Beer shows up in many accounts of early workshop life. Not only was it an important source of nutrition, it also served as payment for trespasses and a way to mark important days in the shop, such as when an apprentice was promoted to journeyman. Beer also shows up in workshop recipes and for diluting glue.
Recently Thomas Lie-Nielsen encountered a use for beer that I hadn’t heard in the book “Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay” (1956) by George Ewart Evans, an account of rural life in a Suffolk community. Take a look.
The old community had many terms connected with beer which are worth passing note: dew beer was the beer bought with the shilling earnest money given by the former to each worker when the harvest contract was signed. With the dew beer the workers wetted the sickle, by filling a ceremonial cup to the success of the harvest. Trailing beer was bought out of the fines paid to the Lord of the Harvest by anyone who had trampled down the standing corn or hay, thus making it more difficult for it to be cut. The former’s wife at one of the Blaxhall farms once had to pay trailing beer money to the Lord of the Harvest because she had allowed her hens to stray into a field of uncut corn. Key beer was the strongest beer of all, so-called because for reasons of policy it was kept under Iock and key.
But home-brewed beer had other uses in addition to its legitimate one. Thick beer was often used to help cure hams; also many women here believed that beer was the ideal hair-wash; it was supposed to make the hair shine. Another use for it was the staining of furniture. This was before the invention, or at least the widespread marketing, of furniture polish. Beeswax was much too costly to use on cottage furniture, and was kept chiefly for the manufacture of candles for churches and the bigger houses. The chair on which Robert Savage spent most of his last days is a golden brown in colour – acquired through frequent stainings with beer. It is possible that this custom of staining chairs with beer derives from a practice that used to be prevalent in the brewery which was built on the site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Southwark: in the old days the customers, it is reported, poured some beer on to their chairs and sat on it in their leather-breeches. If a customer stuck to the chair he knew that the beer was of good quality.
While I’m not going to dispute this account, I want to think about the chemistry a bit – what’s left after the water and alcohol evaporate. It usually is a sticky mess. Part of my brain wonders if the “staining” is also a result of water-staining, dirt, sweat and other bodily oils. Not to mention the natural darkening process many wood species encounter from exposure to oxygen and light.
But you can bet that the next time I spill beer on my chair that I’m going to claim it’s just part of the finishing process. Oh, and next time I buy a six-pack I’m going to write it off as a business expense under “finishing supplies.”
— Christopher Schwarz
Want to learn about modern finishing practices? The best book for getting started is Bob Flexner’s “Wood Finishing 101.”
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