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Who Says Furniture Finishing is Easy?


             Many writers attempt to simplify furniture finishing; treating wood as a uniform material, giving many the false impression that one method can be use with success in any variety of applications. The truth is, wood is an organic material with an almost infinite number of qualities and imperfections all of which have a profound affect on finishing. When it comes to Antiques the matter is further complicated by the fact that wood is a porous material and in many ways much like a sponge, any previous finish, treatment, or stain is absorbed into the wood; and once there, nearly impossible to completely remove. Removers, strippers, and abrasives may “remove’ a finish on the surface, but elements of the old finish (and many times residue leftover from the remover) still exist within the wood.  Further complicating the matter of finishing antique furniture is “The Human Element”.  In other words, it is impossible to know what previous owners have done to alter or affect the wood and finish. Some years ago a private client brought me an eighteenth century walnut desk for restoration. I took note of the surface as being dark and somewhat oily. Dust was stuck all over the piece, reminding me of wooden work benches in old machine shops. It was obvious that this desk had at one point in time been treated with motor oil! A fairly common practice from the 1920’s and 30’s when the depression forced people to improvise techniques with materials around the home. At the time I was not too concerned, I had dealt with this sort of thing before. It was simply a matter of washing the oil off with mineral spirits or naphtha and then scrubbing it further with a strong detergent before removing the old finish. However, as I began to work I became aware that the motor oil had been applied on the bare wood! So much so in fact, that in some areas, the oil had completely worked it’s way through the 7/8’’ thick walnut side pieces and come through in streaked areas. The entire piece was saturated with old crankcase oil! So that my client would realize this was not your ordinary refinish job I telephoned her to inform her of the condition of the desk. She replied “Oh yes” her grandfather had finished it after reading an article in popular mechanics about using boiled oil on furniture. Apparently, not understanding that the magazine article was referring to boiled linseed oil, he had boiled old motor oil and applied it to the desk as a finish. Realizing I was confronted with an extreme situation, I would have to devise a new method. The next day I took the desk outside and thoroughly washed it down with gasoline. After two days drying outside, I scrubbed it down with hot Oakite, a strong washing soda cleaning product that was popular some years ago.  I did this in the morning, and left the piece to dry. By the afternoon I went to bring in the desk.  I noticed the sun had warmed the desk and more oil had seeped to the surface. So much so that the piece appeared unaltered as if I had never touched it! Over the next week I tried anything to strip the oil from the desk. Naphtha, Xylene, Toluol, Acetone, Methylene, and any other solvent or stripper I could find, but all to no avail. I tried using a heat gun to bring the oil out and then use solvents to wash it out but nothing was effective. Every abrasive I tried clogged right up. I was somewhat successful with screen cloth abrasive but after a time that clogged also, requiring me to use a great quantity to rub the piece down. Taking a lid support to experiment on, I tried to develop a finishing technique. I tried Lacquer, Vinyl lacquer sealer, Varnish sealer, brushed shellac, various varnish oil mixtures, nothing dried right or could accept a second coat. Finally I tried padding a heavy four pound coat of orange shellac; it dried and filled the pores fairly well. However, when I tried to top coat it, the surface curdled, ruining the finish. Now I had to develop a new method of top coating, which would not ruin the shellac. I settled on top coating the shellac with melted raw beeswax, and then rubbing it down hard with burlap. A laborious and physically exhausting process, however I was able to come up with a satisfactory finish. Five years or so later I was invited to a cocktail party at the client’s house. I had occasion to look at the desk. I was still satisfied with the look. My client observed me look at the piece and said ‘You did such a beautiful job; you really must enjoy your work.” I laughed; the stress, the physical labor, the frustration of numerous failures, and the uncertainty of success made refinishing that desk a miserable process.  However, it provided me with a sense of accomplishment, but it wasn’t easy.