I have had some new fir milled to match the old fluted window casing in our 1890 house, which miraculously was never painted, and perhaps has only one or two coats of the original varnish. It is a nice darkish reddish brown, and I am very happy to have this pile of newly milled fir waiting for me to sand and finish it.
Does anyone of you have anything to tell me about the sort of products currently available? I have seen an old fir floor simply commercially sanded and then polyurethaned with "floor poly" that came with an amber tint. That floor doesn't look as dark & rich as my old window trim, even though the fir is the same age. I fear that new fir would be even lighter if I use that product.
This new casing is for the windows in a little add-on we are constructing, so it doesn't have to match perfectly, but I would like it to be quite close.
Any ideas? I reviewed a discussion from 2010 describing the addition of umber pigment to varnish, but I don't see such products on the shelf. What should I ask for? or search the internet for?
Thank you all for your help!
I looked in to this many years ago and found out that shellac is a good way to achieve the old look you are striving for. There are many grades of shellac and the ones that restorers use are garnet-lac and button-lac. A good paint store might carry one of these and then, of course, you have to dissolve the flakes in alcohol (may take a couple of days) and then strain it through cheese-cloth. Test it to see how many coats you might want to build the color and then top coat with almost any clear varnish. Shellacs can also be tinted with aniline dyes (paint store or online or Woodcraft) so if you can"t find the lower grades of shellac, use a pre-diluted version in the can (usually amber or orange) and tint it. Another thing about shellac is that it dries fast and can be sanded easily between coats.
It sounds like a challenge but very doable. I have refinished furniture for over 40 years. When I have to replace a shelf or a door I have the same problem that you are having. Back in time the varnish they would use was not clear like we have today. It was, like you stated an amber color. I have a solution that works very well to match these new pieces to the old. I take a satin varnish or poly. Then I take a solution called "universal pigment". It is the thing they put in those paint mixing machines that adds pigment to paint to get the color you order. It comes in a lot of basic colors but the one I use is "Burnt Umber' I mix a spoon or two into the finish and stir. Apply a small bit to a piece of trim or sample and see how it looks. You can add more if needed. If it is too red you can use another one called "Raw Umber" which is brown only with a grey hue. I order them from the paint store but I have found them at Lowes here in Iowa. Good luck with your adventure. Lair
Thanks to both of you, Paul and Lair.
I am tempted to try Lair's technique, adding pigment to satin poly.
Since both these techniques result in a colored product that sits on the surface of the wood, just as the 1890 casing in my house, I think either of them would be a good choice. What do you think the difference in final appearance might be? None? I would anticipate a slight difference in color, if I did two samples, since I doubt I could get the precisely identical color mix in both cans.
Do you think shellac dries so quickly as to be a problem? I'm only doing 5"x 8' (plus or minus) pieces of casing, with the corresponding rosette corner blocks, and a few pieces of baseboard. The longest of the 7" baseboard is 14 feet. I have a feeling the shellac doesn't dry so fast it would be a problem, but I have never worked with shellac. The biggest factor pushing me toward shellac is that is apparently what was available in 1890. The old finish in the old part of this house dissolves very easily with denatured alcohol.
Is there any advantage in using the properly colored poly? I am off now to search my local Ace Hdwe shelves for these things. The nearest "city" big enough to have a Lowe's or Menard's (no Home Depot) is over an hour away, but the next time I go, I will look there also.
I'm starting to lean toward trying to do the shellac. But if I cover it with a coat of poly, perhaps that negates any reason to use shellac.
Even though shellac dries relatively quickly, it actually makes it very easy to work with. You can apply it with a brush or a rag and you don't have to worry about runs. The solvent is alcohol so it is (a little) easier to handle if you are working with limited ventilation at this time of year, but still read the safety info concerning that before you begin to remind yourself of the obvious hazards and maybe some not so obvious! If the finish on the old trim dissolves easily with alcohol then it most likely is shellac so, obviously, you wouldn't need to top coat with anything at all. Durability would be the only reason to put anything over it. Shellac is somewhat soft and, as you said, dissolves easily with alcohol, so it's not a good choice for a bar-top finish. However, moldings and trimwork don't take a lot of abuse either, so that could save you some trouble. Check this as well, but I'm quite certain that any oil based, and maybe even some water-based, polyurethanes are compatible with shellac. I think that I recently read that lacquer is not. Check the back of the cans of each product for info on compatibility and if necessary, find each company's web site. Most will have info there, as well as the MSDS, which is all the info you need concerning the health aspects of their products. Have fun!
