Chris Schwarz's Blog

Authentic Arts & Crafts Finish

Editor’s note: In the Summer 2008 issue we promised to reprint our article on an “Authentic Arts & Crafts Finish” from 2007. We just noticed that we neglected to post the article. So here it is!

- Christopher Schwarz

We discover a three-step process that looks great and is incredibly simple to apply.

Simplicity is a hallmark of Arts & Crafts furniture, but the proper finish has become a matter of mystery and complication. Gustav Stickley might be the cause of this. Writing in his magazine, The Craftsman, in the early 1900s he explained how to use ammonia to fume white oak, how to even out the color with dye dissolved in shellac, and how to top coat with shellac and dark wax. Then Gus throws a curve ball and states that in his factory they have greater facilities, so they use something different.

Stickley never details what methods he actually used. In the early years of production, his factory did use fuming and shellac, but as his furniture became more popular, these methods couldn’t keep up with demand. And there is good evidence that circa 1906, Craftsman furniture began to be finished with aniline dye-based stains, and early versions of lacquer.

One of the common misconceptions about the original Craftsman finishes is the appearance of the flakes or rays of the quartersawn white oak. Today, people want to accentuate those rays to make them “pop.” Most stains, followed by a clear finish, will give you that effect. An authentic finish, however, is more subtle; the flake of the grain is evident, but it doesn’t smack you in the face. The big advantage of fuming is that it changes the color chemically, resulting in an even color between the flakes and the rest of the grain.

Exposing the wood to ammonia fumes, then top coating with amber shellac followed with a dark paste wax, will give you color and sheen that will closely match original Arts & Crafts pieces. The disadvantage of fuming is that you’re working with some dangerous chemicals. To get a good effect in a reasonable amount of time you need to work with 26 percent ammonia. The easiest place to find it is from a company that sells supplies for blueprinting. Janitorial ammonia, at about 10 percent solution, can be found in many hardware stores and will work, but not as quickly.

To make a fuming tent, I cobble together a frame from wood and cover it with plastic, securing the seams with spring clamps to make it airtight. I wear eye goggles, rubber gloves and an approved respirator while I pour the ammonia into a plastic container. When the fuming is completed in 24 to 48 hours, I put the protective gear back on, open a flap on the plastic and put the lid on the container. Then I vent the remaining fumes outside with a 20″ box fan.

The next best finish I’ve found is alcohol-soluble aniline dye (W.D. Lockwood “Fumed Oak”), followed by shellac and wax. This produces nearly the same coloring and effect as fuming, but the risk is that the color will fade because dyes aren’t entirely lightfast. In the Spring 2005 issue, we recommended General Finishes “Java” gel stain, a color that has since been discontinued. Some of our staff liked it, but I thought it a bit too dark and too red. I also don’t like working with gel stains, so I went in search of a finish that would look right, resist fading and be easy to apply.

There are some recipes that involve several steps to get the color right and evenly applied. The general idea is to apply the color in stages to tone down the ray flakes. The results look good, but the process is complicated. After several experiments I lighted on a simple method using products available from a home center. It uses a stain to get a good base color, a tinted Danish oil as a glaze, and amber shellac for warmth and a slight golden tone.

It’s important not to sand the wood to too fine a grit. Sand to #120 grit with a random-orbit sander then hand sand with #150 grit. If you go finer, the oak becomes polished and the stain won’t absorb well. After dusting the surface, apply Olympic Interior “Special Walnut” oil-based wood stain with a rag, saturating the surface. Let it sit for 15 minutes then wipe the surface dry. The next day, rag on one coat of Watco “Dark Walnut” Danish oil. Again, saturate the surface, let it sit for 15 minutes then wipe dry. The next day, rag on one coat of Zinsser’s Bulls Eye amber shellac.

When the shellac has dried overnight, the surface is lightly rubbed with a nylon abrasive pad and given a coat of paste wax. The color is very close to the warm brown you see in antiques, and can be made darker by applying more coats of Danish oil or shellac. Achieving a good finish doesn’t get much easier than this.

- Robert W. Lang

6 thoughts on “Authentic Arts & Crafts Finish

  1. Tom Holloway

    I’m one of the few people I know who has actually tried fuming (several table lamp bases of white oak, with household strength ammonia, sealed in a 5-gallon plastic bucket) and I have been pleased with the results. But I have come to an even simpler way to get the A&C color and look I want, on larger pieces made of red or white oak: Minwax "English Chestnut" (#233) wood finish (for stain and seal), followed by a couple of applications of Watco Clear, rubbed out after cure, and paste wax a few days later. With the range of products on the market today, there are many paths to the desired result.

  2. Ed Lindley

    Folks, in my real life job I am a chemistry professor at our local community college. If any of you are convinced "low concentration"(s) of ammonia are not worthy of much thought and care before and during use, PLEASE Google "MSDS ammonium hydroxide 10%" and read about its hazards, first aid measures, handling and storage, and exposure controls and personal protection.

    Aqueous solutions of bases require adequate eye protection at the very least. To prepare any aqueous ammonia solution, someone bubbled anhydrous (or pure) ammonia gas into water. The gaseous ammonia has a high affinity for water; that’s why it dissolves readily. However, it can easily return to the gas phase and search out, find, and redissolve in another water source, for example like your tears. There its concentration can reach much higher values than the original source. Please use ammonia solutions wisely.

    Dr. Lindley (no kidding!)

  3. Marcus

    Bob,

    Only exposure to very concentrated ammonia gas can cause death through lung damage. At normal househould dilutions your body has a specific mechanism for getting rid of it. It’s very toxic to fish. I don’t woodwork around fish. The volatile organics contained in most stains and finishes are more dangerous to us than a low concentration of ammonia.

    I’ll keep fuming, thanks.

  4. Bob Demers

    Marcus
    Why everyones is trying to find a replacement for fuming?
    Simply because the fuming process is inherently dangerous.
    Yes, it’s easy, work by itself for a few days like you said, but without proper precautions could be deadly.
    Not just to the ww but to children and pets around us.

    Not worth the risks, lets keep on the search. Besides as pointed in this article, even the genuine articles were not all fumed, so…

    Must give that recipy a try, thanks Robert

    Bob

  5. Marcus

    The 10% ammonia works fine, and it IS a reasonable amount of time, not 6x as long or something, maybe 2x. I did this for my morris chair. Fumed it in a tent, 3 coats of amber shellac and a coat of paste wax and it looks brilliant and is holding up for the long term. I’m not sure why everyone tries to find a replacement for the process, however. What could be more easy than leaving it sit for 3 or 4 days while it fumes and then putting finish on it?

  6. Mike Lingenfelter

    Thanks Chris and Robert.

    My summer project is going to be a couple of Morris Chairs, for our library. I have been researching designs and finishing techniques. I will give your finishing technique a try. It definitely sounds easier then fuming.

    Mike

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