Vanishing Voodoo

Unveiling the mystery of wood finishing

Mitch Kohanek believes that knowledge beats ignorance. Period.

For Mitch, that means knowing precisely why something works and not simply settling for results that seem to be working.

In the case of wood finishing technology, Mitch’s field of expertise, that knowledge starts with organic chemistry and ends with college graduates who are set on becoming the most skilled and best-informed commercial finishing technicians, furniture restoration specialists and furniture service technicians in the industry.

Mitch has been teaching the fine art and science of wood finishing at Dakota County Technical College for more than three decades. Situated on the college’s Rosemount, Minn., campus, his National Institute of Wood Finishing features the only certified nine-month Wood Finishing Technology program on the planet.

“My job is to show my students that wood finishing isn’t about learning a few nice tricks, but mastering proven techniques.”

Educated at the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution, Mitch has dedicated his professional life to debunking the mystery and “voodoo” surrounding the restoration, preservation, beautification and repair of wood artifacts and objects.

“We are working to demystify the world of wood finishing,” Mitch said. “Wood finishers from the past frequently did outstanding work, but they didn’t know enough about chemistry to even know that they were working with chemistry. Our program blends the essential artistic side of wood finishing with organic chemistry, a discipline whose principles are not debatable.”

P = A x T
On the first day of school, Mitch always starts by writing the same equation on the whiteboard: P = A x T.

He allows the class to struggle with that for a few seconds before saying, ”Your Performance equals your Attitude times your Talent.”

Mitch goes on to explain that his program has the knowledge his students seek. “If you supply the attitude and talent,” he promises, “we’ll put it together and send you back home with the information you need to make it as a top-notch wood finisher.”

Mitch makes sure that students in his program master the language of the contemporary wood finisher, which means learning terms like aliphatic hydrocarbons, aromatic hydrocarbons, ketones, esters and glycols. In fact, as students enter theNational Institute of Wood Finishing‘s newly refurbished laboratories, they are greeted by a sign saying, “Warning: Wood Finishing Spoken Here.”

Outfitted with newfound terminology, Mitch’s students soon discover the chemical secrets of wood itself—the material that grows at the heart of their profession. They rapidly grasp the underlying chemistry of the various dyes, stains, fillers, sealers and topcoats they apply to enhance the appearance and feel of wood, leveraging that knowledge to better utilize all the brushes and spraying equipment related to those applications.

Just as important to wood finishing is the art that thrives on the science. For the average consumer, the artistic beauty of a wood piece is all they ever see.

“Color is the first thing about furniture that attracts the customer,” Mitch pointed out. “And finish is the first thing they want to touch.”

“Warning: Wood Finishing Spoken Here.”

That blend of art and science is what makes wood finishing so unique and what inspires Mitch’s students to bond as a group in his labs. They are naturally passionate about finishing wood and everything that goes with it.

“That’s what draws them to our program,” Mitch said. “My job is to show them that wood finishing isn’t about learning a few nice tricks, but mastering proven techniques. That education allows them to enter the workplace with the skills, tools and confidence to advance the overall quality of the industry.”

Mitch continually counsels his students to absorb everything they can from the DCTC program, but he also tells his graduates to adapt to the time-honored practices of their new employers.

“If one of my graduates enters a shop that knows everything they know, then they better be ready,” he said. “If the shop doesn’t know what they know, then they have the opportunity to become a key asset to that organization.”

After showing that they’ve grasped sanding, that they are excellent sprayers, that they can color match and repair on purpose, Mitch’s graduates earn enough respect to begin offering suggestions, maybe about a better spray gun or a new water-base solvent. The learning curve in the workplace works both ways.

Mitch maintains a close relationship with numerous professionals in the wood finishing industry, from suppliers to manufacturers as well as countless small-shop owners who all remain connected through the Professional Refinishers Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the industry.

Following a commitment to lifelong learning, Mitch regularly returns to theSmithsonian Institution for wood finishing classes taught by Don Williams, the Smithsonian’s legendary senior furniture conservator who collaborates with Mitch on a number of special summer class offerings.

“Don has mentored a large number of conservators and restorers—many who hold key positions in some of the nation’s most prestigious collections and institutions,” Mitch said. “Don befriended me back at the start when I was trying to find the right answers to my own wood finishing questions. With his guidance, I studied all the right literature and really changed the way I was doing things myself.”

Although Mitch loves the actual practice of wood finishing, he is totally committed to teaching what he knows. He is especially moved by students who make life-changing decisions for the chance to enroll in his program. Many of his students come from across the country, leaving their homes and uprooting their families in the process.

Mitch feels a deep responsibility toward his students. A wood-finishing network 31 years in the making helps him hold up his end of the deal.

“I have more jobs than people to place,” he said. “I can put graduates to work in any state they can name. What’s really interesting is having past graduates calling up to hire newer graduates because they need good people right from the source.”

Finishing First

“I had been in business for about three years working and learning as I could from books and magazine articles. As a member of the moderated e-mail group, the Professional Refinishers Group, I attended a Group meeting that was hosted Mitch Kohanek and DCTC.

While there I saw Mitch’s graduates doing work that was years beyond what I could do. That was when I decided I needed to make the personal sacrifice and move away from home to attend the nine-month finishing program.

The program took years off of my learning curve, turning me from an average refinisher to somebody that produces world-class work.”

Charlie Lewis
Lewis Furniture Restoration
Burkburnett, Texas