I received an e-mail from a reader the other day, asking about finishes for Greene & Greene furniture. It’s one of those areas where we have some good clues about what was used, but we can’t be certain. There were some variations in color from house to house, as well as variations in wood. These pieces also lived in wealthy households, and it’s quite likely that they received a regular “polishing” of some sort, and over time that can affect what we see today.
Generally speaking, mahogany was used most often, and the finishes are nice, but not overly stained or filled. I wrote about this in my book “Shop Drawings for Greene & Greene Furniture” and in an article in the April 2005 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. If you want to see great photos of original pieces, pick up a copy of David Mathias’ book “Greene & Greene Furniture: Poems of Wood & Light.”
For the sideboard I built for the article, I used a finish recipe that I found online at the Greene & Greene Virtual Archives. The recipe was sent to the owner of the Thorsen house by Charles Greene, apparently so that some repairs or new work could be made to match work done when the house was originally built in 1908-1910. What follows is an excerpt from the April 2005 article.
One of the most interesting discoveries I made on the Greene and Greene Virtual archives was a recipe for the finish for the furniture from another house. I have always admired the rich, vibrant color of the mahogany in original Greene and Greene furniture, something rarely seen in most reproductions of their work. The formula called for a treatment of potassium dichromate applied “as work proceeds” followed by a “filler” composed of four colors mixed in linseed oil.
Potassium dichromate is a powerful oxidizer and must be handled carefully. I wore a respirator while mixing it and gloves while applying it. After experimenting, I used a solution of 3/8 ounce of powder to a quart of distilled water. For the colors, I used artist’s oil colors. Chrome Yellow (3-1/2 parts of the formula) and Raw Umber (3 parts) were easy selections. White Lead (2-5/8 parts) is no longer made, so I used Titanium White. The last color listed was Sylvan Green (1/8 part), and I couldn’t find an oil color with this name. Because it was a small part of the original mixture, I took a guess and used Hooker’s Green.
I squeezed out the colors in the proportions given on a scrap of plywood and mixed them together with a pint of Danish oil. Following a recipe, I hadn’t thought about what color would be the result. I was expecting a rich, reddish brown and was surprised to see a shade of green I haven’t seen since my son has been out of diapers. I was ready to abandon the experiment because of the horrendous color I had mixed, but curiosity won and I tried it on my sample board. After wiping off the excess, I was pleased to find a truly wonderful color and sheen on the mahogany, as shown above. What first appeared as a mistake makes sense technically. On a color wheel, the red from the chemical treatment and the green from the stain are opposite each other, producing a perfect color.
Before I did any assembly work, I brushed on the potassium dichromate solution and wiped each part dry. Letting the parts dry overnight, I applied the stain I had mixed, waited about five minutes and wiped off the excess. Doing all of the color work before assembly let me get an even coat on all the surfaces of all the parts. This saved me from reaching in and around the legs and rails on the assembled table base. I gave the entire table three additional coats of Danish oil after it was assembled.
I wasn’t terribly clear in the article what I used as a “part”, and clarified that in this response to a reader in the August 2005 issue:
I squeezed out a line of the artist’s oil color on a piece of scrap wood, using 1″ as one part. I had a line of Chrome Yellow 3-1/2″ long, the line of Raw Umber was 3″ long, etc. That’s how I kept the proportions straight. To get the color strong enough, I had to double the amounts above. If I were doing it over, I would mark out the proportions on the scrap, and then squeeze out two lines for each color. Also note that the green color I added was just a dab. I don’t think you need to be incredibly precise with it, but this should get you close.
Charles Greene’s handwritten recipe and notes are available online at the Greene & Greene Virtual Archives. Follow this link for Charles Greene’s finish recipe and this link to Charles Greene’s note to William Thorsen about the finish.