Finishing

Mentors

Recently I learned that Fred Schindler died.  This picture is us from 2013.  I recount my earlier faulty conclusion about his demise here.

I have always considered him not only a dear life-long friend but my greatest mentor in the finishing/restoration trade as he hired me when I was 18 (?) and I worked for him off-and-on for five years (the “off” of that was when I moved to attend college).  He said he always appreciated the fact that when I asked him for a job and he asked me what I could do, I replied, “I know how to sand and sweep the floor.”  (I learned over time that guys asking for work would promise the moon regarding their abilities, always falsely.)  I could do a little more than that after two years as a “scratch and dent man” but did not want to over promise my abilities, which were nowhere up to the standards of his shop.  I knew of Schindler & Son because one of the furniture stores I had worked for used them for special custom finishing projects.

As far as I know Fred was pretty much self-taught but he was the best finisher I ever saw when it came to matching a new surface to an old one.  And the business had plenty of old surfaces to work on, as probably the premier antique restorers for old money Palm Beach clients including Charles and Jayne Wrightsman whose collection of classical French furnishings was unparalleled. The business was so successful that the shop phone number was unlisted.  The velocity of projects there was mind-numbing in retrospect; I probably restored/refinished a couple hundred antiques a year while working there.  Conversely, while at SI I generally conserved a piece or two, maybe three or four, every year.  The wealth of that experience at Schindler & Son formed a foundation for all my work ever since.

While Fred was selfless in transferring his knowledge and skills, his father Fernand (“Pop”) was a bit pricklier and reticent but even he and I formed a close bond.  Being the victim of good upbringing, I treated Pop with respect and admiration, and he reciprocated by teaching more about marquetry and furniture making (especially ancient French Furniture) than I can even fully comprehend.  Pop was retired by the time I came on the scene, but he showed up for a couple hours almost every day, guiding me through scores of restoration projects.

My regard for this father-and-son team is such that one of the Roubo books is dedicated to them.

With Fred’s death I have been recalling three other great work-related mentors of mine — Frank Tautzenberger, a curmudgeonly Hungarian immigrant who seemed about 200 years old and operated the warehouse corner repair shop in the first furniture store I ever worked and shuffled around in bedroom slippers making damage disappear; John Kuzma, the master of the foundry pattern shop who taught me about the meaning of precision; and Bert van Zelst, my long-time unit director at SI who showed me what disciplined curiosity looked like.  Each of them imparted an unspeakable wealth of knowledge and insight, and oh the stories I could tell…  Perhaps another day.

When I contemplate my own role as a mentor to other craftsmen and measure it against what these men did to for me, alas I come up short.

Farewell for now Fred, I will see you soon enough in Paradise.

Historic Finishing Workshop Finale – One Big Board Becomes Four Samples

For the home stretch of the jam-packed three-day workshop the final set of exercises involved the giant panel.  It had already served its first purpose, getting the students comfortable with laying down an exquisite brushed shellac surface over a large area.  Since the panels were roughly half the size of a dining table, I’m thinking any hurdles of intimidation have been overcome.

At this point the panel was subdivided into four quadrants, each of them to be treated in a unique manner.  The first quarter was easy — just leave it alone as an example of laying down an excellent base of three-inning shellac.

A second quarter was spirit varnish pad polished to a high sheen, demonstrating the option of creating a not-grain-filled padded surface.

 

The third quarter was hand polished with abrasive powders, first 4F pumice then rottenstone in mineral oil, using a polishing pad identical to the spirit varnishing pad.  This was followed by a light application of paste wax and buffed when the wax was firm.

The final quarter was burnished with Liberon 0000 steel wool saturated with paste wax, and as with the rottenstone polishing, rubbed until you just get tired.  When the paste wax was firm ex poste it was buffed with flannel to a brilliant glow.

As always there is at least one somebody who gets seduced by my library.

When we wrapped up the event it was clear that they had all mastered the techniques wonderfully, and departed with confidence and a set of sample boards to guide and inspire them for decades to come.

If scheduling a workshop identical to the one these fellows completed, drop me a note.  I will no longer “schedule” any workshops but only host them on request.

