A Brief Practical Treatise on Hardwood Finishing

Of all the woods employed in architectural finishing and furniture making oak is the most popular, possessing as it does all the virtues looked for in a wood desired for those purposes. The kinds commonly used are the white, the red, and the black oak. Straight sawed and quarter-sawed oaks give us a great range of choice as to appearance and adaptability for finishing.

Birch, Mahogany and Ash

Birch comes straight and curly, and may be finished natural or stained to look like mahogany.

Mahogany may be had in several varieties, the finest coming from South America, but very much, some say 75 per cent, of what passes for mahogany here is “bastard” mahogany or baywood. Still, when the two are used together and finished together as in furniture, it is very difficult to tell them apart. Then there is a mahogany from Mexico and some that grows in this country. Also there comes from Africa mahogany, a very beautiful specimen being known as “crotch” mahogany. A fault of African crotch mahogany is checking in fine hair lines after the finishing. My attention was lately called to an advertisement of some pianos, which said: “These have just been received and are among the last lot that we shall get,” because of the checking here mentioned. The wood was beautiful, but frail.

American ash is a coarse-grained wood, useful either by itself for low priced sets of bedroom furniture, or in union with oak for the same purpose. Stained and filled antique, it makes a very good substitute for oak in furniture. Hungarian ash is of course in another class as regards beauty. It is beautifully marked.

Maple, Walnut and Redwood

Maple comes straight and curly grained. From time far back it has been a favourite on account of its beauty, its hardness and durability, and its abundance. There are many varieties of this wood, one from Oregon being very fine, but our Eastern maples leave nothing to be desired in the way of what the wood finisher requires of it. It is very light in colour, and takes a first-class finish.

American walnut, or more commonly called “black” walnut, one of the very best of native woods, is susceptible of the highest finish in several ways and when properly finished produces the handsomest effects known to the art. It is easily grown so there seems no reason why it should be so scarce.

Several woods and their scope for the finisher, the line between the hard and soft woods, preparing the surface prior to the finishing process, the methods of treating oak, matching the new and old oak, bleaching of wood

Redwood from California is thought by some to be the very finest wood in the world for interior finish and certain other purposes. In some respects, it is not much unlike mahogany. It should not be confounded with red cedar which is quite another species of wood.

Sycamore, Cypress and Pine

Sycamore or buttonwood is a hard wood of good grain. When quarter-sawed it is one of the handsomest woods the finisher has ever applied his skill to adorn. Cypress is a wood of great durability under exposure. It has a good colour but it is very hard to work and to finish, hence will prove useful only for the construction rather than the finish and adornment of homes. It is also difficult to paint, owing to its uneven and often spongy texture. Cypress is a member of the cedar family and is durable. Select specimens of this wood are very handsome and make very fine doors, etc.

Yellow pine comes from North Carolina and Georgia, mainly, and they are unlike one another. The former variety is known by its curly figurings, being very handsome; the other is of straight grain, making a very good flooring, especially when quarter-sawed.

White pine has become practically extinct in the East, but there are some very good specimens of it left in the great forests of the far Northwest. It is the most satisfactory wood for house finishing the world has ever known.

Poplar, Rosewood and Beech

Poplar or white wood is a fairly good substitute for white pine, having close texture and straight grain making it easy to work. Yellow poplar is the best, not being inclined to warp as is the other variety.

Rosewood, once so popular, has now nearly ceased to be used in furniture and cabinetmaking. It has its weak points, yet there is no denying its beauty under the finishing process.

Beech is one of the later introductions in the furniture factory and with it might be named several others also.

What are Hard and Soft Woods?

As another finisher has put it, it is difficult to draw the line between the hard and soft woods, so called, and really there is no need for making the distinction at all, it serving no practical purpose. It is well, therefore, to call them all by the name of hardwood, by that term meaning just woods that the finisher has to deal with.

When we come to the filling or surfacing of woods, we find that the lines overlap, so that on some so-called hardwoods, say oak, we have to both fill and surface to get a result. Any wood having a very open structure will of course require a paste filling, and often over this a surfacer or liquid filler, the same thing. In some cases, it will be necessary to apply two coats of paste, or one coat of paste filler and one of liquid filler. The paste is to fill or level up with, the liquid: surfacer is to saturate the cellulose matter with oil so that it will not rob the varnish when it goes on.

