Authentic Arts & Crafts Finish
Editor’s note: In the Summer 2008 issue we promised to reprint our article on an “Authentic Arts & Crafts Finish” from 2007. We just noticed that we neglected to post the article. So here it is!
– Christopher Schwarz
We discover a three-step process that looks great and is incredibly simple to apply.
Simplicity is a hallmark of Arts & Crafts furniture, but the proper finish has become a matter of mystery and complication. Gustav Stickley might be the cause of this. Writing in his magazine, The Craftsman, in the early 1900s he explained how to use ammonia to fume white oak, how to even out the color with dye dissolved in shellac, and how to top coat with shellac and dark wax. Then Gus throws a curve ball and states that in his factory they have greater facilities, so they use something different.
Stickley never details what methods he actually used. In the early years of production, his factory did use fuming and shellac, but as his furniture became more popular, these methods couldn’t keep up with demand. And there is good evidence that circa 1906, Craftsman furniture began to be finished with aniline dye-based stains, and early versions of lacquer.
One of the common misconceptions about the original Craftsman finishes is the appearance of the flakes or rays of the quartersawn white oak. Today, people want to accentuate those rays to make them “pop.” Most stains, followed by a clear finish, will give you that effect. An authentic finish, however, is more subtle; the flake of the grain is evident, but it doesn’t smack you in the face. The big advantage of fuming is that it changes the color chemically, resulting in an even color between the flakes and the rest of the grain.
Exposing the wood to ammonia fumes, then top coating with amber shellac followed with a dark paste wax, will give you color and sheen that will closely match original Arts & Crafts pieces. The disadvantage of fuming is that you’re working with some dangerous chemicals. To get a good effect in a reasonable amount of time you need to work with 26 percent ammonia. The easiest place to find it is from a company that sells supplies for blueprinting. Janitorial ammonia, at about 10 percent solution, can be found in many hardware stores and will work, but not as quickly.
To make a fuming tent, I cobble together a frame from wood and cover it with plastic, securing the seams with spring clamps to make it airtight. I wear eye goggles, rubber gloves and an approved respirator while I pour the ammonia into a plastic container. When the fuming is completed in 24 to 48 hours, I put the protective gear back on, open a flap on the plastic and put the lid on the container. Then I vent the remaining fumes outside with a 20″ box fan.
The next best finish I’ve found is alcohol-soluble aniline dye (W.D. Lockwood “Fumed Oak”), followed by shellac and wax. This produces nearly the same coloring and effect as fuming, but the risk is that the color will fade because dyes aren’t entirely lightfast. In the Spring 2005 issue, we recommended General Finishes “Java” gel stain, a color that has since been discontinued. Some of our staff liked it, but I thought it a bit too dark and too red. I also don’t like working with gel stains, so I went in search of a finish that would look right, resist fading and be easy to apply.
There are some recipes that involve several steps to get the color right and evenly applied. The general idea is to apply the color in stages to tone down the ray flakes. The results look good, but the process is complicated. After several experiments I lighted on a simple method using products available from a home center. It uses a stain to get a good base color, a tinted Danish oil as a glaze, and amber shellac for warmth and a slight golden tone.
It’s important not to sand the wood to too fine a grit. Sand to #120 grit with a random-orbit sander then hand sand with #150 grit. If you go finer, the oak becomes polished and the stain won’t absorb well. After dusting the surface, apply Olympic Interior “Special Walnut” oil-based wood stain with a rag, saturating the surface. Let it sit for 15 minutes then wipe the surface dry. The next day, rag on one coat of Watco “Dark Walnut” Danish oil. Again, saturate the surface, let it sit for 15 minutes then wipe dry. The next day, rag on one coat of Zinsser’s Bulls Eye amber shellac.
When the shellac has dried overnight, the surface is lightly rubbed with a nylon abrasive pad and given a coat of paste wax. The color is very close to the warm brown you see in antiques, and can be made darker by applying more coats of Danish oil or shellac. Achieving a good finish doesn’t get much easier than this.
– Robert W. Lang