Plantation Desk

This is a plantation desk made out of walnut, secondary wood is white pine. The top of the table is two wide boards of walnut. The top had been nailed on. This caused the top to crack and split at the glue joint. I repaired this and reattached the top so it could float to allow for expansion and contraction. The drawers and runners were badly worn. I resoled the drawers  and replaced the drawer runners. The finish was gone. I put a new finish on of shellac. The writing surface is the original oil cloth and is in very good condition. This would date from1830-1840. Dimensions : height 57″ : with 39″; depth 24 3/4″.The price is $1,700.00 .

Butlers Desk

This is a Butlers desk that I just found. It is in very good condition. The desk has the original finish and hardware. It is made out of Cuban mahogany, secondary wood is yellow popular. This desk can be dated by the wave molding around the drawers. This molding wasn’t made and used until  1848 and by about 1860 it went out of style. This is in the late Grecian style. Dimensions : height 49″; with 43 1/2″; depth 20 1/2″.    SOLD

The cellerats are finished.

Another project comes to a close in the shop.

The finishing has begun.

Finishing is always my favorite time in a project. The finish brings out the rich color of the wood. After so long sitting in the white the wood comes alive when the finish is applied.

This is the final touch

The tops are inlaied

The Art and Mystery of Finishing

In centuries past when the master of a shop gave a finish recipe to an apprentice the master knew the secret was safe. Varnish formulas were closely kept secrets of the craft. The apprentice was sworn to secrecy about his craft. The training was all by oral tradition. Those that knew the art of finishing were the varnishers’, stainers’, and painters’. These artisans were organized into guilds in both England and this country.

The first manual on finishing was written in England in 1688 by Stalker and Parker. This “ Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing” was not intended for the artist but for the gentleman that was doing it for a hobby. The first finishing manual in this country was by Jacob Moore in 1827 entitled “The Cabinet-Maker’s Guide” and was advertised to housewives as well as cabinetmakers. It’s interesting to note in reading this some critical steps were left out. The apprentice system had not completely broken down at this time but in another 20 years it was gone. The industrial revolution was the demise of the apprentice system.

The reason to apply a finish to the surface of wood is different today than it was 150 or 200 years ago. At that time what was most sought after was the polished surface that not only enhanced the beauty of the wood but also reflected light. You must remember at that time the only source of lighting was candles or later oil lamps. This is why looking glasses ,or as we say mirrors, were so valued. The more light one could reflect the brighter one’s house would be at night.

Today we apply finish for three reasons. The frist is to keep dirt and grime out of the pores of the wood,to put it another way, sanitation. Wood is also finished for stabilization. This is to slow down the moisture that wood will pick up by the change in humidity. Last is to achieve the sheen, color, and texture we find pleasing: i.e., decoration.

There were four basic finishes available to the 18th and early 19th century cabinetmakers: paint, oil and wax, oil varnish, or spirit varnish.A cabinetmaker could make his own spirit varnish. This was the most common finish used on furniture at the time. Each finish had its strong and weak points to consider.

Painted furniture was very popular at this period. Paint was made with linseed oil, whiting, a dryer, and earth pigments.To this was often added fossil resins such as amber or copal. This made the paint very much like an oil varnish. The colors were very bright and intense with a gloss sheen. Milk paint or “buttermilk paint did not come back into favor until the very early 19th century. One color paint schemes could be done in the cabinet shop but faux finishes such as wood grain or marble were the work of painters. The finish was very durable, moisture resistance, and easy to clean. Unfortunately many of these painted finishes were stripped off in the late 19th and early 20th century

Oil or wax finishes only partly met the requirements needed for a good finish. The oil used was linseed from the flax seed sometime a dryer such as lead was added to speed up the drying. On it’s own linseed drys very slowly and doesn’t fill the pores very well. It does produce a rich color and fair sheen. Bees wax was used as a finish as well. When mixed with turpentine it became soft enough to apply on the furniture and produced a good sheen. The drawback is that it remains too soft on the wood. Both of these finishes attract dust as they slowly dry.