Preliminary Work

The first thing to do is to see that the work that is to be finished is smooth and clean, free of dust and grease. If we start the work smooth, it is easy to get the next coating smooth, and so on to the finish. It is a mistake to leave the smoothing until the last for it will save time and labour to make each progressive stage of the job smooth. Besides which; it is very difficult to make it smooth at the last if it has been rough up to that time.

Finishing the Oaks

Finishers know many ways for finishing oaks, and also there are ways that they ought not to know. Many of the sins of oak finishing may not be laid at the door of the finisher, however, for public taste, so called, is to blame.

Golden oak leads, of course. The very best effect is obtained with asphaltum stain, using the best that can be had. What a pity that asphaltum is not perfect, that it does not dry, or that it softens the varnish or sweats up under it. In colour it is perfect. It gives the best known golden oak finish. Its brown tint over the flakes is a true golden tone.

First the wood must be filled with a paste filler, which to darken with burnt umber. After this has dried and the surface has been prepared apply a stain, asphaltum if you will, or with Vandyke brown, a very transparent pigment, the most transparent of all the painter’s pigments, indeed, being also a very rich brown. The stain is applied liberally, then at once it is wiped off clean. This fills the pores of the wood, but removes all stain from the surface. When dry, sandpaper with 00 paper, getting the flakes bright.

Another method calls for staining the wood before the filling. Let it stand overnight, say, then sandpaper with 00 paper and fill with a filler made by thinning ten pounds of paste with one gallon of thinner, turpentine or benzine; the latter will do very well. Colour the filler with drop black in oil, making the filler only slightly dark. The stain is to be made quite thin and is not to be wiped off but allowed to remain on the wood overnight.

It is well for me to say here that pigment or colouring matter is not a filler, hence the less you put in the more paste filler can get in. The filler is to be rubbed well into the grain of the wood, which will make the wood very dark in its pores but the flakes will remain bright. After the staining and filling the work is ready for the varnish and finishing. Vandyke brown and burnt umber may be mixed together to get a certain shade of brown, or be mixed with asphaltum. In fact, many shades can be made by various admixtures of the colours, including drop black.

Antique, Flemish and Mission Oaks

Antique oak is simply plain oak made as dark as the fancy may dictate, using burnt umber, Vandyke brown, asphaltum or drop-black.

Flemish oak is a very dark effect, almost black, and is first stained with a chemical, as follows: Dissolve one-half pound of bichromate of potash in one gallon of water; strain, then apply with a bristle brush. Let it dry, then sandpaper with 00 paper. Now mix up some japan drop black to a thin stain with turpentine and apply it to the work. In a few minutes you may wipe off the stain, let it dry, then give a coat of thin shellac which is allow to dry perfectly. Shellac seems to be dry as soon as applied, really it is not as it requires some hours to get hard dry. Then smooth with fine paper. Finish with wax, made by mixing bees wax one pound to one gallon of turpentine, and adding four ounces of best ivory drop black. After waxing rub with cheese cloth, wiping off clean.

Another method calls for a paste filler made from equal parts of burnt umber and Vandyke brown, with a small quantity of lampblack. This is hardly a paste filler, however, though it will give a very dark effect. Any degree of darkness may be obtained by the increased use of drop black in the filling and staining.

Mission oak has many different colour effects so that no standard can be made. As a rule, it should show a dull grey effect, the flakes being a reddish cast, but the grain is a dull or almost dead black. To make the stain take one pound of drop black in oil and one-half ounce of rose pink in oil, add one gill (unit of volume in British imperial) of japan and thin with three half pints of turpentine. This will give you about a quart of stain. By using japan colours in place of the oil colours, you may omit the japan. Strain through cheese cloth. Finish with wax. Always when using japan colour add a little varnish as a binder.

Green and Primrose Oaks

Malachite or green oak may be produced with a green oil stain. Green paint will not do because it will obscure the grain. Dissolve aniline green crystals in boiling water, about an ounce to the gallon or stronger, and reduced according to depth of colour wanted. When the staining is dry, coat it over with white shellac to which add a little of the stain to tinge it green. Give one or two coats, according to body desired, and then wax it.

