From the Wood Finisher’s Point of View

By A. Ashmun Kelly


It is not every hardwood that one can take and make it look like mahogany. This may sound strange to the expert but I have known an architect to take a piece of birch stained mahogany colour and declare that no one could detect the imitation. As a matter of fact, any wood finisher with experience with staining knows that it is not at all difficult to pick out the real from the sham in a lot of good samples of both. The best we can do is to approximate the appearance and this can be best done with birch and cherry. I prefer the cherry to the birch, for it is naturally a closer approach to mahogany in its finer

Mahoganizing cherry and birch, choice of woods for finishing, fillers for turned Work, transparent filling, polishing, finishing cheap furniture, importance of the filler, Vogue of Mission oak

markings and general texture.

But why the imitation? Surely both birch and cherry are beautiful woods in the natural finish. Where one can choose between the natural wood and the stained wood, as in furniture, it is wise to take the natural finish for then it is not so easily marred and far easier to renovate when necessary. When a piece of mahoganized furniture is scratched or otherwise marred, it is next to impossible to make it good again, certainly not without doing the whole thing over. And no stained wood looks like the wood it is intended to simulate. The best woods for staining mahogany are, as stated, cherry and birch, but we might add maple also to this brief list. In fact, any hardwood of close texture and not pronounced grain will answer the purpose. It is the colour more than the wood that counts, though of course pine and poplar would not do. The wood must be perfectly dry and made as smooth as possible with plane and sandpaper. Here are some formulas for staining the wood:

In one quart of alcohol put two ounces of dragon’s blood, which must first be broken to pieces. Use strong alcohol, say 90 percent. Place the ingredients in a bottle and in a warm place, shaking it occasionally, to facilitate the dissolution. When this has occurred, it may be carefully strained and then used.

Rub the surface of the wood with a solution of nitrous acid. Having previously made a solution of dragon’s blood, one ounce to a pint of alcohol, add to it one-third ounce of carbonate of soda and mix all together, then filter it. This gives a very good colour and a finish with linseed oil may be given.

Usually wood stains are applied hot, for in this condition they penetrate the wood better. If a wood on account of its colour does not lend itself readily to the stain, you can bleach it first, using this solution: nine ounces of chloride of lime, one ounce of soda crystals, and two and one-half ounces of soft water. The surface of the wood must be given repeated applications of this liquid so that it will keep wet for one-half hour, or until the bleaching is accomplished. Then wash off with a solution of sulphuric acid, which follows with a washing with clear water. Let it dry, then it will take the stain clearly. A very simple and most excellent mahogany stain may be had by boiling two ounces of Bismarck brown in one gallon of water, continuing the boiling until the brown has dissolved. Let it cool, then strain it well. When about to use it, make it hot again, and add one-half pint of ammonia and one-fourth pint of turpentine.

Fillers for Turned Work

A firm in New York state manufacturing reels and bobbins for cordage and wire mills asks for a filler for its goods, saying by way of explanation that in turning the wood for spool barrels it often happens that there is a check in an otherwise sound piece, and it is this that they wish to fill. I presume that the filling could be done while the wood was on the lathe, after completion of turning, in which case the ordinary paste and liquid fillers would not do. Something like beau antique would seem to be the article required. This is simply a filler with some wax in it, coloured to suit the wood.

Without understanding exactly what it required in the premises, it is rather difficult to solve the problem. Wax, I think, would be as good as anything, made into a paste with turpentine, for it would fill the checks and not discolour the wood. In fact, there are many things that would fill the wood satisfactorily and we would suggest that some experiments be made. Cooked corn-starch with some whiting in it is sometimes used for wood filling. If the filling is done on the lathe, it is only necessary to place some of the filler on a rag and hold this to the revolving wood, just as turners fill cabinet wood articles on the lathe with oil and shellac.

