update at end>
In the last four months I have run into four high valued moving claim items that involved damaged polyester finishes. By now I feel like a trend is being established. Some six years ago I had a horrible experience with what I now know to have been a polyester finish. I haven't run into it since until recently.
I feel like a neophyte trying to get ahead of the learning curve. I feel that if I can't master how to repair polyester finishes, the moving companies will have to pay out some big bucks in settlements! I know I should know more.
I have turned to my regular suppliers, experts, and consultants on finishing questions for guidance. I have received more non-answers than clear answers. It all seems too vague.
Six years ago I agreed to strip and refinish a set of 6 desks and credenzas for a regular client. They were made of oak veneer with a clear finish. We stripped them by all of the normal means. Nothing worked. Eventually we were advised to use a dangerous airplane stripper, which also did not work. The stripper did nothing more than etch the finish. The finish simply was not even softened.
We had ruined the furniture and had to make arrangements to settle the situation. Luckily the client was understanding and did not press the loss. They accepted we had tried our best. We concluded we were not experienced enough.
THE DINING TABLE: A moving claimant had a new $10,000 dining room table with a faux marble finish under a thick high gloss coat. It matched still other high-deco style furniture. The packing crew had used it as a packing table against the claimant's specific repeated requests not to do so. The top had wide spread abrasions and cuts into the pristine clear gloss finish.
It did not test as lacquer or varnish base. A spot test of stripper on the underside had no impact. We agreed with the claimant's understanding that it had to be polyester, without knowing all that it meant.
We agreed to hand scuff the table's top and leaves attempting to cut below the scratches. The risk was scuffing below the clear coat into the faux marble. After the scuffing we power polished the top surfaces back up to their high gloss coat. We were lucky because whatever minor mars still existed were hard to see due to the faux marble.
A table was saved but the risks were very high. We knew we had more to learn.
THE SPEAKER CABINET: A client brought us a $2000 mahogany stereo speaker cabinet damaged in shipment. The model was no longer made, had a matching twin, and matched a total custom audio system. The design included 1/2" radius edges and corners. All four top corners were compressed with bad finish flaking. The high gloss finish was thick and at the damage edges appeared to be layered and fibrous, since the edges had fiber strings protruding and the edges could be lifted with a pocket knife.
Again, it did not test as lacquer or varnish base. The manufacturer would not divulge their "secret" finish process.
One of our mail-order finish repair sources suggested it might be polyester finish. He suggested that the damaged areas be scooped out by scuffing and that a clear lacquer burn-in be accomplished. We knew again that we had something to learn.
Trying his procedure we performed the clean up of the area, applied color to the raw wood below, and then a clear burn-in on the triple-radius corners. The result was that the tapered edge areas looked really bad. We reversed the process.
We then cut straight down around the damaged areas causing a sharp edged cavity. The sharp edges were slightly radiused by careful scuffing.
The first corner's result did include some small pin sized white spots floating inside the burn-in.
We then attempted the other corners being extra careful to remove any old finish dust. The result was perfect!
The speaker was saved and the stereo set was saved. The claimant was satisfied.
The Current Situation:
THE PIANO: A very important corporate move claimant had a $15,000 Baldwin Classic Grand mahogany piano. It had apparently been moved without a piano board being used. It came into the home on a 4-wheel dolly and blankets. Having trouble getting it over the threshold, the crew forced it forward and it slipped off the dolly. You might imagine the damage.
All along the long flat side bottom edge the finish was compressed with hairline cracks about 1/2" wide. Wide spread gouges existed on both ends. Of most concern was a top flat area, above the left side of the keyboard, which had distinct cracks deep through the finish much like an ice cube might look when it cracks.
We concluded that we were looking at polyester.
Our inquiries had repeatedly advised that a polyester finish could not be refinished by anyone other than a specialized shop equipped to apply such a finish. The reason was that it was not removable by normal means and required specialized equipment to apply. We did not fully understand.
We were even advised it was not repairable, but we had already successfully repaired both the dining room table and the speaker cabinet, both of which we are convinced were with polyester finish.
Both our third-party consultant piano expert and piano finish repair expert said that they knew of no one in our greater metro area that would refinish a polyester finish.
They also said that they knew of no one who would work on repairing such wide spread damage to the finish.
Their conclusion was that if the piano had polyester, and since it had such wide spread damage, that the moving company would have no choice but to replace the piano and salvage the damaged one for absolute minimal value due to its condition.
We were not satisfied.
THE BALDWIN CONNECTION: We decided to pursue the Baldwin Piano Company and eventually talked with their technical support experts. By having the serial number from the instrument it was determined that the instrument was not finished with polyester finish as suspected, but with lacquer.
