Contains chemicals known to the state…

…of California to cause cancer.

What doesn’t have that warning on it these days?  I’m pretty certain that one day I’ll see it printed on a potato or something.  Since I’m not likely to ever go back to California, I should be fine though.

But this last stretch of our tabouret build does involve chemicals, specifically ammonia.  The original finish for Stickley furniture was one that involved putting the furniture parts in a miasma of strong ammonia fumes.  This reacted with the high tannin content in the white oak, and produced a characteristic gray-brown colour.  Laying a tinted varnish over that “fumed” surface created the distinctive Stickley hue.

Well, I’m not likely to be playing with ammonia.  Sorry, but bathing my work in poison for the sake of authenticity is beyond the pale (next week: lead-based paint!).  Not only is creating a fuming tent a lot of bother, but if you do it even a little wrong the fumes will kill you right quick.  Not a cumulative exposure over years, or eventually (only in California) causing cancer, but immediately.  So I shan’t be doing that.

But I do want a pretty close match to that finish.  I did the VERY IMPORTANT step of making a test board and tried a procedure that was in the Popular Woodworking compilation that uses a “Dark Walnut” tinted Danish oil under shellac.  On this oak, it was too cold, yielding a brown that was almost purple.  So, I tried again, using a regular Danish oil.  This was much better.  So after putting on a coat of oil and letting it cure thoroughly, I then started in with garnet shellac.  IT IS IMPORTANT that you let the shellac dry all the way before you sand in between coats.  Unlike other varnishes, shellac does not form discrete layers.  Instead, the solvent (alcohol) dissolves the underlying layers and turns into one thick layer.  So if you try to sand in between coats before it’s fully dry, you’ll pull up smears of gunk as the entire film of shellac comes off in little clots.  There’s not really a way to fix it rather than sanding everything back down to the bare wood and starting over.  It’s extremely frustrating.  Go ahead, ask me how I know this…

Once the shellac is on to a point you can live with (full satisfaction for a craftsman is a myth), put on some black wax and buff everything smooth.  The black wax will fill any pores discreetly.  It will also help a piece to blend in with the period surroundings.  It’s not as if you’re trying to “distress” or “antique” something (how that got to be a verb I’ll never know) artificially, but it will knock off the new penny shine.  It’s pretty easy to make black wax.  It’s just a regular soft wax inside of a couple layers of old T-shirt.  Sprinkle some carbon black artist’s pigment over it, and fold it all up inside a little cloth ball.  Start rubbing.  The wax will dissolve with the warmth of the friction and flow through the cloth, carrying with it the black pigment.  No big deal.  Once you get a dark haze over the whole project, buff it smooth with clean cloths.


One thing I do as a final step is to put a pad on the bottom of the feet.  This keeps them from scuffing the floor if the tabouret gets scooted around.  The best thing I’ve found for this is cork tape.  It is very fast and easy to apply, it’s low-profile so the piece doesn’t look like it’s floating over the floor, and it doesn’t pick up pet hair like felt pads will.


And with that, our tabouret project is done!  After I’d delivered it, I had a chance some time later to see it in its new surroundings.  Actually, I had to look for it especially, because it blended in so completely that it almost looked like part of the house.  I’ll call that success.  The dark stain on the bottom right stretcher below is also in the left background above.  It’s the solitary nail hole I left (oak tannins create black stains when they meet iron) as a witness mark that this wood was once a barn.