Finishing Walnut

Varying a drop as you add the dye to the shellac is not going to create a significant difference in the final look of the finish, but try to keep each batch consistent.

Varying a drop as you add the dye to the shellac is not going to create a significant difference in the final look of the finish, but try to keep each batch consistent.

Bell-bottoms, wide ties and leisure suits have something in common with walnut. No, I don’t suspect you have walnut stashed in the far reaches of your closet next to the leisure suits. The commonality is that each item was in vogue at one time, then fell out of fashion. And while I’m not so sure leisure suits are going to make a comeback, I know walnut is once again gaining in popularity with woodworkers. So now might just be the time to stock the shelves in your shop.

If we’re picking up the pace of creating projects with this favorite American hardwood (the choice lumber for furniture built in the William & Mary period (1690-1730) prior to increased importation of mahogany), we need to find a finish that is more than simply adding a coat or two of linseed or tung oil.

Same Old, Same Old

A better quality brush translates into smoother finish application because a good brush holds more finish.

A better quality brush translates into smoother finish application because a good brush holds more finish. Oil finishes deepen the color of walnut. That’s a nice look and the oil adds protection, but it does nothing to warm the cool characteristics of the hardwood, especially the look of steamed walnut, which is grayish brown when freshly milled. If you study antique walnut furniture, you’ll notice a reddish cast to the older pieces – a look that’s much warmer and more pleasing. That’s what happens as walnut ages and the gray shading begins to warm. It’s a result of time. But, how can we manipulate time to achieve a warm, reddish finish in a relatively short period? We wanted a finish that was easy to use, simple to repeat and quick to apply. A five- to seven-step process that required hours of work or drying time wasn’t going to work. It had to be something that was achievable in just a couple simple steps.On large, flat surfaces, #0000 steel wool can knock the high sheen off a shellac finish.

A few samples using dye under shellac were tried. (Orange dyes were suggested by a number of woodworkers.) That was close to the color we were searching for, but the finish muddied the wood. We wanted the walnut grain to stand out, not be masked.

Next we turned to shellac. You may wonder how to get a reddish cast with shellac. While there are a few shellacs that are red in color (available as shellac flakes that are dissolved in alcohol before use), most over-the-counter shellac provides an orange or amber tint at most. The amber color undoubtedly warms the grayish brown hardwood. And to gain that slight reddish look found on antique furniture, we focused on aniline dye added directly into the shellac.

I’ve mixed dyes with my topcoat before and found TransTint liquid dyes (available at any woodworking store) work best. It’s easy because the dye is a concentrated liquid. For our new finish, add a few drops of Reddish Brown (#6003) into shellac, mix and the finish is ready.

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About Glen D. Huey

Glen Huey is managing editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, an accomplished period furniture maker and author of numerous woodworking books and videos (as well as magazine articles).

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