Add 150 Years in 10 Minutes

I like the look of period painted furniture. I know a lot of folks scoff and roll their eyes when someone says they are going to paint a piece of furniture, feeling that the wood should be left alone to speak for itself. I can understand this sentiment. Cheap quality mass production of painted termite barf has given painted furniture a bad name. I certainly wouldn’t even think of putting paint over a nice piece of figured walnut or mahogany. However, like it or not, paint was a very, very common finish for period furniture. Some pieces were painted bright colors, while others were painted and grained to look like more expensive woods.

Look at it through the eyes of our ancestors: when you live in a world where just about everything is made out of wood and therefore some shade of brown, a brightly painted piece of furniture may be the only color you see in your modest little home. Only the wealthiest families would have had upholstered furniture and fabrics adorning the walls and windows of their estates. The more common middle/lower class homes were pretty bland. So paint was the solution to brown.

Paint is also a good finish for less expensive timbers. While I like the look of natural pine very much, I have a lot of it in my shop. Pretty much every appliance and fixture in my shop is made from some kind of conifer and finished natural or left unfinished. Other than my tool chest, there isn’t much color in there. So I decided I wanted my new cupboard to be painted. I went with a warm yellow ochre so as not to scream too loudly. However, while I do like painted finishes, I’m not all that fond of bland, lifeless, uniform color. I like to spice things up just a little.

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Take the photo above of one of the cupboard doors for example. The color is nice. But it’s kind of uniform and lifeless. There isn’t much character to the finish. I think this is one of the reasons that many people have an aversion to painted furniture. When a piece of furniture is freshly painted, it looks freshly painted, almost like something you just put together from a box you trucked home from the Pottery Barn. My solution to this problem is to give the paint some character.

One of my favorite products for giving some age and life to a painted finish is a dark wax. I’m kind of fond of Briwax Dark Brown, for reasons I’ll discuss in a second, but just about any dark brown wax will work, even shoe polish. The dark wax imparts some age and grunge to the piece by getting trapped in any little areas of tearout, corners of door frames, scratches, and other places that dirt would naturally collect when a piece is used for years and years. The best part about this type of aging is that it’s a piece of cake to do, and doesn’t require beating your new furniture with chains and keys and all that nonsense (please don’t beat your furniture).

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I work in small sections at a time with the Briwax because the solvent in this particular wax flashes off very quickly (work outside or next to an open window as the fumes aren’t exactly healthy for you). I apply the wax with 0000 steel wool, working in the direction of the grain wherever possible. Using the steel wool to apply the wax knocks off any little dust nibs trapped in the final coat of finish and gives the paint and wood a smooth, burnished look and feel that is just awesome. I apply the wax somewhat generously, because I want the excess to collect in the areas mentioned previously. After applying and rubbing the wax in with the first pad of steel wool, I’ll go over the dried wax with a clean pad of steel wool to remove buildup in areas where I over did it a bit and burnish things a little more.

Once the steel wool work has been completed, the aging is just about done. The final step is to use a soft cotton cloth to buff out the surface and get most of the gunk out of the corners and such. I don’t remove all of the buildup in the hard to reach areas, just what will easily come out. This simulates what would remain in these areas after years of regular cleaning and polishing of the piece. The beauty of the Briwax product is that it will redissolve itself if things aren’t exactly like you want. If an area is too heavy and already dry, just apply more wax and buff it off with a clean cloth. The new application will redissolve the dried wax and allow it to be worked around again. I work in small areas to try and avoid getting an inconsistent build, but this feature of the product has been very helpful many times when I’ve worked too large an area and couldn’t buff the heavy build out fast enough. Also, the wax can be cleaned off completely with plain old mineral spirits. So if you don’t like the look of the dark wax on your piece, it’s easy to strip it right off with a rag and some mineral spirits and go back to the unwaxed finish.

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It took me about 10 minutes of work to do each one of the doors on the cupboard. The main case took awhile longer of course, but it’s cool to watch the piece age right under your fingers. If you decide to try this for yourself, and I do recommend you try it, wear gloves, as the pigment in the wax will stain your hands, make sure you have really good ventilation, or work outside, and have fun!

