Two Sensible Methods to Authentic Stickley Finish

Bob Lang Stickley FinishIn the comments on my post:  “Gustav Stickley Finishing Article” I was asked if I had a reasonable alternative to a fumed finish for quartersawn white oak. In that post I mention one, aniline dye followed by shellac. The other method I use is a combination of oil-based “walnut” stain followed by “walnut” Danish Oil. Both come close to what “real” pieces would have looked like when new, both are relatively simple and far less risky than fuming with ammonia. At the right is a picture of my reproduction of a Gus Stickley Music cabinet, colored with dye and finished with shellac and wax.

You can get Lockwood dyes online from Tools for Working Wood. I prefer to use alcohol soluble dyes because they dry quickly and I have more control to get an even tone. “Fumed Oak” dye can be made lighter or darker depending on how much solvent is used. In the “water based dyes” there are light and medium versions of “Fumed Oak”, and I’ve had success dissolving those in denatured alcohol, even though Joel from TFWW insists I’m wrong. Lee Valley also carries water soluble dye powders that I’ve had success dissolving in alcohol. If you prefer to use water you can. I prefer to lay on light coats of dye with a brush or rag to get to the tone I want. The guys I know who prefer water based dyes tend to flood it on and live with the results.

WBob Lang Morris Chairhen white oak is fumed the usual reaction is to assume you’ve ruined it. It looks kind of gray and nasty. The results of dying are similar but don’t worry, a thin coat of amber shellac will make everything okay. On the left is my Morris chair after applying dye and letting it dry completely.

If you click on the image you’ll get a larger version of the image. (the “back button” of your browser will close the large image).

Bob Lang Morris ChairOn the right is the same chair with a coat of amber shellac. I’m not a snob about shellac or the alcohol to thin it. I use Zinnser’s from the big box store and denatured alcohol from the same source. I do wear rubber gloves, mix the shellac from the can about 50/50 with alcohol and apply the first coat with a rag. The shellac warms things up and changes the dirty gray to a reddish brown. Most of the time one more coat of clear shellac is enough for me. If you need to you can add a few drops of TransTint dyes to clear shellac to alter the color. After the final shellac coat is dry (I give it about a week) a coat of paste wax completes the job. I almost always just use clear wax, but I keep a can of dark wax around. The dark wax can make the wood look muddy if you put too much on.

Before you try any finish that is new to you, DON’T TRY IT ON A FINISHED PIECE OF FURNITURE WITHOUT EXPERIMENTING!

Plan “B”, stain and Danish oil looks just about the same when everything is said and done. It takes a little longer as you need to let each step dry overnight before proceeding. Back when I still worked for Popular Woodworking a wrote a detailed blog post that you can find here. This picture is the completed book rack as it appears today. The quick version of the process is this:

  • Don’t sand finer than #150 grit. If you go finer you’ll polish the oak and the stain won’t penetrate.
  • Apply one coat of an oil-based stain. The finishing products industry is a prime example of what’s wrong with corporate America. What you want is a good, old-fashioned stain that the marketing division hasn’t messed with. In the past when I’ve mentioned a specific brand, color or source it disappears almost immediately.
  • This is what I can find today, “Mocha” or one of the “walnuts” is the right color but tomorrow it might be called “Java” or “Espresso”.
  • Wipe the stain on with a rag, let it sit for 15 minutes or so, wipe it off and let it dry overnight.
  • Follow that with a coat of Watco Walnut Danish Oil, also applied with a rag. In my neighborhood, Home Depot and Lowe’s don’t carry all the variations of Watco, but Menard’s does.
  • Let the oil sit for 15 minutes and wipe that dry.
  • After the oil dries you can topcoat with shellac, lacquer and/or wax. Don’t go crazy with it, you want to see the pores of the wood and a soft sheen when you’re done.

The key to getting a good finish is to keep things simple but PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE on something small.

– Bob Lang





Two Sensible Methods to Authentic Stickley Finish — 2 Comments

  1. All of this looks like excellent, sensible advice. Thanks for putting it together.

  2. I used your stain/oil/shellac method on my first real woodworking project: a Stickley “Fireside” still I built for my mother. It turned out great! Thanks for putting these out in the world.