For the August 2012 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, I built a reproduction of a Gustav Stickley No. 74 Book Rack. It’s a great piece in a couple of ways: It is useful and nice looking, and it is also a great introduction to making through-tenon keyed joints, one of the hallmarks of Arts & Crafts period furniture.
Early Craftsman pieces were fumed with ammonia to develop their characteristic color, but later pieces were stained and finished with early versions of modern stains and lacquer. In truth, there isn’t much difference in appearance between the two types of finishes, and a more predictable and consistent finish can be achieved with stain. Predictability and consistency are the problems with fuming. Fuming depends on a chemical reaction between tannins in the wood and the ammonia, so variations in the chemical composition from one board to another lead to different colors.
If you fume, you’ll likely need to touch something up with aniline dye, or layer on colored shellac to even out the color. It isn’t that difficult to do, but it takes some patience and a practiced touch. The top coat used over the fumed oak also plays a big role in the final appearance. When you’re finished fuming the wood is a dirty, greenish gray and the first time you do it, you will think you ruined it. Garnet or amber shellac make it a nice warm brown.
My favorite finishing method looks authentic and is easy to apply, but it takes a few days. Each step doesn’t take too long, but each step needs to dry overnight. This isn’t a “Christmas Eve” finish. As always, experiment on some scraps to get the color you want before committing the entire workpiece.
Prior to staining, I hand-sand everything with #150-grit Abranet. I use a pad that hooks up to a vacuum, but regular sandpaper also works. Quartersawn white oak takes stain well, but it is possible to make it too smooth and polished. When that happens, the stain just sits on top of the wood and won’t color evenly. After sanding, I dampen the surfaces with distilled water, wait overnight, then sand again with #220-grit paper.
The first step is to stain the wood with an oil-based stain. Almost any stain with “walnut” in the name will come close to an authentic color. I look for something that is only a stain; if the label mentions “stain and finish in one,” I choose something else. I flood on the stain, wait about 15 minutes, wipe off the excess and leave it to dry until the next day.
Following the stain, I apply one coat of Watco Danish Oil. There are different colors available, and again, the walnut tones give an appropriate color. I flood the surface with oil, and use a synthetic steel wool pad to work it in. I let it soak in for 15 minutes, wipe dry and come back a day later.
The stain and the oil work together to highlight the wood figure with an even tone overall. In authentic Craftsman pieces, the grain doesn’t “pop,” that is, there isn’t a drastic difference between the flakes and rays and the surrounding surface. I follow the oil with a coat or two of shellac.
Amber shellac for the first coat will warm up the color and give it an old look. I thin the shellac from the can, if it’s a new can I use about half shellac, half denatured alcohol. If it’s a can I’ve used before, it likely has had thinned shellac poured back into it, so I thin it less the next time. I use a good brush and judge how thin the shellac ought to be by how it feels as it goes on.
If you’re concerned about durability, you can top coat the shellac with lacquer or varnish. I think shellac is more durable than a lot of people would have you believe, unless you’re in the habit of sloshing alcohol around your furniture. I usually just apply paste wax – clear wax most of the time or the stinky dark wax if the color is a bit too light. If the shellac is too shiny, I’ll take an abrasive pad to it before waxing, but most of the time I use the abrasive pad to apply the wax. After it dries I buff it with a cotton rag for a satin sheen.
If you like Arts & Crafts style furniture, my book “Great Book of Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture” will be available late in the summer of 2012. In the meantime, this compilation of articles from Popular Woodworking Magazine is full of great projects.