Oil varnish is made with linseed oil, a dryer, and fossil resins. The resins were fossilized tree sap such as amber, copal, and sandarac. It was dangerous to make because of the high temperature that is required to melt the resin. Many a varnish-maker was burned to death when the hot oil burst into flames. It has many good points as a finish. It fills the pores, protects the surface, and adds a richness due to it’s amber color. The  drawback is attracting dust while it drys. Violin varnish could take several months to a year to dry. Work to be varnished was placed under tenting to keep the dust away from the surface while drying. Still occasionally you do find it used as a finish on furniture at this time but rarely.

Spirit varnish is made with shellac and alcohol, thus the name.Shellac comes from an insect secretion of the lac bug in India. It is easy to make, drys very fast, and produces a good moisture barrier. After the finish is built up it gives a very high sheen. It doesn’t hold up well to alcohol or water  spills. It can be made almost impervious to water by the addition of resins. Shellac gained a poor name from furniture of the 1920s’ and 30s’. Often old shellac or metal contaminated shellac was used that caused the finish to quickly degrade. It was the most widely used furniture finish of the 18th and 19th century. In about 1820 when the French started applying spirit varnish with a rag it became known as French Polish. This method of application left no brush marks and produced a higher sheen. Shellac is correct for most period furniture.


Unfortunately the vast majority of furniture has lost its original finish due to sunlight, weather ( being set out in sheds), or long ago being refinished. In 27 years of working with furniture I’ve only seen a few pieces that retained their original finish. The majority of these being in museums. Some books that say a certain piece has it’s original finish.  I’ve seen picturers of those same pieces from the 1930s’ in cabinet shops stripped with no finish on them. It is very hard to determine if an antique has an original finish. If you do think about having a piece refinished avoid letting some one use polyurethane or lacquer. The only place I find lacquer applicable is for dining table tops because of food, water, and alcohol spills.

What Style Is It?

For several years furniture styles have been associated with the reign of different monarchs or designers. We are use to names like Queen Ann or Chippendale to refer to certain furniture styles. In recent years this means of identification has changed. Art historians and curators have begun to recognize that furniture is better defined by periods of art.     There were three major art styles that influenced 18th and 19th century furniture prior to the industrial revolution the baroque, rococo, and neoclassical. This is a more specific way of identifying different styles because sometimes different designers names coexist in the same art period. Hepplewhite, Adam, and Sheraton is an example of this. They were all designers of the same period producing very similar designs yet we have said this is Sheraton or this is Hepplewhite

Art, architecture, music, mathematics, and engineering all had a rebirth with the beginning of the renaissance. It was a new way of looking and understanding of life. This was due in part to the combination of science and theology. The perfection of geometry was considered to be a reflection of  the perfection of God. All of the arts and sciences had geometry as their heart and soul. The results was a unified system of design for all the arts that was to last for almost 400 years. In architecture if geometry was it’s soul the orders of architecture was it’s heart.

Renaissance architects looked to Roman buildings and found the wonderful rhythm of geometry and that columns supported everything. They found that every part of the column and entablature was proportionally related to the whole. This was like poetry in stone. With windows, niches, doors and columns they could create metered patterns just like music or poetry.

In the preface of Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers Director, 1754, he says that to excel in this work one must understand the orders. The first five plates are of the five orders of architecture, Tuscan, Dorick, Ionick, Corinthian, and Composite. These are the same orders the renaissance architects like Serlio, Palladio, and others had set fourth 200 years before. Each of these men interpreted them a little differently because they had seen different originals. They also added pedestals to the columns.

As the renaissance gave way to the baroque the system of proportional design remained the same. In the baroque as the renaissance symmetry was dominate but wall began to be curved and filled with ornament almost like sculpture. In fact painting, sculpture, and architecture were often combined for very dramatic effect.

Is That Veneered?

The earliest veneer to be used in furniture was 3,000 years ago in Egypt. These early cabinetmakers used bronze handsaws to cut thin slices of rare wood for veneering and inlaying their furniture. It was a process that wasn’t to change until the 19th century, when the circular saw replaced the laborious task of hand-cutting veneer. Otherwise the art of veneering didn’t really change until the 20th century with the introduction of synthetic resin glues.

