With the construction now complete, it is time to turn to finishing. Finishing is at once my favorite and least desirable aspect of furniture making. I like it, because it brings a piece to life, especially when working with curly maple. At the same time, I get a knot in my stomach, because so much could go wrong. With nearly 100 pieces behind me, finishing isn’t as scary as it was, but that apprehension won’t ever go away. A sample board made using the exact materials and drying times, planned for the finish will go a long ways to putting your mind at ease.
Surface preparation is the most important step.

  Every surface must be impeccably smooth. At this stage all the planing and scraping will be done, leaving only a minor but complete sanding. Sand all surfaces that weren’t previously sanded such as the feet and moldings, with 220 and 320 grit paper and just 320 for planed surfaces. The planed surfaces are sanded very lightly, just enough to remove handling marks, you don’t want to destroy that hand planed texture. After sanding, wet the piece with distilled water and let dry. This will of course raise the grain. The grain will raise little if any on planed surfaces, somewhat more on the few sanded surfaces, and quite a bit on scraped surfaces. Knock the raised grain down with 320 grit sanding by hand, and repeat the wetting process until there are no more areas of raised grain.
  In order to display the full brilliance of the maple, I dyed the piece with Trans Tint Dark Vintage Maple, using water as the mixing medium. I sprayed this on, but a brush or rag would work just as well. After the dye has dried, feel carefully for any rough areas that may have escaped notice, and fix these. Oil will bring out the full depth of the grain. Apply a coat of linseed oil, heated on a hot plate, to the point where it just starts to smoke.oil
Popping the grain with hot linseed oil

  I also put a small amount of Japan drier in the oil, this greatly speeds the curing of the oil. This is one of those things where more isn’t better, I add about a tea spoon to half a quart of oil. Heating a mixture of oil and drier is not the safest proposition, so do it in a well ventilated area (preferably outside) never leave it unattended, and keep a cover close at hand, in case the oil catches fire, you can quickly smother it. The oil will be so hot that it will have to be applied with a natural bristle brush. The first coat will disappear almost as fast as it is applied, so keep recoating until the oil remains on the surface (some areas such as the tops of the knees and feet may continue to absorb oil, no matter how much you put on) .Be careful not to get any oil on the surfaces where the moldings and column capitols will be glued on. Let the oil soak in for a half hour and wipe it completely dry. Wipe the surface several times during the next few hours to insure that there is no oil left on the surface. I let this coat cure for 2 days, and then repeated the process, but if I had it to do over again, I would have skipped it. My intension was to add more depth to the grain, but there was little if any noticeable change, after that first coat.  After the oil has cured for a couple of days, use a gray synthetic pad to apply a very thin coat of oil. This will burnish the surface and remove any beads of cured oil that seeped out of the pores. This finial coat also needs to be wiped completely dry.

 To give the piece depth and age, I applied a coat of Minwax brown mahogany gel stain, as a glaze. Just slap the gel stain on, and quickly wipe it off, leaving a little residue in the crevices. This won’t obscure the grain, but will remain in the corners of the moldings and feet, enhancing their appearance, especially the quarter columns.

  At this point the piece had a nice sheen, but I dislike oil finishes. To maintain that soft sheen, but one that will last, I applied shellac.

Brushing on the shellac

I used super blond shellac with few drops of Homestead Shellac Wet, added to ease brushing. Because I wanted to achieve a "in the wood" soft sheen, only three thin coats were needed. Since the shellac film is so thin, the brushing technique must be prefect. I use high quality artist brushes designed for watercolors, in 1”, 2” widths for the flat areas and a ½” filbert for the feet, column capitols and the small moldings. The 3 coats of shellac can easily be applied in one day. Even a perfect brushing job will require some form of rub out. After 3-5 days drying time, wet sand with 400 and 600 grit paper using mineral spirits as a lubricant to remove any minor brush marks or fat edges ( if you did a good job brushing, only the 600 paper will be required).  Follow this with fine steel wool (I like the Liberon brand) using mineral oil as a rubbing lubricant. For flat surfaces, I back the sand paper and steel wool with an artist eraser, which gives you great control and will conform to the slightly concave tracks left by the plane. rub out
Rubbing out the shellac with steel wool backed by an eraser

The sanding and steel wool work must be done with an extremely light touch, as one disadvantage of the glaze is a rub though is difficult to repair. Neither sand paper nor steel wool can be used on the ball and claw feet, so here I switch to a shoe shine brush charged with 4f pumice and mineral oil as a lubricant. This will knock down the gloss, without the risk of a rub through. On the quarter columns, use only steel wool and take great care to avoid cutting through the finish. The last step is to remove the mineral oil, by wiping thoroughly, and using warm soapy water, to clean the surface. The water won’t harm the shellac. At this point you could wax the piece if desired.



  The choices of hardware are bewildering, both in price range and style. Style is dictated by the period, but even in the proper period there are a range of choices. The bail pulls on this piece represent hardware typical of the later Chippendale period, but plate pulls, would have been equally appropriate. My personal preference is the hardware sold by Londonderry Brasses, and this is what I used.  This hardware features hand cast nuts and hand cut threads
(actually lost wax cast from originals with hand cut threads) I don’t particularly care for the ammoniated finish on this hardware, so I polish it with steel wool dipped in 4f pumice and mineral oil. The goal is a soft polished sheen, not a mirror finish. To slow tarnishing, use a solvent to remove the oil and apply a microcrystalline wax. Wear gloves during this operation, to prevent fingerprints.  The bails are quite soft and may be somewhat distorted.  Before mounting be sure to bend them, so that every one has the same distance between the posts.
  The locks are the double lever extruded case versions, sold by many hardware suppliers. The locks on the full width drawers have a 1 inch offset from the top of the lock to the center of the pin, while the smaller drawers have a 3/4" offset. Depending on the thickness of your drawer stock, you may have to reduce the lip (selvedge), to fit behind the drawers' lip. I did this on my bandsaw, which cuts brass surprisingly well.

  The chest on frame took six weeks to build from start to finish, with about four weeks of actual construction time, the rest being curing time for the finish. That works out to about 200 hours of labor, not bad for something that will last 200 years and more.


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©2007 by Robert L. Millard
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