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I was busy in the shop this past weekend putting the wraps to a blanket chest that’s part of our August 2009 issue. I’m building the chests (that’s plural as in two blanket chests) out of walnut. When this issue hits your mailbox or when you pick it up at a newsstand, you’ll find something secret in the article. Yes there is a secret compartment in the chests and if you’re a study of antique blanket chests , particularly Pennsylvania blanket chests , you more than likely know the location of the compartment. While this makes for additional work, it’s always fun to have secret compartments in your projects as most woodworkers get jazzed about them.

While I worked through the project, I turned my attention to finishing. On walnut, I generally like to apply a coat of boiled linseed oil to the piece and wet sand with #400-grit wet/dry silicon carbide sandpaper. The action brings up slurry that acts as grain filler. This time, however, I decided to forgo the oil and move directly to amber shellac.
I sprayed two coats of amber shellac to warm the walnut, then I sanded the piece smooth. The color was good, but older walnut has a red cast about it, so I wanted to darken the color and get that red hue involved. To do this, I added a number of drops of reddish brown Transtint aniline dye to my shellac. Another coat not only registered the reddish cast, but it also removed some of the warming effect as well. Happy with the look, I moved to my favorite part of finishing, pre-catalyzed lacquer , dull-rubbed effect lacquer eliminates having to rubout the shiny shellac by hand. One coat and the chests look dull and flat and that’s a good thing. It keeps any imperfections from glaring in reflected light.

Everything was moving along great until I reached the hardware stage. It was then that I remembered why I like to stain furniture with aniline dye, or add a coat of boiled linseed oil if I choose not to stain. Here’s why. As with most mass-manufactured furniture, my finish was all lying on top of the wood. Any small scratch, such as the one I added when I hit a still-spinning drill bit, cuts through the finish and shows a distinctive unstained wood below. In other words, scratches stand out.

If I had coated the pieces with oil prior to my shellac, any light scratches would appear dark due to the oil penetrating the wood. I just need to build an extra 48 hours of oil drying time into any project that doesn’t call for aniline dye.

At the time I reached the decision on the exact finish I would use, I was working on the mouldings. One thing that hacks me when I’m building furniture is small amounts of glue that squeeze out from mouldings. Glue in those areas is extremely difficult to remove successfully. I know many of you are reading this thinking that you simply wipe the glue with a damp rag. Well I don’t agree with that philosophy. I’ve done just that a number of times only to find smeared glue areas when I stain , the water dilutes the glue, then spreads the mixture without actually removing the mess.

I prefer to install my moulding with small channels or recesses that capture excess glue. After the mouldings are made and cut to fit, I make a pass over the table saw blade to create a recess (See the photo above). Then with appropriate amounts of glue spread on the mouldings, any squeeze-out is caught in the trough and no glue peeks out from behind. Problem solved.

I’m always looking for finishing tips that make the job easier. One of my favorites is to use a permanent marker to mask blemishes. Back in the day when we sold Windsor chairs at furniture shows, we would inevitably get a small nick on our black painted chairs. A quick touch with a marker and the scratch would disappear. What tips can you add?

– Glen D. Huey

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Showing 6 comments
  • Seda

    Greeting. In America, they want you to accomplish these great feats, to pull off these David Copperfield-type stunts. You want me to be great, but you don’t ever want me to say I’m great?
    I am from Nauru and also am speaking English, please tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "And attempting to use turbo tax deluxe."

    Thanks for the help :P, Seda.

  • Bjenk

    Each county had specific details? That’s interesting! Yes they are, I have seen quite a bit. There’s quite a conversation to be had about the details.

    Thanks for this great project Glen, I can’t wait to read it.

  • Stephen Kirk

    This is a very timely article. I’m nearly ready to start finishing a PA Spice Box (one of the Acanthus students!) and I plan to use shellac myself. Plus, I learned a lot about secret compartments and just how much fun they can be to put in. I will now take extra care when installing the hardware. Can’t wait to see the article.

    For a finishing fix, I like paste wax – a nice coat and buff can remove a multitude of minor problems.

  • glen

    Joe, I too have many touch-up markers and I’ve found much success with a box of good old crayons. And Bjenk, the chests you mention could be PA dower chests, very colorfully painted pieces. Each county had a specific detail from vases with flowers to unicorns. These blanket chests are very impressive. It’s worth a google search to see examples.


  • Bjenk

    I can’t wait to see your design Glen. I have been studying a painted Pennsylvania chest from the Metropolitan Museum of Art from pictures and its a painstakingly slow process for me to come up with a full design this way. It will be helpful to compare yours with notes.

    A lot of these chests were painted with strong symbology in the drawings over the paint in Pennsylvania.

  • Joe Ledington

    Great tip, I do this on a lot of my homemade moldings, and I have a full range of wood matching markers for them little nicks. they carry these at Micheal’s Arts and Craft store and they work great.
    See you in May


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