Historic Finishing Workshop – Tar Tonality, or, The Brown of “Brown and Shiney”

In the finishing trade we often quip that our job is to make wood, “Brown and shiney.”  Historically one of the main methods employed for the “brown” part was asphaltum, or tar.  I knew of using tar as a toning glaze in gilding, where the tar would be diluted with white spirits and used to accentuate the gilded surfaces.  I had not used it for wood until about fifteen years ago, responding to the evangelism of Alan Noel, a/k/a “The Czar of Tar,” and famed Atlanta based finisher and restorer and long time friend

For the workshop I’d asked Knoxville Dave to provide instruction on both pad polishing and asphaltum glazing, since he does so much more of that than I do.   Yes indeed, that is a can of fiberless parging asphalt that he is mixing and diluting to glaze consistency.

We both using glazing as our “go to” technique for coloring, since it is so much more controllable than any penetrating colorant, and can be controlled to perfection.   Sometimes staining works perfectly, but is is “just off a little bit” enough to take that technique off the table for me.

The exercise that really showcases the asphalt glazing technique was toning the turnings.  They were first shellacked then burnished, leaving a magnificent foundation on to which you lay the color.  The dilute asphalt was spread on the surface, then manipulated with cloth pads and fine bristle brushes to provided subtle shading to the presentation surface.

One of the beauties of asphaltum is that it performs almost like a dye, yet can be manipulated to provide both understated and exuberant change.

Dave also demonstrated using the glaze on a flat panel to great effect, mimicking the “ammonia fuming” so prized in Craftsman furniture finishes.

With that, the students were turned loose on the workpieces.

One of the fellows did some asphalt glazing to his new carved Bible box to great effect.

After the asphalt dried the surfaces were sealed with another coat of the shellac varnish.

The only thing left for the workshop was final detailing for the mega panel.  Stay tuned.

 

 

Historic Finishing Workshop – Varnishing the Curvey Parts (Carvings and Turnings)

One area of great frustration, fear and failure for many woodworkers is the challenge of applying a hand-finish to voluptuous surfaces, including carved and turned objects.  While I could not provide a syllabus with examples of every possible option in this exercise I was able to introduce the principles, practices and tools requisite for the task.  The key to success in varnishing the curvey parts is to use the correct tool, in this case an oval wash or Filbert Mop brush for watercolor paintings.

There are many excellent brands of watercolor brushes for artists that work brilliantly for wood finishing, but I have sorta settled on Simmons brushes in part because they were widely available at Michael’s.  Even their cheapest brush, the “Simply Simmons” line, can provide an exquisite brushed surface.  I have a few of the middle-quality brushes, the Simmons Sienna line, and they are even better.  Of the premier line, the Simmons Sapphire, I have about a half dozen, and they are sublime, a blend of nylon fibers and sable bristles.

Regardless of which one you choose, and the price range is around $10-15 for the Simply Simmons to $75-100 for the Sapphire, you will have excellent results on undulating surfaces because the Oval Wash/Filbert Mop configuration does not have the square corner typical for most brushes.  Those corners are the source of nothing but headaches on the carved or turned surface as it is the corners that “squeegee” off excess varnish, leading to the runs, drips, and errors that are the curse from finishing with the wrong tool.

In this workshop I had a pile of turned spindles and frame-and-panel cabinet doors to provide the battleground for the exercises.  As almost always the starting point is to burnish the entire surface with a polissoir, and I have designed a “Carver’s Model” polissoir with 3/4″ bristles for just this instance.

One of the real delights for the workshop was that one of the students had just made a carved Bible box the week before, and brought it along for the class.

The transformation of the raw carved surface by the application of a few minutes’ worth of burnishing was truly astounding.

Then it was time to get to brushing the shellac varnish, and the draping character of the oval brushes – almost literally clinging to the irregular surface – was life-changing to the students as they were able to lay down multiple flawless applications of varnish.

 

 

Suddenly, what had been an aspect of wood finishing imparting fear and loathing became something to anticipate with celebration.

 

 

Historic Finishing Workshop – Making Sandpaper

… or more precisely, glass paper.

Though certainly not used to the degree of our current time, when it is ubiquitous in every shop I have ever visited, sandpaper was in the furniture maker’s and finisher’s tool kits in days past.  There are many probable reasons for it being much scarcer in the 18th century, not the least being the cost of all paper-based products.  We know only the time when paper and all its descendants are cheap and plentiful to the point where it is simply mindlessly disposable.  250 years ago, not only was the paper essentially hand made (yes, I know the process was being industrialized even then) but so too was the associated product of “glass paper.”  Abrasive paper sheets were undoubtedly also industrialized to a great degree, but thus far I have never read an authoritative period account of glass-paper making.  If you know of one please let me know.