Transparent Filling

This leads up to the subject of trans- parent wood filling. This is sometimes very desirable yet very difficult of achievement because the oil or other fluids used in the filling discolour the wood more or less, even when the filler is comparatively colourless. A new German process would seem to solve this problem for us. It undertakes to fill the pores of the wood with a trans- parent material which will prevent oil from striking through. First the wood is rubbed with oil, either raw linseed or polishing oil, then the superfluous oil is wiped off with a piece of soft paper wet with alcohol. Now the surface is ready for a coating of shellac, purified and clarified by filtration, this being sprayed on, using an atomizer. Then it is polished with a solution of celluloid in alcohol, rubbing with a regular pad. The pad parts with its liquid, which is then pressed into the pores of the wood; this celluloid solution dissolves the shellac in the pores of the wood and attaches itself firmly to the walls of the pores; it is of course perfectly trans- parent. This filling is also very elastic, on account of the celluloid, and it is said to become perfectly incorporated with any subsequent finish that may be placed on it. In this important respect it is even better than anything we have heretofore been using. The usual method of filling wood calls for mineral filling material, silica being commonly employed, though whiting and silver white also are used. The only possible objection to a mineral filler is that it will show up in the pores of the wood, more or less. Silica does not do this to any great extent, yet it does it a little. Whiting is very bad in this way, and corn-starch is still worse, if possible. A mineral sub- stance penetrates both the coarse and fine fibres of the wood, and, being opaque and of a different colour from the wood and the polishing coat which follows, both the colour and the grain Again, it is pointed out that while the mineral fillers are greedy of oil they do not hold the oil permanently, so that, while the oil in the polishing is taken in by the pores, it comes out of them later, under the influences of temperature. This is worth thinking about. Some troubles with finished furniture and cabinet work may be due to this very thing.


There are two processes of polishing that may be described here. By the quick method we take a handful of raw cotton and dip it in a mixture of equal parts of sweet oil and alcohol, rubbing the surface of the work with this in a circular manner. After a time, the polish begins to show. By the slow process we first bring the work to a perfect level by rubbing, then flow on a coat of flowing cabinet varnish, and when ready for rubbing rub it in with 4F pumice stone powder, after which clean up. Rottenstone powder also may be used in the rubbing, using a chamois and rubbing in a circular way. The rottenstone powder is always a good thing after the rubbing with pumice stone because it will rub out any fine scratches made by the pumice stone powder. Allow the rottenstone to dry on the work, then rub this off with the palm of the hand, in a rotary manner, wiping the hand every time it passes over the work.

Artificial Shellac Varnish

While not nearly so costly as it once was, owing to the denaturing of grain alcohol and consequent lowering of the price of both grain and wood alcohol, yet for some purposes it is too costly to use where its use would be very desirable. It can be bought in the market under another name as a substitute shellac varnish at a correspondingly low figure, but many of my readers will no doubt be interested in learning just how a clever imitation may be obtained. There are several ways or formulas, of course, but one may adequately indicate many. Here is a very good formula, published by G. B. Heckel of Philadelphia. Mr. Heckel states that this is a new and valuable material placed in the market by a New York man. It is a hard gum and like shellac dissolves readily in the usual solvents. It can be mixed with rosin and gives as a result a most beautiful lacquer or orange alcohol varnish imitation that has already found many uses. The formula is thus: Shellac, 100 pounds; French artificial kauri, 50 pounds; common rosin, 50 pounds; camphor gum, 1 oz.; acetone, 5 gals; and wood alcohol, 30 gals.

