Chris Schwarz's Blog

Why We Hate Paint

Yesterday I finished up work on the dry sink that is the cover project for the Spring 2009 issue of Woodworking Magazine (Issue 13). As always, the finishing part of the project was as much an adventure as designing and building it.

The project is made from Eastern white pine, so we knew that coloring it with a pigment or dye would result in blotching. My first gut feeling was to paint the thing , I’ve seen a lot of painted dry sinks. But paint would hide all the nice wood selection and joinery, so we opted to first try something else.

First we experimented with tea stains (yes, made from tea) and made some sample boards. Then we added some orange dye to the tea. Then we switched gears and tried adding dye to an oil/varnish blend. No dice.

So we fell back on our pumpkin pine finish from a few issues ago. It involves a stain controller, a maple stain and shellac. The test boards looked good, so on Monday I added the stain controller in the early morning. That evening I added the maple stain. Yuck.

The result looked good in places and blotchy in others. The stain controller didn’t seem to work consistently over the entire piece.

So Senior Editor Glen D. Huey brought in a can of Olde Century Colors “Yankee Blue.” I swallowed hard (being a cracker-loving Southerner) and applied two coats. Now I’m happy.

The experience reminded me of a column I wrote for our Autumn 2006 issue, which discussed the role of paint in furniture-making. So I thought this would be a good time to reprint it here.

- Christopher Schwarz

“Many of the things I make are not treated in any way afterwards, because
nothing that I can put on them will enhance the beauty of the natural wood.”

- James Krenov, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” (Linden)

The second Welsh stick chair I ever built was made using both traditional methods and traditional materials. That meant elm for the seat, white oak for the legs and the arm bow, and ash for the spindles.

My plan was to color the chair with a brown stain that would visually tie these three species together. So after carefully preparing all my parts, making a few test boards using stains and hues that I was familiar with, I colored the chair one Saturday afternoon.

When the stain dried, the chair didn’t look like I had hoped. But I told myself to be patient; a topcoat of clear finish can change the final appearance of a finishing job. And I was right; the chair looked even worse with a topcoat.

Something about the stain color I chose, the wood I picked for the chair or my finishing technique made these three species together look like a visual jumble. The coloring was so inconsistent that my eye would jump around the chair, never sure what was important or where to look next.

So I pored over my books on chairmaking and then slept on the problem. By morning, I knew the answer: Paint the thing. Lots of early furniture was painted, especially Windsor-style chairs that used a variety of species in their construction.

But there was a problem here. A mental problem. Like most woodworkers, painting a piece of furniture was something of a last resort in my head. We woodworkers are supposed to celebrate the grain of the wood and finish it to enhance its swirls and swoops. A coat of paint on furniture is seen as evidence that something is amiss. Maybe we used inferior materials. Perhaps we chose our materials so poorly that the grain selection is ugly. Maybe our joinery is gappy. Or we are incapable of preparing a surface for a stain and topcoat. Or we simply cannot finish.

I hate stripping finish, so I decided to give the paint a try. I purchased a quart of dark Windsor green and some primer. I set to work covering up my misdeeds and pondering where I could stash this chair in my house so my woodworking friends would never see it.

After two coats, the chair looked radically different. Details that had been obscured by the grain or stain color jumped out in sharp relief. During construction, I had carved a small gutter around the perimeter of the seat that , when painted , appeared as a perfect dark line rimming the work. I had spent an hour planing and filing a nice curved chamfer on three edges of the crest rail at the top of the chair. Those chamfers now shined, no longer shying away from attention. And a chamfer on the swooping arm bow looked clearly tied to the chamfers on the crest rail.

But there was more. When I stood back a few steps I could really and truly see the chair. It was like a graphic drawing of a chair. It looked more like a shiny green animal ready to pounce than a jumble of sticks covered in brown goo. It looked like the chair I had seen in my head when I set out to build it. I simply had to cover the wood with two coats of paint to uncover its true form.

Years later now, I’ve found that painting furniture well is a skill that requires careful cultivation. Since painting that first chair, I’ve painted a full set that I’ve built and have been experimenting with different mixes of paint and varnish (to give the paint a luminescence) and different brushing techniques. Painting a chair is as challenging as any hand-applied finish I’ve ever tried.

And now I know the truth: Paint doesn’t obscure mistakes. Instead, paint can reveal the form (good, bad or average) that we sometimes try to hide with flashy joinery, showy wood and shiny finishes. The opaque pigment lays bare our skills as designers of furniture, which is perhaps one of the real reasons we avoid painting the things we build. WM

- Chrisopher Schwarz

10 thoughts on “Why We Hate Paint

  1. tms

    Hey Chris,

    I have to second Samson’s call out for milk paint. My favorite is "Old Fashioned Milk Paint", but any of the real casein/carbonate/earth pigment paints work as well. They are simple, cheap, non toxic, water based and very flexible in terms of the various effects that you can achieve. If you like yellow pine and colonial pieces, you should really try milk paint.

    Tom

  2. andrew

    This is another of your wonderful observations. Eloquently described and satisfyingly insightful. I wondered at the begin of article how you were EVER ;-) going to get me to believe that Paint ;-) was going to be a good solution … but you did. You are my favorite woodworking author, without a doubt. Keep up the awesome work; I love ‘Woodworking Magazine’ !!!! I’m subscribed for the next 2yrs. !

  3. Peter Follansbee

    Patience, patience, Chris…
    I have found that after about 10 years, chairs with mixed woods even out quite nicely. I have an ash chair with white oak slats here at the house, and the color is pretty even throughout. Ditto some oak boxes with pine lids.
    P. Follansbee

  4. Christopher Schwarz

    Aris,

    The inside is left natural. Like originals.

    Dan,

    Wood conditioners are a thinned varnish product according to Bob Flexner, and you shouldn’t follow the instructions. The instructions (one some products; not the stuff I used) say to wait 30 minutes or so, but that’s not enough time for the stuff to set up and clog the pores of the wood.

    As a result, Flexner says, when you apply the stain, it mixes with the conditioner and is ineffective. He says you have to wait for the stuff to cure fully to reduce blotching and stain penetration, and our tests have confirmed that.

    So that wasn’t the problem. I think it was more that the conditioner didn’t work consistently over a large area. Perhaps user error. Perhaps not….

    Chris

  5. Dan Sayler

    Chris,

    Most of the wood size/conditioners I’ve used recommend applying the stain within about 15 minutes, in other words before they’ve completely dried. You waited all day. The same thing happened to me when I got distracted after applying the conditioner didn’t get the stain on in time. I wonder if this could have been your issue?

  6. Larry Marshall

    "And now I know the truth: Paint doesn’t obscure mistakes." – C. Schwarz

    More true words could not be spoken about a good, classic paint finish. Add a bit of glaze over it and you can even give the piece an "experienced" look.

    Love your dry sink, Chris.

    Cheers — Larry

  7. samson

    I may sound like a broken record, but two words for next time: MILK PAINT (real, not "simulated"). You can follow with some BLO to pop the color a bit.

    Happy Holidays!

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