what finish to use?

Keeping in mind that all generalizations are wrong, I will embark on making a few.

The surface finish on New England joined work and Old England joined work is often visually quite different. As I mentioned, I have been reading/looking at the new book Early British Chairs and Seats. Lots and lots of very dark, shiny oak stuff there, similar to this carved box:

17th-century carved box, England

When compared with much New England joined work it looks different. I don’t know of any studies done to analyze the finishes on English stuff. There have been several done for New England work – the latest issue of American Furniture (2009) has an article by Susan Buck about an early 18th-c  painted cupboard she studied & restored the finish on. She even reviewed the paint samples some years after the fact, with more advanced equipment.

 One explanation for the dark appearance of English stuff has always been that it got waxed again & again. I am not aware of any evidence citing wax as a finish in the period itself; thus have assumed that the wax was later.

Finding New England furniture that has escaped the restoration craze is difficult. The early 20th century was hard on seventeenth-century furniture, just look through Frances Gruber Safford.  American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Vol.1. Early Colonial Period:  The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles.  (New York:  Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 2007.) and it shows a number of pieces that almost look new. Much of what’s there was collected before the 1920s and underwent complete stripping & refinishing. Similarly treated stuff is in most major institutional collections. There are really obvious examples all over; here is a refinished New England chest, from about 1650 or so. The finish might be 100 years ago…

joined chest, Dedham, c. 1650


Sometimes New England furniture shows up that escaped intact. In about 2001 I hired Susan Buck to test the cabinet now at the Peabody Essex Museum so I could make copies of it. The goal was to arrive at what the original finish was;  with an attempt at making the repros look new. If I remember right, Susan showed that there were 7 layers of finish/polish/grime. It was the first layer we wanted.  Here are two versions I did of it, using iron oxide and lampblack pigments mixed in linseed oil then the whole cabinet covered with a thin varnish. The first version has a little less paint than the original; the upper molding & the corbels & bases in walnut here were painted red originally, as seen on the second one below:

PF version of Salem cabinet


repro Salem cabinet


I’ve always used linseed oil & turpentine as a “clear”: finish on the furniture I make; but it seems there’s little evidence for that – based on the small sample of scientific sampling, which is usually concentrated on paint. There is some new evidence coming out slowly that might change things, the MFA cupboard I am working on these days is painted/finished based on new research done at that museum. In that case, the pigments were mixed in a “proteinaceous” vehicle, probably glue, then covered with a tinted varnish.

Hugh Platt has a nice description of how to color new wainscot to match old, which involves linseed oil and walnut rinds:

“To make a new peece of Walnut tree or wainscot to be of one selfe-same colour with the old

 First straine walnut rindes well putrified with some liquor, and with a sponge rubbe over your wood thoroughlie well, and after it is drie, rub the same over againe with good old Linseed oile, & it will become of an excellent brown colour: then if the other wood which you would have match with it, do much differ fro the new in colour, you must also with fine sand, skoure off all the filth and greace of your olde wood, and then rub it also over with Linseede oile. Some take broken beere only. By this meanes I had an old wainscot window, that was peeced out with newe wainscot by a good workeman, and both becam verie suteable and of one colour. ”  (Hugh Platt, The Jewell House of Art and Nature (London, 1594) p. 21)

And before anybody goes all crazy about the sand mentioned by Platt, note that it’s to clean dirt off the wood, not smooth the surface. Goodness knows we don’t need the sandpaper enthusiasts getting all excited.

It seems that the English stuff didn’t often get refinished, certainly not as commonly as the New England ones did. But in addition to the dark pieces mentioned above there are also very pale oak furnishings found in English churches – there these pieces have sat for in some cases nearly 400 years.

joined table, Wiltshire


 One crucial differece between this table and the first box depicted here is there is no hearth in the churches; thus no smoke. I have a joined stool that I made for the museum 12 years ago, it has been oiled almost every year since I made it; but it’s been used in a repro house, complete with hearth/fire, dirt floor as well as 300,000 visitors a year. Not all of them handle this stool of course, but they scuffle by it, kicking up dirt & dust. Many handle it, many sit on it, and that leads to the polishing/patina…

repro joined stool, 1998; photo 2010


When it was new, it looked like this one I just finished working on…

finished stool, Feb 2010

6 thoughts on “what finish to use?

  1. Your blog continues to be very informative.

    Stephen Shepherd’s Full Chisel blog has an entry about paint today. His interests are mostly 19th century but he talks about how much of the furniture was painted and mixing your own paints.

  2. I think you are quite right about the significant role of enviroment in the colour of furniture Peter, particularly given some furniture would have sat in houses with open hearths and animals in close proximity etc.

    Other factors I suspect are the acidity of the oak from different areas etc., and original surface finsh – no scientific evidence, just instinct I am afraid. Oh, and of course there is generations of antique trade endeavour to create the colour that sells to contend with – interesting to note Platt’s recipe sounds along the lines of Vandyke – still a restorers favorite.



  3. OH MY, you have stumbled into the finish wars, lol. It’s remarkable how much your stool absorbed in only 12 years, it looks like its 300 years old. The Wiltshire table looks bleached from the sun, i wonder how many hours per day it stands in sun light.

    I note that some years ago a war broke out between restore/dont restore folks when the vatican decided to restore the ceiling paintings of Michelangelo Buonarroti
    in the Sistine Chapel.Check out the before and after pics on this link and you be the judge.


  4. Interesting how black the bottom portion of the legs are on your 12 year old joined stool. I sure hope you sign and date your pieces, because no one will be able to distinguish yours from antiques after just 2 decades from the time you build it. Well done!

    • Mauricio: the insides don’t get a finish. leave the wood inside raw…even the outside of the back is unfinished. Just the front, sides and lids on chests & boxes receive a finish.

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