Finishing

Teaching Historic Finishing At MASW

Right after the conclusion of the Parquetry workshop at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking I dove in again with three days of Historic Finishing (reminder to self — DO NOT do this again.  The logistics of changing horses mid-week is a headache you can do without).  This class had more than a dozen students, and the enthusiastic feedback had led Marc to ask me to develop an expanded  week-long workshop on the same topic, which we will do in 2019.

I’ve pretty much got this workshop dialed in, as I do with Parquetry, so there is a fairly fixed syllabus here.  The emphasis is on processes and work habits rather than having a “completed” project at the end, concentrating on shellac spirit varnishes and beeswax applications.

The starting point is this 24×48 panel building up multiple brushed applications of 1-1/2 pound cut shellac to about 18 layers over the first day and a half.  Getting this to “done” allows us to explore the detailing and polishing of the surface.

We used polissoirs for preparing surfaces and applying wax, and filled the grain with molten beeswax.  Then we made and used polishing pads for applying spirit varnish.

Each student got to address the problems of finishing undulating surfaces,

applying pigmented wax grain filler,

and even making historic sandpaper.

The giant panels were polished out with a variety of period-appropriate abrasives,

and one quadrant was glazed with asphaltum.

All in all, it was a great time of fellowship and learning.  How could it not be, we were finishing!

 

A Juncus Polissor – IV

With the new Juncus polissoir made I took a minute to examine and characterize it, and give it a quick test drive.   As I said earlier, it took a lot more of the rush to compress to the same density of the sorghum polissoirs I have made for me.

My immediate impression of the Juncus polissoir is that is softer and more fragile than the sorghum.  The working surface just seemed softer to my fingertips and fingernail, and the fibers around the perimeter of the working tip were much more easily damaged and broken off.  My deduction is that this tool could not be used vigorously as a dry tip, unlike the sorghum.  Yannick Chastang implied as much when he indicated that this tool is always used with wax, although Roubo is less clear on the subject (Roubo could be a frustrating writer, often accomplishing the nearly impossible feat of being simultaneously effusive and laconic).

Due to time limitations, at that moment my only side-by-side apples vs. apples comparison I could make was to use a dry (unwaxed) sorghum polissoir and this new dry (unwaxed) Juncus polissoir on a prepped board.

Both accomplished glistening surfaces in a matter of seconds.

The visual result was pretty much indistinguishable, but there was a definite sensory difference; the Juncus polissoir seemed much softer to the surface of the wood.  Even though the fibers of each were compressed as tightly as possible, the sound of them tapping on the workpiece differed; the Juncus had a much softer, more diffused sound than the sorghum.  Deductively this implies that the sorghum polissoir was more efficient to Juncus in burnishing (compressing and smoothing the surface of the workpiece), yielding a “brighter” surface, but the Juncus might be superior in polishing (smoothing via rubbing abrasion) and also more forgiving.  Neither strikes me as “superior” overall at this point, they just have unique characters that differ.  I do suspect also that the sorghum polissoir is more robust and long-lasting than the more fragile Juncus, but that may or may not be true, and might be mitigated through wax impregnation.

As time allows in the future I will test and compare these tools further in the future, but for now that is what I have to report.

A Juncus Polissoir – III

Once the Juncus dried enough for me to play with, I trimmed a large hank to length, about 4-inches.

Just to make sure it was really dry I placed it in a glass canning jar on top of my coffee warmer glue pot for 24 hours.  Then I started to make a polissoir as I have done many times before, albeit with sorghum broom straw.

One thing that is immediately apparent is that Juncus is much less dense and more fragile than broom straw.  This is not a surprise give that Juncus is a hollow rush, essentially a tube structure.  When assembling the fibers for constructing the polissoir I did something I had not done before, I flipped half of the fibers and then shuffled them for a fairly even distribution.

Grabbing a handful from the case of hose clamps I keep on the shelf for maintaining the hydroelectric penstock, I lined everything up and started tightening.  And tightening.  And tightening.  The hollow feature of the Juncus meant that the collapse of the bundle was dramatically more than the broom straw.  While the broom straw compresses about 10-20% under clamping, in my gross observation (I did not measure it in advance) the Juncus compresses 50-75% to achieve the same density as the corn straw.  In other words, Juncus compresses somewhere between 2-1/2 and 7-1/2 times more than sorghum.

