3 Ways to The "Authentic" Arts & Crafts Finish

I get a lot of questions about Arts Crafts style finishes. Gustav Stickley’s original work was made of quartersawn white oak and fumed with ammonia. This was then topcoated with shellac, followed by dark paste wax. Gus himself gave us a good description of the process in his magazine, The Craftsman. This description is also included in the book Craftsman Homes, which is a compilation of articles from the magazine. He describes the process in great detail, but at the very end leaves us wondering when he says:

“The method we use in the Craftsman Workshops differs in many ways, for we naturally have much greater facilities for obtaining any desired effect than would be possible with the equipment of a home worker.”

I didn’t go into much detail in my first two books, Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture & More Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture because I thought Gus Stickley’s description mentioned above was complete and with the books in black and white format we wouldn’t be able to show pictures that accurately showed the colors.

My research suggests that in the first few years of production, fuming was the method used in Stickley’s Craftsman Workshops, but sometime around 1906, they shifted to early forms of aniline dye stains and lacquer that was being developed by Sherwin-Williams in Cleveland. So the first question to answer if you want an “authentic” Craftsman finish is do you want the authentic fumed finish, or the authentic dyed and lacquered finish?

This is a picture of a reproduction of a Gustav Stickley No. 700 bookcase that I make for the February 2005 issue of Popular Woodworking. It’s very close to the color of many original pieces I’ve seen, and the color was achieved by fuming. In the current Catalog of the L & JG Stickley company, this finish is referred to as “Onondaga”. The reproductions made by the current Stickley company are finished just like all other factory made furniture today, it’s stained and toned and lacquered. These finishes are very well done, but I don’t think it’s quite right to call them authentic. They look very nice and are extremely well done, but it’s a modern finish with modern methods.

Here are brief descriptions of the two processes I currently use in my reproductions. The first process is fuming with ammonia. Stickley used 26% ammonia which is really strong and somewhat dangerous. If you use it, you need to read the MSDS sheet for it. It can be hard to find. The best place I’ve found to look is at a local blueprint supply company, as it’s used in old style blueprint machines. Household ammonia from the grocery store is about 5%. I’ve never had much luck with it, but it should work, given a sufficient amount of time. In between is janitorial ammonia which most hardware and janitorial supply companies carry. It’s about 10% strength.

You need an airtight container to put the furniture in, and you need to expose it to the fumes for 12-48 hours. The ammonia gas reacts with tannic acid in the wood, and chemically changes the color. The amount of tannic acid wil vary from log to log and board to board, so unless you use wood from the same tree, there will likely be variations in color and in the amount of time it takes to achieve the color you want. I knock together a simple framework

and cover it with plastic sheeting, tucking it underneath the frame and using spring clamps to hold the plastic tightly to the frame. I leave a flap at one end so I can pour the ammonia in a plastic container then quickly seal the end. It doesn’t take much ammonia, just a few ounces. Clear plastic is best because you can see through it to judge the progress of the color. This picture is taken just after fuming for about 24 hours. When the time is up, I put on goggles, gloves and a respirator, lift up the flap and put the cover on the lid to the container with the ammonia in it. It’s best to do this outside, but if you must do it inside, work close to an exterior door and use a fan to blow the fumes outside before removing the plastic sheet from the frame. Here’s a closer look at the color after fuming:

It’s kind of gray and dull, but the first coat of finish will improve the look considerably. Note that the “flakes” of the quartersawn oak are close to the same color as the rest of the wood. An authentic finish won’t “pop” the grain, it’s subtle and subdued. From this point you can move on to your favorite topcoat, I like to use amber or garnet shellac as this really warms and develops the color. Here is what it looks like with a coat of shellac:

One of the problems with fuming is you can end up with uneven color, and if you miss any areas of sapwood, you can have spots with no color at all. With white oak it can be hard to tell, and this is what can happen:

This isn’t good, especially if you’re building it to put in a magazine that gets read by a couple hundred thousand people. Back in Gus Stickley’s description of his process, he describes the fix; is a little bit of aniline dye mixed in some shellac. You can carefully blend it in with a brush or a rag. This is what it looks like in the middle of touching it up:

With some patience and judicious work with a scotchbrite pad, you can blend it in completely before applying a final coat or two of shellac or clear lacquer. The final color comes from dark wax, applied after letting the shellac dry for a couple of weeks.

So if you’re going to all this trouble, and you risk uneven color and areas of sapwood that need to be touched up, why not just use stain or dye and avoid the fumes and the hassle? Good question. Gus Stickley’s answer was to use aniline dye and avoid the fumes and hassle, once he had access to a reliable dye to use. Some of our staff like to use a gel stain, and think that General Finishes “Java” was pretty close to authentic. I think it’s a bit too red and shortly after we published something mentioning it, “Java” was discontinued. They do have one called “Espresso” which looks similar. Any of the dark brown stains would also work. Here is a bookcase from the June 2005 issue that was stained with “Java” and topcoated with Waterlox.

I’m not wild about gel stains, and I think the sensible way to do the finish is with aniline dye. Lockwood “fumed oak” is pretty close to the look you get when you fume. I like to dissolve it in alcohol to minimize grain-raising and speed up the process. You have much better control over the color, and the dye doesn’t care if the boards came from the same tree or contain any sapwood. I follow it with shellac and dark wax -the sa me as if it was fumed.

This picture is the project that will appear in November’s Popular Woodworking, which should be available the first half of October. I wanted a lighter look that the 700 Bookcase, so it is lighter.

Robert W. Lang

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