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.

Rules for Varnishing 1688

This is a very interesting read I extracted from Colonial Williamsburg, the rules on Varnishing are written by John Stalker in 1688.  It describes in brief out of what your varnish should be made from, how you should prepare your surface, how you should perform the brush strokes and so forth.  It may be a little difficult to understand on first read so I advise you to read a couple of times to fully grasp its invaluable piece of advice.

Below is a definition of the main words for tools used.

Varnish: they recommend a 1½ pound cut of seedlac (1½ pounds of an unrefined form of shellac dissolved in a gallon of alcohol).

Pencil: a brush (they recommend camel hair, we usually use china bristle brushes).

Rush:  horsetail rush/equisetum is a marshy grass that pulls silica out of the soil and has a very fine abrasive quality.  In my mind it compares to anything from 220 to 600 grit sandpaper (each rush is a little different from the last).  Its use in the 17th and 18th centuries is well documented.

Gallipot: a small earthenware container.

General Rules to be diligently observed in all manner of Varnishing.  

I am very solicitous that your Work should succeed, and therefore take all imaginable care to guide you, so that you cannot possibly miscarry; and in order thereunto shall propose rules and general Cautions,, which I desire you would have always in mind, and call them to your assistance in all your undertakings.

1. Therefore let your wood which you intend to varnish be close-grained, exempt and free from all knots and greasiness, very smooth, clean, and well rush’t.

2. Lay all your Colours and Blacks exquisitely even and smooth; and where ever mole-hills and knobs, asperities and roughness in colours or varnish offer to appear, with your Rush sweep them off, and tell them their room is more acceptable to you than their company.  If this ill usage will not terrifie them, or make them avoid your work, give them no better entertainment than you did before, but maintain your former severity, and with your Rush whip them off, as often as they molest you.

3. Keep your work always warm, by no means hot, which will certainly blister or crack it; and if that mischance through inadvertency should happen, tis next to irreparable, and nothing less than scraping off all the varnish can rectifie the miscarriage.

4. Let your work be thoroughly dry, after every distinct wash; for neglect in this point introduces the fault again, of which we warned you in the second rule, That your varnish should not be rough and knobby.

5. Let your work lie by and rest, as long as your convenience will admit, after tis varnished; for the better will your endeavors prove, the longer it stands after this operation.

6. Be mindful to begin your varnishing stroak in the middle of the table or box that you have provided for that work, and not in full length from one end to the other; so that your brush being planted in the middle of your board, strike it to one end; then taking it off, fix it to the place you began at, and draw or extend it to the other end; so must you do till the whole plane or content be varnished over.  I have reasons too for this caution, which if neglected, has several faults and prejudices attending it; for if you should undertake at one stroak to move your Pencil from end to end, it would so happen that you would overlap the edges and mouldings of your box; this overlapping is, when you see the varnish lie in drops and splashes, not laid by your brush, but caused by your brushes being at the beginning of the stroak overcharg’d and too full of varnish, and therefore we advise you to stroke your pencil once or twice against the Gallipot, to obstruct and hinder this superfluity; small experience will discover these mistakes.

[Rules 7-10 concern polishing finishes with tripoli, which we do on occasion, but we’ll reserve a discussion of these for a future post]

To conclude, let this Chapter be well studied, and remember, that without it you cannot regularly or safely perform the task; This is the Common-place-book, to which I shall continually refer you; and if you will prove negligent and remiss in this particular, I shall prophesie, that nothing can so infallibly attend you as Error and Disappointment.


Horsetail rush (Equisetum), a common historical abrasive, which, used on edge, results in a surface similar to that produced by 220 to 600 grit modern sandpapers. Here it’s effects are shown on a varnished piece of walnut.

Correct method of applying oil on timber

The term hand rubbed isn’t what it’s perceived today.  Let’s face it we are a lazy bunch when it comes to physical work and impatient as well, these two ingredients rob us from achieving wondrous, fantastic results. You know the old saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” and neither should your projects be, let’s leave the shoddy work for the mass producers.  We as amatuer woodworkers aka hobbyists have the luxury of time so why not utilise that time into producing outstanding results, after all we have the most important critic to satisfy…Ourselves.

The greatest advantage of oil polishing as it was once called is its permanence, it will withstand both heat and moisture and gives a dull, glossy or as it’s also known as a lustrous sheen effect and in some timbers it really can pop the grain which makes it visually very appealing.  Oiling your timbers can really be a lifesaver as you don’t’ have to worry about brush marks, runs or drips, fish eyes, orange peels and so forth.  It really is the safest and best way of applying finish on your projects regardless whether you’re an expert or a novice and after this article not only will you get larger biceps  you will become an expert in applying oil finish.

You can use this method in linseed oil or tung oil and you’d want to read up on my other articles on the different type of effects each oil gives to the timber.  I’m personally a big fan of Kunos Livos which is 100% natural but this oil doesn’t work on all timbers and can if not applied correctly give disastrous results, always best to experiment on scrap before committing it on your projects.


Apply either raw or boiled linseed diluted with five parts of turpentine or citrus solvents, I like to use citrus solvents for its pleasant smell and it’s a natural safe product.  You commonly use raw linseed for outdoor furniture and BLO for indoor.  Dilution of the oil allows the oil to penetrate the wood better, it leaves a thinner film on the surface and is more economical.  A quick word on the economics, there is no need to spend $50 on a bottle of BLO on popular name brands without mentioning them.  You might think they put something inside making it a better product when the truth is unlike the old advert “oils and oils” in this case oil is oil.  BLOSo if you buy BLO or Raw from  your local hardware store like Diggers brand here in Australia which costs around $11 at Bunnings you can bet it’s the same oil they have in the cans at $50+ at your most popular and over priced woodworking stores. Well enough on that.

To begin start early in the morning as this is an all day event and keep checking on your progress every half hour or so.

Linseed-Oil-Wood-Finish-with-AbsorbApply thin coats not heavy ones advocated by retail sellers and allow some time for the oil to soak into the timber and recoat as needed until no more oil is being sucked into the timber and then comes the laborious part, rub, rub and rub day after day creating a friction you might say this is burnishing the timber.  You keep doing this until no more oil is being regurgitated through the pores leaving you out of breath, sores muscles but a beautiful lustrous sheen for everyone to marvel at.


The process is simple but the work is hard just enjoy the process.