It is difficult to get the true colour of orange shellac in an imitation shellac, and there is only one substance that has been found to do this. That is aurine. One ounce of the tincture of aurine, which is of mineral origin, will colour one gallon of the shellac. It is dissolved in either wood or grain alcohol. The gums and liquids named are placed in a mixer and revolved until perfect dissolution ensues. I do not give this with the expectation that any consumer will try to make it, for he could not well do it without the usual varnish factory apparatus, nor would it pay him to do so, as the ready-for-use article may be bought cheap enough. Considering that at least three-fourths of the cost in finishing cheap furniture is in the labour, it would seem to be a matter or reducing this cost, rather than in using cheaper materials. In fact, neither would be the best thing. Cheap labour is not usually a good in- vestment where one seeks to produce goods at the lowest cost. Poor materials are not cheap excepting in price, for they will not do as much as a better article will, that is, as a rule. Of course, it is true that a filling with glue size will bear out a finish of one or two coats of varnish very nicely but then you will want to get rid of the goods as soon as possible.

Economy Based on Good Stock

 If you are building a business on reputation, even where cheap goods are the basis, you will need to satisfy the customer, not only in the matter of price but also in the more important matter of quality. You want to make a three-coat system answer the purpose and to do this it is necessary to use good, not poor, materials. A poor filling with two coats of rosin varnish will look as smiling as a summer morn when done, but in a very short time, maybe before you ship it, and certainly in the dealer’s shop, it will part from its gay lustre and look like an outcast. Rubbing varnish may be bought for less than a dollar, I imagine, but one costing will be the cheaper of the two. With it one thin coat will be better than one very heavy coat of the other. The thin coat will hold its gloss and look all right for a long time.

It surely is a bad thing to put a greenhorn at work filling wood. Of course, you explain it to him so clearly it would seem impossible for him not to do the work right, but you will find that the filler he has applied will have been mostly pulled out in the rubbing off. Without a good foundation, you cannot get a good finish. If, then, the filling has been pulled out by ignorant cleaning up, what is the condition of the work when it comes to the varnishing room?

Again, often when the filling has-been well done, the job is spoiled by the way the rubbing off of the surplus stuff is done. Carvings, etc., will be rubbed out with a whisk or some equally un- suitable tool. The filling had better be rubbed with a pad of tow, which will enable you to press or work the filling well into the pores of the wood, working across the grain of the wood. After cleaning up the job let it stand for a day or even two, which would be better still. For cheap work we will not sand- paper the filling after it is ready, but the same is very good where it can be done, using fine or worn sandpaper for removing the grit that is always on after the filling has been rubbed off. This makes a very hard and smooth surface for the varnish.

Now we are ready to apply a sur- facer, which may be had on the market in varying degrees of quality and price, but which I think is better than varnish because it has a mineral base that will form a very hard foundation for holding out the varnish. A good surface is easily put on, rubs well, and dries quickly. Also, they cover a great quantity of surface for a given quantity of material. On this surface apply a coat of rubbing varnish, and give it a good heavy coat, too. Rubbed, apply the polishing varnish, is the next step. A good tight, dust-free varnishing room is needed now. The cleaner you can keep the job, the better the work and the less time it will take. There are polishing powders on the market that make the polishing a very easy as well as quick matter. Cutting nearly as fast as pumice powder, yet they will not scratch the work. Wet the surface of the job with polish, sprinkle on some of the polishing powder, then rub with felt on a block. This removes grit and specks. Now take some cotton waste, dampen it with the polish, and rub briskly for a few minutes. Follow by cleaning up and wiping dry using clean waste, and you will have a good polish job with the expenditure of little time or work.

Explanation of Mission Oak

We have been asked to explain just what is Mission oak. First, it is oak stained to a greenish-black hue with a reddish tinge to the colour. That is as near as we can put its colour in words. The stain is made with lampblack, which is modified a little with chrome yellow and a trifle of rose pink. Thin with turpentine and add japan driers. After the stain has become dry, the wood may be filled with a paste filler stained with some of the mission stain. On this may be applied varnish with such subsequent finishing as may be desired, all in the usual way. If the finish is not wished as here outlined, simply stain the wood and oil or wax it. This is done by many, who prefer the simple finish. But either way will be good Mission style, which, by the way, does not appear to lose its popularity.

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