We now knew we had a piano with a non-polyester finish that was all lacquer and that the finish was repairable or refinishable!
What about that ice-crazed finish? Our conclusion was that the damage was caused by a side pressure on the narrow top surface involved and looked like it did because of the high number of coats of lacquer.
We concluded it was repairable by normal lacquer means.
THE SCHIMMEL BOOKLET: We asked our local piano experts if they had any written guidance on piano finish repair, still hoping to learn more on polyester. We were provided a booklet published by Schimmel Piano of Germany in 1989.
It was a gold mine of information.
The highlights are included at the end of this article.
PIANO CONCLUSION: In the end, by reading the Schimmel booklet and talking with THE Baldwin Piano folks, we factually determined that the Baldwin piano had a lacquer finish that could be repaired successfully using techniques with which we are very familiar. It was not polyester. The piano did not require total refinishing
The Next Claim:
A CUSTOM DINING TABLE: The very next moving claim for a national company was a hi-value shipment of a single custom-made unique dining room table valued at $25,000. It was for a major client of the moving company.
When we saw the table we now knew what we had on our hands. We entered into the discussions with some degree of expertise. We were moving beyond being a neophyte.
The ten-foot sycamore veneer table had a high gloss clear coat polyester finish. The four legs were art deco high gloss black polyester.
One of the legs had been jammed hard into something causing several areas of damage. Each area was through the finish to the sub-surface with finish flaking and lifting. The finish fibers existed. Some wood compression existed.
We are now comfortable that we can successfully perform the wood and finish repairs to the polyester finish involved.
What a Coincidence!:
That very day after completing the above moving claim inspection and writing the report for the adjuster, I chose to take a private moment and scan my new July/August issue of Professional Refinishing that had an article entitled "Smooth as Glass, Tough as Nails" by Gregory Johnson. Guess what he was writing about? Polyester finishes.
The editor starts with a statement: "Imagine this: You accept a refinishing job thinking you're dealing with polyurethane or catalyzed lacquer, and you find instead that you're up against a layer of polyester so tough that your ordinary stripping techniques are worthless. This can be the worst of all possible worlds, says one long-time finisher and refinisher, unless you know what it takes to work with these 'indestructible' finishes.
The highlights of the article, like the Schimmel booklet, follow for closer review.
The Schimmel Booklet: Here is what the booklet told us.
Kinds of Finish: Different finishes get there by different coats.
A high gloss piano instrument is finished with polyester finish for all coats, with the final coat power buffed. Polyester requires special repair techniques.
An eggshell finish starts with polyester coats that are top coated with sprayed polyurethane. The top layers are repairable to the degree that the polyurethane allows.
A filled satin finish starts with paste filling of the grain, receives polyester base coats, and is then sprayed with nitrocellulose lacquer. The top layers are repairable by normal lacquer repair techniques.
A open pore semi-filled satin finish starts with a basic paste filling, has a base coat of polyurethane, and is then sprayed with nitrocellulose lacquer. It is repairable by normal lacquer repair techniques to the extent that the damage does not go into the polyurethane coats.
This tells us polyester might be used for the sealer coat, build coats, or all coats. It can be concealed under more common finishes like varnish or lacquer top coats, and yet it impacts dramatically what repairs can or can not be accomplished.
High Gloss Polyester Lacquer Finishes: They use it for their high gloss finish by buffing coats of polyester to the high gloss result.
This type of finish was chosen for its outstanding properties in regard to stability and buffability.
With polyester the hardening takes places by means of a chemical reaction rather than the evaporation of a solvent.
The pores of the wood are completely sealed, and so there is much less sinking into the wood over the years than with traditional shellac or high-gloss nitrocellulose finishes. This is not to say, however, that this never occurs at all with polyester; with high-gloss finishes, the slightest change is visible.
Use and Care of high-gloss finishes: Dust is best removed with a feather duster, an anti-static cloth or a slightly damped chamois or soft cloth. The damped cloth should have the water's surface tension lowered by the addition of a few drops of any conventional dishwashing detergent. The more aggressive a polyester finish is rubbed when being cleaned, the more static-electricity buildup in the finish, and hence the more it will attract new dust.
Effect of extremely low temperatures on polyester finishes: At temperatures below 23 degrees the polyester loses a portion of its elasticity, i.e. it becomes brittle and cracks can form, particularly if bumped or jarred.
The colder the temperature or the longer exposed or the more sudden the temperature change, the more likelihood of cracks.
Transporting such an item outside in temperatures below 14 degrees is an extremely risky venture.