Some people still think that veneer is cheap work covering up inferior wood or craftsmanship.But in the 1830s ,when veneer was replacing carving as a way to ornament furniture, the cost to veneer was equal to the cost of carving. The ground wood to be veneered had to be straight and knot free. The craftsmanship had to be done right for the veneer to last. Not until the early 20th century did veneering gain a bad reputation. The main culprit was factories that used contaminated hide glue,  which broke down sooner  than normal.

Veneer is produced by three different methods sawn, sliced, or rotary peeled. As mentioned before, hand sawing was the earliest method of cutting veneer. This could be done by two men and a frame saw. Small logs were stood on end and secured in a vice.  A man on either side cut down through the log with a large frame saw to produce the veneer. This was cut as thin as 1/64 of an inch or thinner by hand. In the early 19th century large circular saws up to 18′ diameter replaced hand cutting. This was the first use of circular saws.

In 1806 a machine was introduced that sliced the log into veneer. This was much like a paper cutter, except the log moved past the knife. It produced very thin slices with no waste. With saw cutting, as much wood had been wasted as was sawn off, due to the saw kerf. This process allowed an abundance of crotch mahogany to be used on furniture

Rotary peeling began being used by the latter part of the 19th century. It allowed a whole log to be peeled without a break in the veneer. The process is similar to slicing, but produces a much larger sheet of veneer. This made the manufacture of plywood possible. Cabinetmakers had been making small pieces of plywood in the 18th century for use in delicate mirror frames.

With either sliced or rotary veneering the logs are soaked in vats of water to make the wood more pliable as they are cut. After drying the sheets of veneer are ready for use.

When the slices come off the log, the sheets are stacked in the same order they were taken off. This package is known as a flitch. When a cabinetmaker opens a flitch there are several patterns that can be produced with the veneer. Since only the rarest and finest logs are selected for veneering, the figures are bold and decorative. The sun burst, book match, slip match, butterfly wings, diamond, and many more patterns can be found in the flitches. In the 18th century, fewer of these patterns were used because of the difficulty of joining the thicker sheets of hand sawn veneers.

To adhere the veneer to the ground work glue is used. Before about 1820 fish glue was used in cabinet shops. Hide or Scotch glue came into use early in the 19th century. Both of these glues need to be heated when used and the wood warmed by a fire before glueing. In the past, wood shavings were set  ablaze in a brick enclosure and the work was warmed.( This may have been the cause of the fire that destroyed Thomas Chippendale’s shop.) Cauls slightly larger than the veneer were warmed, as well. These were clamped on top of the work to keep the glue warm and put pressure on the veneer as the glue set. Modern resin glues, have eliminated the need and the danger for warming the work. They are not destroyed by bacteria or affected by water, and have a longer working time.

Pressure must be applied as the glue sets. This can be done with clamps, in a veneer press, or by hammer. Small pieces can just be clamped; larger work needs one of the other methods. Hammering is done by a T- shaped hammer, worked across the surface of the veneer in zigzag motions as the hide glue cools. Pressure of the hammer is started in the center of the work and moved to the outer edges to squeeze excess glue out. This is done very quickly, as the glue grabs while cooling

Veneer presses are made of frames called stations. These are heavy timbers of wood with spacer blocks in between so the work can be placed inside. The top timber has several heavy screws that when tightened,apply pressure to the work. Throughout history it was difficult to get even pressure over the entire work surface. But today, a new press uses air pressure to even out the pressure over the surface. This is done with a heavy plastic bag and a vacuum pump. Much like the old press, cauls are still needed, but once a vacuum is drawn, up to 1,200 pounds per square foot is applied to the veneer. Thisequates to  parking a Volkswagen on every square foot of the work. When the glue has set, one is sure the veneer is flat and will stay in place for years to come.

Veneering is an excellent way of decorating furniture with rare exotic hardwoods while at the same conserving their use. With new glues and presses, one can be assured of the durability and lasting beauty of veneered furniture. Even with these advances, a cabinetmaker from centuries past would still recognize the art of veneering in a shop today.