Once the bundle was tightly bound in the hose clamps I began to wrap it with heavy waxed linen cord until it was complete and tied off.

One one end of the polissoir I trimmed the tip with a Japanese knife; on the other I used a fine saw to cut off the excess.

Now it was ready to put to the test.

A Juncus Polissoir – I

The polissoirs I commission from a local craft-broom-maker employ the materials with which he normally works, namely broom straw (sorghum) and nylon twine, with woven outer sheaths.  It makes perfect sense given the scale that Polissoir, Inc. has become; he needs to use materials and techniques with which he is familiar and facile, and for which he has (for the moment) a sorta-reliable supply of raw materials.

The only variance from this is the Model 296 polissoir first commissioned by Thomas Lie-Nielsen for sale through his enterprise.  In this version, made as close to the original description in L’art du Menuisier as is practicable, the outer sheath is a wrapped linen cord rather than woven sorghum.

In reviewing the sorghum polissoirs (and To Make As Perfectly As Possible) marqueteur Yannick Chastang chided me for mis-identifying the fibers used in traditional polissoirs, asserting that the genuine article used a wetlands rush rather than sorghum, and that sorghum broom straw was an inferior material for polissoirs.   The first point is certainly a fair one, the second is a judgement/preference call I will discuss in a subsequent post.  It’s like saying a Ruger 10/22 rifle is superior to a Smith and Wesson .50 caliber revolver.  It depends on what you are trying to accomplish with the tool.

In the original text, Roubo uses the term “de jonc ordinaire” (common rush; the connection of “de jonc” to “Juncus” is not a great leap) for the plant fiber used in polissoirs.  Our dealing with that term highlights the difficulties of a translation project (and explains the reason this is a very slow writing process), especially when the primary meaning of words mutates over time.  Although French was probably the first codified modern language, it has changed little in the past three or four centuries, the hierarchy of definitions for words has definitely shifted.  Words for which the first definition might be XYZ in one time period might find definition WYZ to be the second, third, or even eighth-ranked definition in an earlier or later dictionary.  This is a struggle Michele, Philippe, and I wrestle with continually as we work our way through the original treatise.  Dictionaries roughly contemporaneous to Roubo declare that the word “de jonc” can mean reed, rush, straw, grass, hay and several other definitions I cannot recall at the moment.  But Yannick’s assertion that I chose the wrong word in English based on my editorial discretion is certainly not unfair.

With that idea in mind, I set out to explore the topic more fully.  One problem, though, resides in the question, “Which Juncus?”  After all, this is a huge genus consisting of several hundred species.

And, where would I find it?

Stay tuned.

Gold Leaf at Groopshop 2015

Several months ago a thread discussion on Groopmail revolved around the question, “What can be used as a substitute for gold leaf?”  My answer was short.  “Nothing.”

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In response to much of the discussion I presented a brief demo about gold leaf at this year’s Groopshop, showing real gold leaf, which was the first time many of the attendees had ever seen it in the flesh; my preparations for the ground beneath the gold leaf, and finally the manipulation of the leaf and its laying onto the substrate.  It was, in short, a more brief version of my talk at Woodworking in America last year.

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The actual demo was less successful than I would have liked, mostly due to the atmosphere in the room, but it did give a good idea about the process.

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Gold leafing brings into focus the importance of the first of the Six Rules for Perfect Finishing — if the substrate is not well prepared, nothing else is going to work out well.

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I moved through the preparation of the glue base for traditional gesso using a dilute solution of hide glue (I started out with a 10% solution of 444 gws glue granules in distilled water)

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then the mixing and application of gesso itself,

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smoothing the gesso and applying the bole.  I’ve found that a polissoir does a terrific job a working the surface after I use abrasives of scrapers to get it ready for the next step.

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Then I moved on to the handling of the leaf itself on the gilder’s pad, readying it for the application over oil size or by water gilding.  Like I said, the room was a bit iffy for the process, but at least they got the idea of how it is done.

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One of the things I did ex poste that was a lot of fun was to apply a layer of Finish Up to a panel and lay gold leaf into it immediately.  Definitely something worth exploring further.

Groopshop 2015

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For almost a decade and a half I have been an active participant in the on-line discussion, The Professional Refinisher’s Group.  What began as a custom crafted email list with mostly strip-and-dip shop proprietors in attendance it has over the years evolved into a sophisticated lightly-moderated forum for conversations surrounding the practices of finishing and furniture restoration.  Soon after I joined, the idea percolated for Groop, as we affectionately call this entity, to grow into something greater than, and more personal than, a daily exchange of email threads.  In response to this impulse we have gathered periodically in the flesh to have times of fellowship and learning.