One of the delightful rabbit trails I’ve been incorporating into historic finishing workshops in recent years has been to include making a sheet of glass paper by each student.   As in olden days the abrasive itself was ground glass, known as frit, and the adhesive gluing the abrasive to the paper was hot hide glue.  Using 135 gws glue to saturate 100% rag paper, then sheet was sprinkled with the fine frit (approximately equivalent to 100-grit sandpaper).  Not to self — when photographing this exercise for the book, DO NOT use white frit over white paper.

Set aside to dry for a day, the result was a usable sheet of abrasive paper.  Were I to incorporate this product into my normal shop activities I would take the additional step of “hardening” the glue with a chemical crosslinker applied to the back side of the paper.  Historically the chemical would have been formaldehyde, but nowadays I would use Heico NH5 photo gelatin solution.

Historic Finishing Workshop – Big Board Third Inning

The third inning for the big board exercise was perhaps the simplest and certainly is receiving the sparsest treatment on the blog.

The preparation for the third application set was to scrape the entire surface briefly with disposable razor blades.  Scraping finishes is a long standing tradition going back probably three centuries, but rather than go through the practice of preparing and using burr-edge scrapers it was just easier to use razor blades for such a limited time.

Following the scraping to the point where the surface was uniformly matte, the final application set was accomplished with another 4-6 complete coats of the ~2-pound shellac varnish.

The board was then set aside for the rest of the second day, to be used for the rub-out exercises on the afternoon of the final day.

Historic Finishing Workshop – Convening the Church of “French” Polishing

In the realm of wood finishing there is probably no technique more revered than that of the mirror-like French Polish.  The catechism, liturgy and mysticism of this top-of-the-food-chain practice form the transcendent popular doctrine of the art form.  In roughly 100% of the finishing workshops I’ve taught over the past four decades my exhortations on the strategy and structure of finishing success are politely entertained, but the student response tells me that what they really want to know is “how to French Polish.”

Such was once again the case in the recent workshop.  Inasmuch as “French Polishing” is not a direct manifestation of The Divine I am not particularly seduced by this mindset.  Pad polished spirit varnish surfaces are indeed spectacular and lovely in the right setting, but I see the world of wood finishes as being so much larger and richer than that.  Nevertheless a spirit varnish pad polish is one important component of the art, a practice I undertake on occasion and with pretty solid competence.  Given that my pal Knoxville Dave does more of it these days than I do, I asked him to come to the barn for the weekend and lead the students through this series of exercises.

Spirit varnish pad polishing is unusually dependent on the “feel” feedback loop running through the brain, down the arm, into the hand holding the pad, the nature of the interaction of the varnish laden pad with the surface being polished, and the resultant information signal being sent back up the hand and arm to the brain.  With practice this OODA loop becomes habituated like almost every other aspect of creativity, but at the beginning it is critical to decode the process.  Dave is really excellent at that decoding tutorial.

This workpiece is purposely bland so that the visual information will be derived solely from the varnish being laid down.  Dave charged his pad and began sweeping his pad across the surface in a landing-and-takeoff motion, developing both the motion and rhythm for the equation of pad + varnish charge + temp + humidity + character of the workpiece, feeding into the OODA loop instructing the process.

In short order the sheen began to build such that the evidence was clear of the proceedings.  After a few minutes of the pad polishing there was enough build-up that Dave moved on to a more visually appealing workpiece.

The mahogany veneered panel was just the thing to emphasize the possibilities of this most simple finishing technique.  Given the wax filled grain of the surface the build-up went very fast; the time codes on the images indicate a total work time two minutes between the previous picture and the following picture.

With this encouraging demo completed the students began working on their own workpeices.  They took it it like a fish to water.

One of the issues we struggled with for the weekend was the cool, damp weather.  As the spirit varnish was applied the solvent evaporation brought the surface temperature of the workpiece down to the dew point, and we wrestled with cloudy films.  Once they began to become manifest it was time to set the workpiece aside and after an hour or so the film clarified.

