Opinions are like noses, almost everyone has one (OK. I cleaned up the saying a little). Is that bad, or is that good? It’s sometimes bad because people hide behind the anonymity that the Internet provides when they voice their opinions, and say whatever they like without any recourse. It’s good because it allows us to share our thoughts and expertise to better understand any given topic. Let’s exercise the latter and discuss period finishes.
In his Popular Woodworking November 2009 “Arts & Mysteries” column, Adam Cherubini discusses what constitutes an “authentic” look using the finish on his 18th-century Philadelphia Chippendale chair as an example. During discussions with a few woodworkers at the Woodworking in America conference , at which Cherubini had the chair on display , I listened to a couple good points made by Chuck Bender (owner of Acanthus Workshops and Popular Woodworking author) that differed from the thoughts put forth in the column.
In the column, and a big point of contention with Bender, Cherubini wrote, “A film finish couldn’t practically be rubbed out when laid over intricately carved surfaces.” Bender contends, ” If that’s the case, all the ornate silver must have been left dull and rough since they had no way to “rub out” or polish highly carved surfaces. I realize that the silver trade was separate from the furniture trade but do we really think none of the processes carried over?”
And while Cherubini does question the lack of use of film finishes in the article, and says we should be doubtful, Bender is a bit more resolved in his thought. He says, ” From all the research I’ve done over the years, I truly believe that original finishes were shiny. There are practical reasons why the finishes would be shiny. First off, if you try to wander through your house at night while dark using only a single candle to provide light, you’d probably want as many reflective surfaces as possible in every room in order to stop killing yourself on the divan,” he said. “Second, if you were purchasing pieces of the level that Adam’s chair represents, you were wealthy and educated. This means you hired a professional to make the pieces for you and that professional most likely had a finish shop to which they jobbed out the work, or had an in-house finisher. A cabinet maker working at that level would not have settled for a finish that looked like a farmer’s finish from out in the country,” said Bender.
Cherubini also wrote, “The baroque sensibility (some believe rococo is a form of baroque both aesthetically and linguistically) of light and dark, near and far, would also be harmed by a film finish. Philadelphia furniture makers seemed to intentionally use surface texture to enhance the contrast between carved areas and ‘bright’ smooth areas made reflective with wax. Oil and wax offered period craftsmen the artistic control that a film finish over a carving would not.”
Bender’s opinion: “The whole concept of making the surfaces shiny accentuates the play of light and shadow in the carving. That’s what they were trying to accomplish. Even in the wealthiest homes, light was not abundant. In order to ‘see’ the carving, the surfaces would have been shiny so that the recesses of the carving absorbed the light thus creating light and shadow. It’s the only way to make the carving ‘pop!’ In the end, there are far more arguments for thicker, shinier finishes.”
Here’s an interesting tidbit for the discussion: This past weekend, I was watching an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop (watch the episode here). The focus of the show was period carvings with Mack Headley Jr. (Colonial Williamsburg’s master cabinetmaker) as a guest. One of the samples presented was a carving of a shell. The piece was mahogany and it was coated with several layers of shellac. My wife happened to be watching with me and her comment was, “Is that plastic? It’s so shiny.”
Could that be why some of us see a dull finish as an authentic finish, because we are so opposed to a plastic-like look? I’ve used a dull-rubbed effect finish on my furniture since the beginning. Why? I look at antique pieces today and they are dull to my eye. But when that antique piece was delivered to the customer some 250 years back, was it dull? Or was it shiny? What do you think? The comment section is open and waiting. Chime in!
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