Damage to the Core Wood: Any assessment involves determination of the possibility of polyester finish coats at any level, the possible kinds of top-coats, and whether the damage is in the surface coats, through all of the coats, into the wood below, or causing structural damage.
Level of Repairs: Any wood repairs should use glue suitable for wood that dries completely.
Any stain damage must be repaired realizing prior sun damage to the area and anticipating the impacts of the finish repairs. The slightest deviation in color will be more visible under a high gloss finish repair. Realize that a high gloss finish brings out the grain of a stained wood surface to a marked degree. Hence the color matching of the re-stained spot with the surrounding area should be made with the stain still wet.
The area must be absolutely dry before any top clear coat repairs.
Water or alcohol base wood stains can be used. Avoid using any stains containing sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride) as they react chemically with polyester.
Preparing the damaged spot for the topcoat: The rework of the damage area should cause no larger an area of damage to the topcoat than absolutely necessary.
Small dents: small depressions causing no damage to the top finish or color or wood below. Sand dent with 240-grit avoiding sanding through the top coats. Burn-in level.
Finish Cracks: normally sharp lines going all the way through the finish clear coats with no loose portions in the finish. Sand the crack all the way down along the crack resulting in a sharp rounded groove. Do not sand into the wood or stain below. Burn-in level.
Finish Loose: the damage to the finish has caused cracks, lifting, separation, or loose portions in the clear coats. Usually associated with wood damage below.
All loose portions of the clear coat should be carefully cut away with a sharp knife. The sharp cut finish edges should be carefully sanded to remove invisible small flakes or cracks.
Perform repairs to the wood below and then to the color.
If the damage area is very large, the best solution is to refinish the entire edge or surface involved.
Removing the Finish: Removing the old finish by sanding it down is a completely unacceptable method. Most paint or varnish removers have no effect on polyester finish, and with those that do, it is often impossible to apply a new coat afterwards.
How to Remove Polyester Finish: The proper way to remove a polyester finish is by applying heat. Use an ordinary household iron and a paint scraper or putty knife.
Once polyester finish is sufficiently warmed, it will loosen its bond, chip loose and come off in small flakes.
Burn-in Finish Repairs: Deep but small damaged spots such as holes or edge gouges can be patched with standard lacquer burn-in sticks. The melted stick should be forced down into the damage area to achieve total penetration.
A patch done in this manner will not be completely invisible due to the different materials involved. If the surface area is in plain view, the patch should be sanded and top coated with rubbing as a final process.
There are references to the availability of special polyester burn-in sticks, but we have not found a source.
Polyester Repair Kits: There are references to the availability of a special polyester repair kit. We have found a source but not experimented with them yet.
The polyester repair kits apparently are available in clear, black and white. Due to the impacts of sun and age, slight variations in color should be expected, particularly in white.
They appear to have a shelf life of only 4-6 weeks. Accordingly, the stain and the lacquer are furnished separately and the stain is mixed in at the time of use, before adding the hardener.
The amount of mixed repair polyester should be estimated in advance, as any not immediately used must be disposed.
Having not yet performed such a repair, our conclusion is that it is much like handling two-part epoxy materials.
Applying the Polyester Repair:
To a horizontal surface, drip the mixture slowly into the damaged area making no allowance for shrinkage.
To a vertical surface the goal should be to move it to a horizontal position.
To an edge or corner involving several surfaces, the immediate damaged area can be masked off with tape edges sticking up causing a dam area to catch the run off. Such a repair might require several applications to reach all surface areas such as surface, edge, and then another edge.
The extent of application should be to at least level the damaged area, since any excess must be removed by further abrasive procedures. It might be easier to apply a 90%+ fill and then shortly a final fill to achieve as level a fill as possible.
In the hardening process a dull layer of paraffin forms on the surface. It can be removed with lacquer thinner.
Rubbing Out the Repair Area: Start with at least 280 grit and wet sand, gradually and carefully moving up to 400 grit, 600 grit and higher.
The process is finished with power buffing compounds at high grits until the repaired area looks like its surrounding area.
Refinishing Larger Surfaces:
If larger surfaces, entire cabinetry components or complete pianos must be reworked, it is recommended that this be done in a workshop specially set up to handle polyester. The polyester repair mixture process would not be used, but polyester spray would be used.
The room temperature must be between 68 and 86 degrees and the relative humidity must be at least 50% and not exceed 80%. Any drafts are detrimental. The surface to be sprayed item must be at least 68 degrees. All areas and materials must be dust free and absolutely dry. Nitrocellulose dust, grease, minute traces of silicone can cause major problems.
It is obvious the application technical requirements are extremely demanding, hence the need for special facilities and equipment.
