A blog dedicated to woodworking, hand tools, toolmaking and the like.
Like a lot of woodworkers I know, when it comes to finishing a project (as in applying a finish) I have a bad tendency to tune out. I use a lot of wipe on poly, salad bowl finish (General Finishes brand), paint, or wax because they are easy and go on quick. I had never thought of applying finish as a "fun" thing to do...until I met Mr. Don Williams.
It isn't as if Mr. Williams suddenly made the process of applying finish entertaining (it is after all, the literal precursor to watching paint dry), he simply provided some insight into traditional finishes that made them entirely approachable and had some results that were anything but boring.
My old standby Minwax polyurethane has proven, for me to be durable, adaptable, and easy to apply. Why then, do you ask, would I look for anything else? The problem with polyurethane lies in the fact that it is polyurethane. Polyurethane isn't period correct for restorations, repairs or re-creations and can be very troublesome to apply to an existing finish. Poly can quickly dull or even eradicate the texture of certain woods (as can many plastic type film finishes with overzealous application), it doesn't perform well (in the long run) in sunlight, and in the end (for better or worse) it looks like a poly finish. For these reasons I have been toying with the idea of trying something different, however, until recently I didn't know where to start.
One of the easiest traditional finishes turns out to be beeswax. For low traffic areas and decorative pieces beeswax is a beautiful and appropriate finish. I watched Mr. Williams heat up some beeswax from a large (Dixie Cup shaped) hunk with an edge-banding iron and drip it directly onto a beautiful piece of marquetry he had smoothed up with a couple handplanes. After the wax dried he scraped off the excess with a sharpened wedge of hard wood (polishing stick) and the result was a semi glossy, richly textured, easy to touch finish that popped with the details of the wood below. I was sold immediately.
I had always thought that beeswax was one of those idealistic finishes that wasn't really good for much (aside from lubricating a handsaw). As it turns out, beeswax by itself can be used for a multitude of projects. Additionally, I learned from Mr. Williams that beeswax can turned into a more durable (harder) finish with the addition of some admixtures. One that I have tinkered with a little is 3 parts beeswax, 1 part carnauba and three parts turpentine (to soften the wax for application). The carnauba helps harden the beeswax and gives it a higher gloss sheen but because the base is still beeswax the texture and richness of the beeswax still takes center stage.
Mr. Williams then dove into the description and methodology behind his famously rediscovered (Andre Roubo described) polissoir. If you haven't already seen one of these it seems too simple to work, but it does. The Polissoir is basically a bunch of tightly bound straw, a broom handle. Mr. Williams had one that was used without wax to burnish and one that had been dipped in hot wax for applying wax. The burnisher I think would have been better completed with a bone or hardwood burnisher (the polissoir sounds like nails on a chalkboard without wax), but the wax application was amazing. The stiffness and mild abrasive nature of the straw helps to work the beeswax into the pores of the wood (a traditional grain filler) and to build up a fine sheen of wax on the surface of the wood. A final polishing with washed linen (check your local thrift store) and the beeswax was absolutely beautiful. In fact, a lot of this process reminded me of polishing my boots when I was in the military as the goal is to fill the grain of the leather and build up enough waxy boot polish on the surface to create a mirror shine (I was thankful when we switched to the tan suede boots). If you'd like to read a well written article on the Polissoir, I'd recommend picking up a copy of this quarters Fine Tool Journal. Here is a video from Mr. Christopher Schwarz' YouTube Channel.
A Polissoir, Who Knew?
Using The Polissoir On Molding
The next wood finishing miracle of the insect world that Mr. Williams covered was shellac. I tried some flake shellac in grain alcohol a while ago and I was surprised at how easy the application went, and at how easy it went down with a little OJ. That was the last time I used shellac. Raw shellac always seemed very intimidating to me because I had no idea if I was using it properly and I didn't care much for the pre-mixed can type. Additionally, I wasn't sure of the shelf life of my mix, the safety of the shellac or the durability of the finish. As it turns out, all of these are non-issues. The dry flakes (if kept dry and cool) will last nearly indefinitely, the mix will last six months to a year, and shellac is used on candy, shampoo and lipstick, and some shellac finishes have lasted over a hundred years. Cutting shellac is very simple, and instead of just reposting a good "cut" chart, I'll just leave a link to one Shellac Pound Cut Chart.
Some Shellac In Various Forms
As to applying shellac. There are many ways to properly apply shellac from applying with a pad in a french polish to brushing like crazy with a decent brush. Mr. Williams recommended a Taklon brush, a 1-2 lb cut (for brushing) and some patience. He pulled out an 18"x18" piece of plywood, a brush, and a jar of shellac and proceeded to apply shellac in small sections working his way across the board. Once he got to the far side of the plywood, he checked to see that the starting point was dry to the touch and then he started brushing again (applying a second coat).
Mr. Williams Brushing Shellac
After Mr. Williams shared his extensive knowledge of all things finish, he started to discuss his emerging interest in paint. He recently built a replica of a Gragg chair (Boston Chair Maker Samuel Gragg 1772-1855). The finishes on this chair are milk paint and shellac. The chair is beautiful in person and is very inviting to touch, the finish is very tactile. I'm not sure how crazy I am about the painted lines though. I'll keep my mind open to future painted projects from Mr. Williams though, as he has proven himself right about all the other finishes I thought were questionable.
As I complete more projects with each of these finishes and other traditional finishes I come across, I'll post the procedures and results (it is good to learn from failure!).
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