Historic Finishing Workshop – Calling Mr. Myagi

It was, in the unforgettable words of actor Pat Morita in The Karate Kid, “Wax on, wax off.”  This time, however, the “wax on” was molten and the “wax off” was accomplished with Roubo-esque scrapers I made from brass bar stock and scraps of tropical hardwood flooring.  By melting wax into the surface, the wood would be prepared perfectly for a grain-filled spirit-varnish finish in the traditional fashion, wax being the dominant grain filler until mineral deposits like plaster or gesso became more popular with industrial manufacturing of furniture.  Although, when hammer veneering was the fabrication technique, the grain was well-filled with hot hide glue.

Three sample boards were readied for the exercise with pumice block and razor blade scraping, especially the crotch mahogany veneer panels that had a lot of residue from their original manufacture (I picked up a stack of these panels somewhere along the way and cannot say exactly how they were made except to say that the trace evidence suggests the use of phenolic adhesive and a mighty powerful press, but there was a lot of smoothing to be done).  The mahogany panels were being prepped for primo pad polishing as was one of the nondescript sample boards, the third board was going to be waxed, buffed and nothing else.

With small tacking irons wax from the solid blocks was drizzled onto the wood surface, then the drips were re-melted and spread around the surface until there was a good deposition of the molten wax over the entire sample board.

Once cooled, any excess wax was scraped off with a burr-less scraper fashioned after those described and illustrated by Roubo.  When finished, it was time to move on to the process everyone had been waiting for.

Historic Finishing Workshop – Big Board Exercise Second Inning

It is worth reiterating the purposes of the Big Board exercise, which in many ways is the foundation for the whole workshop curriculum.  When I present a 2-foot by 4-foot piece of unremarkable luan or birch plywood to the students and tell them they will be finishing this entire board with a 1-inch watercolor brush, their quizzical expressions are met with my exhortation to hang in there as the outcome will be workshop-life-changing.  Once this exercise is completed, actually it is an entire series of exercises embedded into a single plywood board,  the student will have become fearless Finishing Ninjas.  Everything else in the workshop is frosting on the cake.

I have come to refer to each finish application session as an “inning”, and the big board exercise for the workshop entailed three innings.  First thing on Day 1 it was a light abrading with a pumice block followed by four or five consecutive brushed applications of the shellac varnish, then set aside for several hours.  Inning 1 was my opportunity to preach about the selection of the correct brush and proper use of that brush.  Even by the end of Inning 1 it was readily apparent that a near-perfect film could be built with that 1-inch watercolor brush, with no resulting overlap margins due to good brush technique.

Inning 2 commenced with a light sandpaper smoothing of the material deposited during Inning 1, followed by another four or five consecutive applications of the brushed spirit varnish.  Again, this was set aside, this time until the following morning.

By this point we were well on the way to constructing an excellent foundation for the final elements of the exercise as almost a dozen layers of spirit varnish were flowed on skillfully.

Historic Finishing Workshop – Constructing and Conditioning the Spirit Varnish Polishing Pad

As with many woodworkers the students for the recent workshop were enamored with the mystique of shellac spirit varnish pad polishing, also known in the trade vernacular as “French polishing” although I am unpersuaded by the accuracy of that moniker (I have listened to impassioned recitations by French craftsmen referring to the practice as “English polishing” because true historic French Polishing is a wax spit-polish technique).  To that end I asked my long time pal Knoxville Dave to stop by for the weekend and he was a great addition to the fellowship and learning experience.

Dave provided the hands-on instruction for the exercises of pad polishing through the weekend, beginning with constructing the pad itself.

As is my (and his) preference the starting point is a roll of surgical gauze, cut into long strips then folded and rolled into the ball that is the core of the polishing pad.

Once the ball is formed to fit into the palm of the user, it is wrapped with a piece of fine linen to serve as the disposable contact surface for delivering the dilute shellac varnish onto the surface of the workpiece.  (I am always on the lookout for fine linen rags at antique shops, and with great success in recent years.  If I have to use new linen I rely on an ultra fine weave known as either “handkerchief linen” or “Portrait linen,” the latter being used by fine art painters.  Still, I prefer well-worn tablecloths or napkins and have a good stash.)  At that point the entire tool is “conditioned” with the introduction of the spirit varnish to saturate both the ball core and the outer sheath, not enough to be dripping wet but enough to leave a trace of the spirit varnish when pressed into the opposite palm.  At this point the pad is ready for work.

It went into a dedicated sealed jar awaiting the combat to come.  Dave and I showed our own polisher jar containers, mine has served me with the same pad for almost two decades.

Now it was time to prep the panels to be polished out.  By the time we finished I think there were five separate pad polishing exercises to be completed.