Wood finishing: The early years

Wood finishes have been evolving for as long as people have been making things out of wood.

Materials like natural lacquer, oils and shellac have a quality unlike anything we use today. They are superior at bringing out figure and subtle color variations. But they degrade rather quickly and must be fed in order to maintain a pristine appearance.

Many antique pieces have become almost totally black. This appearance is highly prized among antique collectors but it is not what most people want to see. Generally we want the beauty of the wood to be a prominent feature of a piece, not obscured under a layer of ugly black crust. The value of many an antique has been lost to refinishing.

The other big problem associated with these finishes was the laborious and highly skilled process of applying them. Before we had air-powered spray equipment, the only way to apply a good finish was to brush or rub it onto (or into) the wood. This was time consuming and required a mastery of the material and processes that was not easily learned. Early on, this was not a big issue because the same level of labor and skill was required to produce the pieces needing finish and it was not difficult for a finisher to keep up with the rate of production. But as factory environments began to emerge, finishing became a bottleneck and more efficient methods were needed.

At the same time this was occurring, methods of synthesizing the natural finishes were being discovered and more efficient methods of finish application were being developed. Lacquer distilled from cellulose and suspended in chemical solvents could be applied to surfaces much more quickly than an army of finishers with brushes could hope for. And with the advent of compressed-air spray technology, this increased by orders of magnitude.

To be continued …



  • Gene Kelly says:

    I have been using and experiencing the evolution of finishes for a number of decades. I have a small shop, so I can’t always make use of the most efficient production type products, but I am looking forward to this discussion. I find it to be a very interesting aspect of wood working.

  • Harry says:

    It will be interesting to see your future views and comments on this. How to get the best of all worlds and yet keep the integrity of craftsmanship in a non mass produced work shop.

  • Yes I am guilty, I have also taken semi-antiques and refinished them. Most people want to “use” the old pieces from their grand parents and value that over the “antique value”. I have done shellac and french polish on a few pieces, but most of my work is refinishing. I have been doing woodwork and high end private and commercial finsh work for over fifty years. Haven’t made a lot of money, but enjoyed it nonetheless. I use many products to get the desired effects from the wood. Mostly dye stains, lacquer, oil and waxes.
    Do you see much new in finishes in the near future?? Haven’t heard much on water based lacquer lately, anything new there? I read your articles and the Pro Shop regularly. keep it up, Thanks, Bill H.

  • Larry says:

    As a regular refinisher of “antiques”, I take exception to your comment that “the value of many an antique has been lost to refinishing”… Opinions have been shaped today by the TV shows that apply a price to old furniture based on whether they have the “original” finish on it, regardless of how poorly it looks. If you were to go to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, you’d see examples of Loius 14th furniture that is some 500 years old with a flawless finish – obviously not its original finish. If you want to resell an old piece of furniture, by all means leave the finish alone to get the media-shaped highest price… But if you want pride of ownership & keep it for yourself, seek out a competent (not cheap) restorer who’ll lovingly hand strip it and use an oil-rubbed or lacquer-based finish to maintain the chatoyance – the iridescent nature of quartered oak and burled walnut/mahogany woods, used in so many antiques.

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