I have used Shellac before, thinking the same way you did, what was available. The problem I had with it was on humid days sometimes it turn cloudy and dull. It is also very soft much like a sanding sealer, a lacquer base varnish. When I was young I knew a couple old painters and they told me Shellac was for furniture and not woodwork. I don't know why they said that but they had no knowledge of working with that when they were house painters and finishers. These guys worked on Victorian houses when they were being built in the 1890's. They also taught me to wood grain mixing all the glazes myself. Also wood filler from that era. Lair
Wow, Lair. I love the idea of getting tips from _original_ victorian contractors. Great story.
I think I've heard before that "Shellac was for furniture" but in this old 1890 bldg, every varnished surface is this same product, whatever it is, it dissolves in denatured alcohol. When we arrived in 1977, it was alligatored from time, and all I ever did was wash it somewhat lightly with a rag of denatiured alcohol. Restored the shine. Didn't go all the way to perfection, still has some irregularities in the finish, but quite OK for what this bldg is. We are trying not to attempt to make a sow's ear into a silk purse.
It would be fun to know what the old painters thought should be used on woodwork, if not shellac.
I think I've about worked up enough courage to try shellac. There is some in town, at Ace. Now to find the colorant, probably have to order from Woodcraft if I don't get to Lowe's soon.
Thank you both very much - a big help.
Cloudiness and softness of the finish is a sure sign that bad shellac was used.
Commercially available 3lb. cut canned shellac should never be used.
For a proper shellac finish you must mix it fresh from flakes for each job. Don't store it for more than six months.
Fresh dewaxed shellac dries hard coat after coat.I find that Garnet shellac flakes make a wonderful finish for antique woodwork or furniture, even kitchen cabinets. I always pick up a fresh can of alcohol to dissolve the flakes. Alcohol continuously absorbs water out of the air, and any water in the shellac brings about esterification, which leads to drying problems.
Two coats of garnet shellac brushed on will give an authentic rich color to woodwork. If the wood needs to be intentionally as light as possible, like birdseye maple, I would not use it, but for Walnut, Mahogany or heart pine,it gives a great glowing richness. For subsequent film thickness without further darkening the color, you finish off with clear. A way to save some money is to use premixed Zinsser "Sealcoat" which is a 2lb. cut of very clear dewaxed shellac.It's only about $25-27 /gal.
To make a good job truly great,it's worth learning how to apply shellac with a pad; even on pine woodwork, this technique, which approaches French Polishing in smoothness, is a faster, simpler way to an ultra-smooth finish, but with great expediency and efficiency. More on this if anybody's interested.
Oh, my first post, BTW.Great to be here.
Thanks for writing, Casey! very informative (But if alcohol can absorb water out of the air around here, someone ought to patent it! just joking)
I think I am about to decide to try it your way, and learn to use shellac. Seems appropriate to the era of this bldg. Will look in Rapid City for the Garnet shellac flakes, but that is over an hour away, so it won't be today.
I believe the product at the Ace Hdwe in Hot Springs was Zinsser's "SealCoat", I will look again. They had only quarts @ $16/qt.
Yes, I would be interested in hearing what you have to say about applying the shellac with a pad.
When sanding the moulding in preparation, do I stop at 150 grit or go to 220? Haven't started yet on this project, big pile of casing, rosettes, picture rail, baseboard - but getting close.
Poly finish is the worst finish you can apply to your old or new woodwork! Shellac is not a good choice because you can not wipe down your woodwork with a moist cloth. Tung oil also is not a good finish for old woodwork. If you want to match or restore your old woodwork, a deep penetrating oil blend is the only finish I recommend. You want to replenish and feed your woodwork to stop cracking, splitting, etc. Water base products will eventually damage your woodwork, oil base is the only way to go. I speak from 40 years experience. Good luck and have fun.
Thank you for writing! Love the photos on your website. What did you put on all those church pews?
Yes, I've heard for many years that polyurethane is not a good choice. Not sure exactly why. After all, it is removable. And yes, I have found oil-base products to be well worth the extra clean-up trouble.
As to choosing a deep penetrating oil, that sounds like I will have to do some color testing, and apply it as a stain in order to match this dark reddish 1890 color of varnish, which has a nearly glossy shine. The penetrating oils I have used, on a small piece many years ago, gave barely any shine. I had to do something on top of it, can't remember what I did, probably paste wax.
I believe my new fir moulding will be leaning toward the color of your restored previously painted stairway in Denver, but I am trying for the darker color of the existing casing in the old part of this bldg.
Does the product - Minwax Wood Finish "Penetrates, Stains, and Seals" - count as a penetrating oil finish like you recommend? I've used it many times, many colors, does make a nice soft finish with enough coats and rubbing, but is basically impossible to remove.
Thanks again for writing - love that gutsy green kitchen! Cindy