The Simple ‘Dirty Mahogany’ Finish - Popular Woodworking Magazine

The Simple ‘Dirty Mahogany’ Finish

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Raw Materials, Wood Finishing, Woodworking Blogs


Here is one of my favorite finishes for any wood that is ring-porous or diffuse-porous. I call it “dirty mahogany” or “creepy janitor.”

First a warning: I think this finish looks like crap on woods that have a closed pore structure, such as maple or cherry, and on softwoods. It looks great on anything with open pores: Mahogany, oak, walnut, ash, etc.

Step 1: Apply a film finish. This can be anything that seals the wood. Varnish. Shellac. Lacquer. Polyurethane. I usually use garnet shellac because it dries fast, isn’t as poisonous as other finishes and gives wood a nice color. My second choice: Any kind of varnish.

Apply a couple coats and let it dry.

Step 2: Fetch the creepy janitor. Years ago David Thiel introduced me to “black bison wax” by Liberon. He had a can of the “tudor oak” stuff that we would use on Arts & Crafts pieces. It does a beautiful job of filling the pores with black wax and toning the overall piece.

But the smell. Sweet Mary and Joseph. We had this really odd janitor at Southside High School. It smells like that dude.

You wipe it on with an abrasive pad. Let it flash (it takes about 5 minutes or so). Then buff with a rough cloth – I use the cheap terry cloth towels from the hardware store.

The smell lingers for about a week. And then you are left with a nice pore-filled finish that looks like your piece has some age on it – without looking like you dragged your project through the mud.

Oh, and why Liberon? I don’t know. There are other makers of black wax, and I’m sure it works just as well. But one jar of Liberon has lasted me a decade. So I haven’t had much of a chance to compare.

Perhaps the competing wax smells like that odd lunch lady at Chaffin Junior High.

— Christopher Schwarz

Learn finishing. Most woodworkers are mouth-breathers when it comes to finishing. I was, too, until I met up with Bob Flexner. He has three great books on finishing, but my personal favorite is “Finishing 101.” It helps you take the important first steps to becoming a good finisher. Highly recommended. And not too expensive (less than $13). Check it out at

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Showing 19 comments
  • Hewn

    Check out the huge pores on this ash end grain (Fraxinus excelsior)

  • nky-kelly

    Great finish Chris. My primary wood choice has always been Cherry. I still love it for a great natural clean unstained look, but this has brought mahogany into my mix in a big way. I always felt that mahogany was easy to work,but felt that it lacked character when finished with clear stain. While this is bit more work, it allows me to created an interesting look without minimal effor. More importantly, I never liked the risk that came with finishing a project with stain. I just spent 3 hours putting water-based urethane on all kinds of scraps and then finishing with the wax. I love it all. I work with re-claimed lumbers and this finish accents all the flaws of the lumber in the most excellent way. I have nearly 800 bf of reclaimed mahogany that I got for free from a local Hotel teardown. Didn’t have any uses for it until I discovered this. The wood is from a 70s remodel of the hotel, so no history or value in preserving the finish.

    Thanks again.

    Ps. I did get a bit of sticker shock when I took the can to the register at Rockler, but hopefully it will last a long time.

  • ADShaw

    Great tutorial! I’ll be sure to give this a go!

  • Aaron S

    When I get nasty smells in my shop from finishes, I just wait until the finishing is completely done and cut up some Eastern Red Cedar. I love that stuff!

  • Eric R

    I have an oak project coming up that this will work perfect on.
    Thanks pal.

  • Sven in Colorado

    I’ve used Chris’ technique before….However, I’ve never equated the smell to a elementary school janitor. That is a hoot!

    In our shop, we have been using tinted and colored waxes from multiple manufactures for years; both as a final coat on distressed antique replicas and to “bed” brasses on same; or after doing repair/restoration work on antiques. We are familiar with the Liberon (Black Bison), along with Fiddes, Briwax and a couple of others.

    Briwax is a British product. The original formula is manufactured with the solvent Toluene; which OSHA and the EPA have on their *no-no* chemical hit-list.. It literally creates a bond between the wax and existing shellac, lacquer, varnish finish. I don’t know what it does with urethane finishes, since we don’t use them. The Briwax products are my favorites. However, care must be taken in the application and polishing out of the toluene based product. It gases off quickly and if you attempt to re-coat the surface, the toluene will attack the already set wax, and soften it to the point where it will remove some, leaving a blotch.

    We have also used Briwax as the one and only finish on some very rustic, reclaimed oak and chestnut pieces. It leaves a nice, dry to the touch, yet polished patina.

    Stephen Anthony – A&E Fine Woodworking, Lakewood, CO

  • Stillpoint

    Thanks Chris
    That is a good idea. Some of the finest smells on this earth, others dislike.
    I like the smells of the different wood’s sawdust. And I like the smell of a wet dog too!
    Ever thought day by day we are all becoming old janitor guys?

  • Sigo

    Is a stain applied prior to the film finish?

  • esincox

    Per the product description on Amazon…

    “Black Bison is well known for its quality and distinctive, pleasant smell.”

    For this reason alone, I must now see what it smells like.

    Also, this sounds like a great final step for my finishing process. I’ll definitely give it a try here soon!

  • funhog99

    Would you add anything else after the wax?

  • Made With Wood

    Have you used Timber Mate? Many color choices.

    Using ebony Timber Mate, as a pore filler on mahogany, appears to give the same result, with no odor and much cheaper.

    Also great on ash.

    • Seenya

      I second the Timber Mate. I use the natural version and use water based airbrush paint to color it. It works great.

  • Tim

    So how similar is this stuff to shoe polish? Has anyone tried shoe polish on a project? A curious cheapskate wants to know.

    Tim Aldrich

    • Megan Fitzpatrick
      Megan Fitzpatrick

      I’ve used Kiwi polish in black atop distressed paint on at least one “I Can Do That” project…because we were shooting it the next day and I couldn’t find the ebony Briwax amongst our finishing supplies. The shoe polish worked – though I can’t speak for the long-term (the project has been sitting on my shelf at work, untouched since). It comes in very small tins, which is a bit annoying, but at least it’s easy to find at Kroger’s at 2 a.m. …

      • Steve_OH

        Shoe polish is usually formulated to be a bit softer than furniture wax, to better deal with the flexing of the leather. As a pore filler it probably doesn’t matter much, but it might not wear as well on the exposed surface.


        • Tim

          Good things to know. I suppose that by the time what was used as “fake” dirt wore off there would be enough real grime on the piece. Well, for something like a chair anyway. I’ll just have to try it and see what happens.

  • BLZeebub

    One of the antique dealers I frequent taught me about Black Bison years ago. Great stuff. Looks great on old carvings in oak too.

  • Phil Spencer
    Phil Spencer

    I like the small of Liberon waxes, if you don’t like it Chris all I can say is you must have a dead rat up your nose 🙂

    • wwtom

      Perhaps I am missing the humor, if that is what you meant. If not, then why do you go out of your way to say such a negative thing. Also, perhaps you meant “smell” vs. “small”???

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