Professional Refinishing article by Gregory Johnson "Smooth as Glass, Tough as Nails":
Here is what the article told us.
As for reversibility or stripping, forget it when it comes to polyester.
If you keep it wet with methylene chloride stripper for half an hour, all that'll happen is that the sheen will get a little dull.
Trouble is, refinishing shops are starting to encounter more and more of these finishes - and the frequency is only going to increase because this finish is popular among makers of high end piano and furniture in their quest for an indestructible finish.
Working with polyester means adopting a whole new way of thinking and a new set of rules.
For starters, you'll almost never be asked to refinish a piece because the polyester is "shot".
If you don't know beforehand that you can't give your customer what he or she wants, you lack of knowledge can hurt you badly.
The key to success with polyester is making sure you don't get yourself into trouble by promising the impossible.
In a sense, the advent of this material represents the dawning of a new age in our industry, and you have to adjust your thinking accordingly.
Short of mechanically removing a polyester finish, you have to think in terms of what you can do with the material that's already on the wood.
The first step in dealing with polyester is identifying your adversary.
You'd think that a polyester finish would have a tell-tale appearance - very high gloss and an extremely smooth, flat surface that is hard like plastic - but products like catalyzed polyurethane and pre-catalyzed lacquer also boast such features. And of course, looks can sometimes be deceiving: All polyester finishes are not high gloss.
The real test isn't with my eyes or fingertips, but with a fingernail: By tapping the surface, you can usually tell the difference in hardness as compared to lacquer, polyurethane or conversion varnish.
Many late-model pianos, for instance, are finished with high gloss or satin polyester, and it's a safe bet that any new piano shipped from Europe <or Korea> within the last 25 years has a polyester finish.
And it's not just pianos: A great many of today's electric and acoustic guitars are being finished this way worldwide, and most modern European designer furniture, complete with colorful and reconstituted veneers, is finished in polyester.
Beyond examination and finishing trends, however, you certainly can test with solvents to the narrow range of possibilities. Try dabbing an out-of-the-way spot with a bit of stripper. If the stripper doesn't have any effect at all, you are almost certainly face to face with polyester.
Polyester resin is in the same family as fiberglass resin and auto body filler and has the same, distinctive styrene smell. Scuff an out of-the-way area to check for the smell.
Safety is a huge concern. In fact, this stuff is plain dangerous, so never cut any corners when it comes to protecting yourself.
The resin is usually sold separately from the promoter (cobalt) and the catalyst (methyl ethyl ketone peroxide, or MEKP). There is a reason for this: If the promoter comes in contact with the catalyst, the reaction can be violent.
This risk isn't the only concern: A single drop of mishandled MEKP can blind you.
Beyond the safety factors, one of the key things you need to get used to with polyester is the short pot life. It will begin to gel in your gun within 15-30 minutes.
You also need to be aware that polyester won't cure properly if sprayed directly on an oil wood such as teak, rosewood, or ebony.
It is concluded that repair firms should know how to recognize the presence of polyester and what it means to potential repair procedures.
It is concluded that the experts are correct that only finish shops specifically set up to apply polyester finishes should risk doing so. The same goes for removing it.
It is concluded that polyester base coat and/or top coated finishes are repairable by careful and special lacquer burn-in techniques and special polyester repair kits.
I wish to express appreciation to Greg Johnson, author of the quoted article, and others for their assistance in editing this article for basic concepts.
Request for Feedback:
Have you had an experience with polyester finishes? Are you running into it more and more? What have you done to perform dent and ding spot repairs? How about gouge repairs? Have you used the polyester repair kit? Where have you obtained specialized supplies?
UPDATE March 2005:
Of all the white papers and other information in our website this one on Polyester Finishes brings more phone calls from other repair firms from around the nation than any other. We still don't feel we are "the experts" but drew together the best information we've been able to find.
Benco Sales Inc 1-800-632-3626, who supplies finish stripper chemicals to the trade, has just announced a new stripper #B95 in paste form that they feel confident will strip polyester and epoxy finishes. It is understood to be alcohol based with an acid ph that could damage galvanizing of the strip tray, but that it works. We have found it to have limited results; and, yes it damaged our strip tray.
If you want a higher gloss final result then make that the final coat application.
The Wood Works Inc of Overland Park (Greater Kansas City metro), Kansas 66202 —
Should not be used by others without giving due credits.
The Wood Works, Inc. (www.thewoodworksinc.com and themovingclaims.com) is located in the Kansas City metropolitan area. We have been serving our customers for 30 years in the areas of wood restoration and repair, moving claim resolution and repair, cabinet refacing and repair and interior and exterior shutters.