Recently I attended, learned, and presented at Groopshop 2015 in Pontoon Bach, Illinois, hosted magnificently in the spacious and tidy shop of John Hurn and John’s associate Michelle Veit, (with a ginormous shout-out to Mrs. Hurn and their daughter).  Both John and Michele are graduates of the famed (and now demised) Woodfinishing Program of the Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minnesota, just south of St. Paul.  My beloved friend Mitch Kohanek was their instructor and mentor at DCTC, as he was for many of the artisans in attendance.

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I learned immensely from the other presentations, ranging for retired Mohawk technical services guru Greg Williams’ demonstrating wood bleaching and the use of “Finish Up,” an ultra high performance waterborne urethane that blew me away.

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Other sessions included Mike Mascelli’s demos (with Michelle Veit) on upholstering techniques and materials.

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Fred McLean gave us some great insights gleaned from his recent explorations of lighting options for the shop, resulting in better illumination and dramatically lowered costs.

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Martin O’brien shared his passions about paste waxes

I was actually so busy paying attention that I didn’t take as many pictures as I should have.  Missing from the pictures are Ben Myre’s discussion of shop marketing, Mark Faulkner’s presentations on shop business strategies and accounting, Freddy Roman’s demonstrations of veneering and banding, Randy Bohn reminiscing about a thirty year career in the antiquities restoration world, Dave MacFee talking about upscaling mundane projects into revenue enhancers,  and Karl Kennedy leading our wrap-up discussion.

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I presented a session on gold leafing, and a practice run of the HO Studley talk I will be giving at the upcoming Woodworking in America.  I’ll post about that next time.

If you are hankering for an excellent forum for discussions on all things finishing and furniture restoration, give “Groop” a try. You won’t be sorry you did.

Making New Finishes “Look Old”

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This year I was invited to be a presenter at the SAPFM Mid-Year Meeting in Knoxville.  My topic was “Making New Finishes ‘Look Old’,” a theme that built on my presentation of four years ago, “Traditional Finishes.”

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The host of the East Tennessee Historical Center was a wonderful choice, not the least of the reasons being some magnificent stained glass, for which I am a total sucker.

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They also provided a near-perfect setting for theater-in-the-round demonstrating that I like so much.

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Just like my Simple Rules For Perfect Finishing, I created a set of Simple Rules for Getting That “Aged Look” Finish.  There was great demand for the information, and I will no doubt include it in the upcoming Historic Finishers Handbook, the manuscript for which I will begin as soon as I get done with R2.

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I touched on and presented the techniques for doing just that, including various approaches to hand rubbed finishes, shading and highlighting the varying surfaces that would be the result of generations of use and environment, adding the requisite schmutz that builds up in the crevices of furniture over the decades, and finally working out on the ledge of “controlled craqueleur” that understandably inspired fear and shaking heads throughout the room.

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Our sessions went far afield at times — at SAPFM Mid-year the speakers give the same two-hour demonstrations three times in a row on the same day — including forays into color theory, gloss and transparency, refractive indices, and of course a cursory review of traditional finishing materials and methods.

It seemed as though a good time was had by all, at least there were no career-ending injuries.  But at the end of the day, I was ready for bed.

Sample Board Partying – French Wax Polishing

Probably the simplest beautiful finish from a technological point of view is the French molten wax polish, which has but a few individual components yet yeilds a beautiful, lustrous presentation surface.

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The first thing is a block of clean beeswax.  I render my own from raw wax straight from the beekeepers after the honey is harvested.

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Next comes a source of heat to melt the wax onto the surface of the wood.  Historically something like a roofer’s soldering iron was used, these days I use an electric tacking iron.

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I move the hot iron over the surface, spreading and melting the wax onto and into the surface until it is fully saturated.

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Once the molten wax has been imbibed fully into the wood surface it is left to cool,

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and once fully hardened it is scraped with a simple metal, wood, or bone scraper.  If the scraper has a nice clean edge (no burr!), the resulting surface can be mirror-like.  A little buffing with a piece of soft cloth like worn flannel or fine wool and you are done.  This might even be enhanced with some spit  polish.

