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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!

– Glen D. Huey

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  • Bruce Jackson

    There is no really good way to deduce how shiny the original finish was when it left the master’s shop. At times, we have to poke around at the margins to come up with a story that best fits the available (and if you’re interested in jurisprudence, admitted via testimony or some other technical device) evidence. Last night, I reviewed Glen’s article in Woodworking about substituting mineral spirits for turpentine. That three-part topcoat recipe with equal parts varnish, boiled linseed oil, and turpentine, as he suggested, might have been around for a few centuries. Given Glen’s interest in 18th C pieces, that was one of several recipes which might have passed from master to apprentice by word of mouth. And nobody bothered to write that down. Would they have memory devices, such as teachers try to use in today’s schools, to pass on these recipes? If so, what were they, and were they tied in some fashion since lost to how folks lived in those days? How many different ways do we have of doing French polish, which by all accounts I’ve read does come out shiny. One hint we may have is, if we keep our cars (and trucks) for years (or decades), would we have photos (which didn’t come about until the mid-19th C – and developing them was painfully slow compared to our one-hour photo machines at most drug stores) of our vehicles when new and several years later, when their finishes have faded from sun and rain (and our hair turn grey or disappear)? And then keep in mind that though petroleum products have been used for centuries, it wasn’t until the first oil well in 1859 that petroleum was more widely available. Not to mention all of the different distillation processes which came about because crude was suddenly much more available (and cheaper).

  • Chuck Bender

    Eric,

    I think the issue revolves around what we perceive as the historically correct finish. Sure, many folks today prefer a finish that offers protection but doesn’t look like a mirror. I’m not saying that’s exactly what they were going for in the Eighteenth Century but they certainly weren’t purposely applying dull, dry finishes.

    In the end, I was merely expressing a difference of opinion and a difference in the finding of my research than Adam expressed in his article. While the finish that Adam put forth may well be an example of a finish used in the period, I truly believe that pieces made at the "masterpiece" level certainly would have had a more protective film finish.

    The problem lies in our inability to effectively look at authentic pieces or shop records in order to make a definitive deduction. The vast majority of surviving pieces do not have their "original" finish. Even if they did, hundred of years of cleaning and polishing have changed the appearance. Shop records are even more scarce than original finishes. Shops guarded their finish recipes like they were gold. Many were not written down.

    The folks at the conservation labs at Winterthur have made great strides in micro-analysis on period pieces but even that method has its flaws. So, we’re stuck with trying to deduce what the finishes looked like from a variety of sources. Paintings of the period provide an excellent record as well as pieces in a nearly "untouched" state help as well.

    Like today, there may not be only one answer. There are folks today that like the medium shine of a dull rubbed effect finish (which I contend is the anti-furniture factory crowd) and those that love a good French polish. Isn’t that why Graeters has so many flavors?

    Chuck Bender

  • eric

    I’m not sure what the issue is. Is it just guessing at what the finish would have been? Can’t well look at authentic pieces or shop records from those days and deduce it?

    As to shiny or not today, do you want the piece to look good or for it to be authentic. It seems a more dull finish gives it the look and feel of a classic antique. So, if most people think the non-glossy finish looks better, then maybe that is the one we should use.

  • Bill Poplaski

    I have to agree with Chuck Bender I think the finish was shiny in those days. Chuck has been doing this for 30 yrs. and I don’t think he would delivery a piece of his work that didn’t look its best.

  • Bruce Jackson

    Not too long ago, someone – I think it was Bob Flexner – discussed other uses for shellac. For the sake of humor (of a sci-fi geek kind), I like to put things about as basic as you can get it. Shellac is bug wax suspended in vodka, high-proof whiskey, or bourbon (Southerner by grace of my mother’s mother, I put the last in there just to see if riles the Southerners on your staff). The candy industry likes to use crunchy outside coating where shellac has been folded in with the food coloring to make M&Ms, milk chocolate or peanuts or almonds. It just so happens that all the M&Ms I have seen in my life are shiny, reflect light really well. They also look like little pieces of Art Deco ornaments you can thread around the famly Christmas tree. So I’m not surprised by your wife’s question about the wooden sea shell. In fact, I welcome it since we married guys never know where the next piece of serendipity comes from. My wife, born in the Philippines, has made some pretty astute observations about American history and culture, a major couse of study while I pursued my BA, things I have never seen before because though they were there, I took them for granted. I’m of the school that old pieces were once shiny for aesthetics (for art, really) but becasue of the limited candlepower, especially when you make the midnight raid of the pantry, you don’t want the dining chair to stretch a leg to trip you or get gored in a good place by the corner of the dining table.

  • joel

    I don’t understand this – you can’t easily do a rubbed finish on a carving but you can certainly brush on a film finish and the wood would be straight from the chisel so it would look great.

    Also the higher relief parts of a carving would get buffed and worn in use and waxed in normal care. And they would shine. The recesses would get dull and dirty – and would help accentuate the higher relief bits.

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