Customers often ask for our recommendations of furniture finishes.
The answer is complex!
Furniture pieces have various needs. Antiques were often stained with berry juices and top coated with an oil, wax or shellac. Although many old finishes can be replicated, modern technology has given us a smorgasbord of options.
A variety of products and techniques are now possible.
Some require lots of elbow grease and use homemade concoctions.
Some can be applied within a day’s period.
Some require many weeks to apply.
Some look great when complete, but may deteriorate in a short time.
Many historic finishes have fallen out of favor because they are high maintenance and reapplication is very labor intensive. Finishing 200 year-old walnut furniture is vastly different from working with today’s walnut furniture: the walnut “DNA” has changed over the years. Wood density was much greater in the past. The density affected its ability to absorb a finish.
Wax, oil and shellac finishes have been used for centuries. The so-called patina evolves differently depending on the finish.
Waxes have been popular for many years. They are soft and easy to apply. Damage to a wax finish usually can be corrected with a little burnishing and reapplication. Stains that penetrate the wood can be difficult to repair. We recently restored a 150-year-old cabinet that had a wax finish and was held together with hand-forged nails. Application of multiple coats of wax was required in this instance. A butcher block table is the ideal application for a wax finish.
Varnishes have changed over the years. The original varnish is seldom used now. It is a very labor-intensive product to apply and requires a very skilled craftsman. It requires many slow drying coats and a controlled environment. Like the oils, it is a reactive finish, which requires an outside source to cure. This source could come into contact with oxygen or having a catalyst added. Full cure normally is up to a month.
Modern varnishes are not the varnishes of Egyptian times, when resin from trees was blended with a turpentine or solvent. In recent decades boating has helped popularize Spar Varnishes. Also known as marine varnish, spar varnish provides UV protection and great elasticity while waterproofing surfaces.
Many homeowners are familiar with conversion varnish, the finish of choice for kitchen and bath cabinets. Conversion varnish is normally applied in a factory setting. It has excellent chemical resistant characteristics and is quite durable. It is very hard to repair.
Drying Oils come in a variety of types. There are exterior oils, such as teak oil and interior products, such as linseed and tong oils. Oils are simple for the amateur to use and are applied by hand. They tend to yellow with age and usually several applications are necessary because the oil dries out. They have been used for hundreds of years.
Shellac finishes were very popular during the previous century. Shellac was the to-go floor finish. Unfortunately, it was necessary to redo the floors annually, something our modern society isn’t willing to do. It had poor wearability and was susceptible to water and alcohol damage. For these reasons, and the fact that it would melt under low heat, homeowners do not appreciate its short longevity.
French Polishing is a technique of hand rubbing many, many thin coats of shellac dissolved in alcohol using a pad. It is one of the most beautiful finishes and was very popular during the Victorian era. Only experienced skilled craftsmen should apply this finish.
Traditional lacquers are most popular for the average furniture restorer. They are durable and can be touched up and over sprayed fairly easily. They are hard and somewhat brittle. They have been used over 100 years and can be seen in many antiques. The crackling (alligator appearance) seen in the finish after the piece had been stored for a period of time is caused by its brittleness and susceptibility to heat. Then majority of finishes according to Master Craftsmen Services, Inc. used pre-catalyzed lacquer. We find that this catalyst adds the strength most consumers want and doesn’t give the furniture a plastic look. We adjust the sheen to suit the customer.
Polyurethane seems be the most popular finish for much of our modern furniture. It is easy to recognize that plastic finish. It is very tough and resistant to scratching. Typically, we see one coat of a tinted finish applied. A scratch through this finish will expose a different color which is very difficult to touch up, re-coat or remove for refinishing. Repair and stripping is not for the amateur.
There is a bastardization of all finishes. Oil used finishes can now be procured as a water base. Catalyst and resins have significantly changed and have given the end user many more options. Different products require different procedures in their application and need for reversal. Curing times have been cut at a cost in quality. Some materials won’t allow certain products to be applied. The bottom line….CALL A PROFESSIONAL.
Test for Existing Finish on Furniture
Rub a Few Drops of Boiled Linseed Oil Into the Wood – If water is absorbed, the wood has an oil finish. If it beads up, the wood has a hard finish (See the following paragraph).
Rub Acetone Over a Spot in a Gentle, Circular Motion – Polyurethane finishes shed acetone like water. Lacquer dissolves in 30 seconds with rubbing. Varnishes and shellacs turn to a sticky, gel-like substance after a minute or two (see the following paragraph).
Try a Few Drops of Denatured Alcohol – Shellac dissolves quickly in denatured alcohol. Varnish reacts slowly.