The result is a high-sheen, non-toxic and easily repairable surface that is pretty robust against abrasion but utterly defenseless against heat or oily materials.  I’m working on some formulations to  make this finish a lot tougher, but it is increasingly one with which I am toying, and as I move forward with designing and fabrication parquetry panels, you can believe it is something I will employ.

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Summer Workshops 2015

After long and careful consideration, I have concluded that I simply cannot host any workshops at The Barn this coming summer.  The combination of the Studley book and exhibit, brutal winter aftermath with a mountain of things to do on the homestead, projects that have languished in the studio, and the need to wrap-up Roubo on Furniture Making (almost twice as large as Roubo on Marquetry) leaves me with no time nor energy to dedicate to workshops at the barn.  I had planned on a historic finishing workshop in late June, but that will have to wait until net year.  In September I will host a week-long workbench build for my friends of the Professional Refinishers Group web forum.

This is not to say I will be entering my long anticipated hermit phase.  My presence and teaching elsewhere over the summer will be evident.  Check these out.

Henry O. Studley Tool Cabinet and Workbench exhibit – May 15-17, Cedar Rapids IA

Making New Finishes Look Old – Society of American Period Furniture Makers Mid-Year Conference, June 11-15, Knoxville TN

Gold Leaf and its AnalogsProfessional Refinisher’s Group Groopfest, June 24-26, Pontoon Beach IL

The Henry Studley Book and Exhibit (breakfast banquet address) and Roubo Parquetry (demo workshop) – Woodworking in America 2015, September 25-27, Kansas City MO

 

Sample Board Partying – Cerusing

Cerusing, or glazing, is the technique whereby you apply a hyper-thin layer of pigmented medium on the surface of the wood in order to manipulate its coloration.  “Glazing” is the more generic term for using the technique to change coloration is any direction, but “cerusing” is a term specific to the lightening or whitening of wood.  Ceruse had been first used actually as a cosmetic known as Venetian Ceruse, a face “glaze” made from led white and oils to make the wearer look, well, pasty faced (think about the court of Queen Elizabeth I). Lead white was an especially prized pigment by the ancients in great part due to its translucency.  Imagine how pasty-faced you could look after a lifetime of slathering lead white on your face!

Not surprisingly we do not use lead pigments widely despite their evident beneficial properties (oil paints made with lead pigments are nearly indestructible as the lead imparts tremendous durability) beyond very specialized application by fine artists making easel paintings.  Instead we use a combination of titanium dioxide and calcium carbonate or similar benign pigments for our whites.

Like the earlier liming process, for cerusing the wood was planed and scraped but unlike liming it not scrubbed with a brass brush.

The key to this process is to prepare and apply a thin layer of essentially translucent paint evenly over the surface.  In many instances of glazing the surface is first sealed to provide a barrier to the glaze soaking into the wood, but in this case the controlled “soaking in” is a critical component.  If the surface is smoothly scraped this works fine. If the surface is sanded, the results can be more of a challenge as the comparatively rougher, more “open” sanded surface behaves differently vis-a-vie the glaze than the scraped surface.

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For these sample boards I prepared a white glaze from one part oil-paint primer, one part tung oil, and one part mineral spirits, with about 2% japan drier.

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I slathered a thin layer of the glaze over the surface distributing it as evenly as possible with the cheap disposable brush, then worked it back and forth with a fine bristle brush, going one direction, then perpendicular to it, then diagonal and perpendicular to that, then finishing up with the grain with a very light touch.  Excess glaze is not helpful, just put on enough to cover the whole surface to the visual intensity and depth that you want, keeping in mind that your working the surface with a brush will pull some of the glaze off.  As you smooth out the glaze and pull it off with the brush, make sure to clean the brush frequently by rubbing it against a rag, which you will throw away when finished (make sure to do it properly, as the oily rag is flammable).

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With a light touch and a good brush you can leave a perfect translucent layer on top of the raw wood, with just enough soaking in to bring it to life.

Once the glaze is fully dry, I follow it with a wiping of paste wax, and call it done.

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As you can see from the comparative samples of flat-sawn cypress and quarter sawn oak, a cerused pickling is well suited for bold grain.

The techniques of glazing will be mentioned regularly in this blog and upcoming presentations and writings, as it was both historically accurate, especially asphaltum and brick-dust glazes, and is an important tool in the kit to making new surfaces appear to be aged.

Stay tuned.