Forest green oak

Make and apply this stain: Mix together one pound of chrome green and one-half pound of chrome yellow, both medium shades. Now add together in another vessel three pints of turpentine, one pint of raw linseed oil, and a little white japan. Thin the colours with this and give the wood one coat of the resultant stain. Now colour some white shellac with a little turmeric and a few crystals of green aniline, then you may finish it with wax.

Plain green oak is an effect that may be produced by giving the wood a coat of the stain used for golden oak. When this has become dry coat with orange shellac to which has been added some aniline green crystals.

Finish with wax. Primrose oak is about the same as the green oak, only it has a more yellow cast. Bog oak is very much the same as Flemish, being a very dark, almost black, effect. Royal oak is produced by a staining with ammonia, bichromate of potash, and Vandyke brown. This will antique oak to a beautiful brown, and may be described as follows: Soak some dry Vandyke brown in liquid ammonia to form a paste. Thin this with a saturated solution of bichromate of potash. Apply as a stain in the usual way. Diluted to a certain degree, this solution makes a good walnut stain on any suitable wood.

Matching Dark Oak

If called upon to make a new piece of oak match the old, try a weak solution of bichromate of potash, say an ounce to five pints of water. Use a sponge preferably, though a brush will do. In this sort of work, as indeed in all staining, it is well to avoid allowing any part of the staining to become dry before all is done for there would be the danger of double coating and darker colouring. When doing say a chair, or any piece that has several small parts, to avoid getting some stain, as from running down, from getting on to the part already stained is difficult. The best thing to do is to go over all with a weak stain, apply liberally and work fast, until every part is wet before any part is dry; then wipe off with a cloth or rag.

It may be noted here, while I think of it, that when a surface has been wetted first with clear water it will not only take the stain more readily but will show up darker also. This latter result is doubtless due to the stain not getting so far away from the surface, owing to the fact that the wood has been well saturated with the water. Carved work and mouldings may be rubbed with a stiff brush after staining, as sandpaper cannot so well be used; for very small parts a tooth brush does very well. Sandpaper should not be used on mouldings and carved parts, on account of danger of cutting through the stain and also injuring the fine lines of the work.

Bleaching Dark Wood

Some time ago someone asked for a method of treating the black parts of gum, and making them less conspicuous. I then told him about the bleaching qualities of oxalic acid, dissolved in water and applied by a brush. This is sufficient to bleach oak and some other woods, and is a standby for the wood finisher. But whether it will bleach out the black heart of gum I do not know, but would like to learn from our inquiring friend.

Furthermore, right here it may be well to suggest that where such inquiries receive attention it would be useful to the readers generally to learn something of the matter afterwards and hence if the inquirer would be kind enough to tell us about it after he had made some experiments, with results gained, he would certainly confer a favour.

When using oxalic acid for bleaching out wood, add a little spirit of niter (ethyl nitrate) also called “sweet spirit of niter.” After the acid has become dry, wash off thoroughly with clear water. Apply the acid hot. Chloride of lime is another good bleacher for wood, and you might try this recipe, though it is intended for objects that can be immersed in the solution, yet its application to the surface of wood may also be efficient. It is worth trying. Dissolve 17 ¼ ounces of chloride of lime and 2 ounces of soda crystals in 10 1/2 pints of water. Wet the wood with this and see that it remains wet for at least thirty minutes. Wash off and neutralize with a solution of sulphuric acid, then wash again, and let dry. This we find in the “Scientific American Encyclopaedia.” Chloride of lime is a well-known and much used bleaching agent for other materials, and I see no reason why it should not bleach the black heart of gum, or any discoloration, whereby the beauty and intrinsic value of the wood may be enhanced.


5 thoughts on “A Brief Practical Treatise on Hardwood Finishing

  1. A masterful treatise! I have never heard the finishing of wood expressed so beautifully.
    “When quarter-sawed it is one of the handsomest woods the finisher…” What poetry and allurement in your words.
    Thank you for sharing your passion for your craft with such eloquent penmanship. Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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