In Finishing, Shop Blog

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Early chairs , especially American ones , look best when they are painted.

Like any good woodworker who is in love with his or her raw material, I’ve tried to make stick chairs without painting them. Some chairs, such as two Welsh stick chairs I built six years ago, look pretty good to my eye without paint. But they don’t look traditional. Their albino skin tone makes them look quite contemporary.

Other stick chairs that I’ve stained then topcoated have ended up painted, which just about doubled the finishing time.

Tonight I started finishing the Windsor sack-back chair I built last week at The Windsor Institute. And there was never any doubt in my mind that I’d be painting the sucker.

I’m following Michael Dunbar’s excellent instructions for applying milk paint that we published in our February 2010 issue. Many Windsor chairs started their lives painted a bright green in lead-based paint, according to Dunbar. Other colors became fashionable after green, so some vintage Windsors display several colors after they are broken in.

For my chair, I’m putting down a base coat of barn red milk paint, which I’ll follow up with pitch black milk paint tomorrow. After that, I’ll add some wear spots to the chair and add some varnish or wax , I haven’t decided which topcoat to use yet.

Right now, the chair looks like a delicate brick with four legs. Despite its odd appearance tonight, however, it looks better than when it was raw wood.

– Christopher Schwarz

Other Finishing Resources I Recommend

– Purchase the February 2010 issue, which featured Dunbar’s article on milk paint. You can buy the printed back issue or a pdf download in our store.

– Glen D. Huey’s “Finishes that Pop” DVD is an excellent introduction to using aniline dyes to accent the grain.

– “Understanding Wood Finishing” by Bob Flexner is the absolute best book on the topic I’ve ever read.

– Issue 6 of Woodworking Magazine has an excellent article on painting furniture using modern latex paints.

Product Recommendations

Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.

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Showing 8 comments
  • Hank Knight

    That’s a good lookin’ chair, Chris.

  • Joel Jacobson

    I use damp burlap to produce wear on my chairs. I sometimes use a fine sanding sponge to bring a few spots to bare wood.

    Then, after it has set for about a day, I rub on warm linseed oil and wipe it off.

  • Mike Hamilton

    Count me in the leave it alone column. After 8 years, mine has "patina" that is real and looks just fine.


  • Floss

    Try some shellac for the topcoat. Thin it to about 1-1.5 lb cut and wipe on with a cloth. It adds just the right amount of sheen that will eventually wear in all the right spots.

    I made the same chair about 10 years ago. Red and black milk paint with linseed oil. It is now coming around to looking just right. Most of the joints have popped on the bow,arm and some on the stretchers, but it sits just as well as the day it was made.

    Paint it and use it. No need to fake it.


  • Tom McMahon

    I vote for the distressing. I dislike that crisp new plastic look, with the first scratch you’ve got a new looking chair with a big scratch. If you start with a distressed chair the scratches just blend right in.

  • Greg

    I too am not in favor of artificial "distressing". Unless you are creating a forgery, I say let it happen honestly and naturally.

  • wbtanner


    The reporting over the last week of your adventure taking the sack-back chairmaking class has been most interesting and exciting; and I envy you being able to share such quality time with your father as well. In the end you’ve had the profound experience making something new with a process virtually unchanged over three centuries. But I am puzzled why at this point you would consider distressing the finish when the ordinary evolution of time and accident will take its natural course?



    How ya gonna add some wear spots? Glue 120 grit to your sleeves, back of shirt, and the seat of your pants – and then sit ‘n’ squirm for a bit? 🙂

    (Probably not a ”traditional” way of adding wear marks — but certainly authentic!)


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