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18 thoughts on “Add 150 Years in 10 Minutes

    • How long to let it dry depends on the ratio of oil to varnish in the paint if you make your own paint, as well as whether or not there are any driers in the mix. My last coat of paint was dry enough in 24 hours that I could move on to the wax.

  1. Bob, do you have a dedicated panel raising plane, or did you use a rebate plane and spring it by eye? What, in your experience, is the best method for raising a panel without a dedicated panel raising plane? I love raised panels, but don’t want to use a router or table saw do do them and a panel raiser is just too costly right now.

    Thanks,
    Brent

    • Nope. Just done with a fence rabbet plane. That’s the way I’ve always done them. You could use an unfenced rabbet plane too and just clamp a batten to the panel to guide the plane. Just knife the cross grain part of the field for a clean shoulder. For the most part you’re just making layout lines and planing to your marks.

      • Ok, I can do that. So using that method, the rabbet slopes continuously towards the edge that is let into the frame? No need to worry about creating a “flat” or land at the terminal,edge? I had that panel raising plane profile stuck in my head and was worrying creating both the square shoulder at the face and the flat land at the edge….did that make sense?

        Thanks for the tip!

        • Correct! The bevel continues all the way to the edge. I make the edge slightly narrower so it will slide into the groove since there’s no flat at the edge. If the groove is 1/4″ wide, I’ll gauge the edge of the panel to be about 3/16 to 7/32. Then use a test piece with a groove plowed in it to check the panel fit as I plane until it fits just so.

          By the way, I’ll be doing a raised panel podcast soon as I have to make more of them for my entertainment center doors.

  2. Bob,
    What a beautiful finish and great post. Your writing style is easy to understand, and I appreciate your time & effort to “create” with words. I bought Stephen Shepherd’s book on period finishes and wondered where you bought the yellow ochre earth pigment and whiting. Maybe I need to read some more. Again, I love what you’re doing. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. Mark Hays

    • On Stephen’s recommendation, I bought the dry pigment and whiting from Kremer pigments in NY. But pretty much any finely ground artist earth pigments should work. Whiting is also sold as calcium carbonate or chalk. It is used as a filler and to make the paint more opaque. White lead used to be used for this purpose, but is no longer used for obvious reasons.

  3. Bob,
    I reviewed Stephen’s chapter on painting and came away wondering what proportions of linseed oil, whiting, pigment, etc. to use. I would appreciate more details on how you mixed your batch of paint. It appears that the oil & turpentine are a 1:1 ratio, but I’m particularly unsure of how much whiting and pigment should be used. Maybe this will be explained in the article for PWW you mentioned before. Thanks. Mark

    • Hi Mark,

      Honestly, I don’t remember exactly how much whiting and pigment I added. I should have written it down, but I didn’t. In essence though, what I did was to experiment, adding about 1/4 cup of each at a time until I achieved the opacity and depth of color I was after. I want to say I used 2 cups of oil, 2 cups of turpentine, 2 cups of pigment and 1 cup of whiting. That’s a rough estimate though as I forgot to write it down as I was mixing. Definitely keep in mind though that this paint will be much thinner than the latex stuff we are used to buying. It is more like a pigment stain consistency. Very thin and subject to drips if you are not careful, especially on vertical surfaces. The pigment also settles out faster than our modern paints, requiring it to be stirred every couple of minutes during use to keep the suspension as homogeneous as possible. Because it is so thin, I applied 4 or 5 coats to get the coverage I was looking for. It has a lot of character when it’s done though. It takes somewhat longer to dry than latex paint, but the look is much nicer than modern latex. Heating my shop up to about 85-90 degrees with a portable heater helped things to dry a little faster. Not everyone will have this convenience though.

      I’m really happy with the way mine came out, but it did require a little experimentation to get the feel for mixing and using it. It is different than what we’re used to, but I don’t think it’s in any way inferior. In fact, I think the final product is much nicer, even if it is more work (mixing the components and testing for desired characteristics) and requires more time (more coats with a longer drying time per coat) to complete the finish compared to modern paint. I think with more use and experience, it will prove to be just as easy to use as modern canned finish. However, I do think that it’s important not to go in thinking it will work just like modern latex paint. It’s just not the same.

      • Bob,
        Thanks for taking the time to explain your paint experiment more in depth for me. It sounds it takes less paint for one coat of coverage, but more coats for the look you want. Mark Hays

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