A good friend of mine, David McDonald, who operates Tara Schoolhouse Antiques, in Sunnyside, Georgia, has been very instrumental in my attitudes about my construction and finish techniques. At one time during my career I would use the most advanced synthetic glues and finishes.
David has taught me one important lesson. And that is if you build a piece of furniture to LAST more than one generation, sooner or latter, the finish will need repair. And if the piece lasts more than 150 years, chances are the wood will dry out to the point that the glue joints will loosen and need repair.
With this in mind, I utilize both glues and finishes that have:
years of proven performance,
repeatable and predictable results,
properties that allow them to be repaired without destroying the original piece.
Another important consideration is in today’s world, the cost of materials is small compared to the amount of time to build a period piece of furniture. For this reason, a crafts person should use the best materials available to them. When the original period furniture was built, the labor market was significantly different. Apprentices provided a nearly free source of labor. Materials were more costly relative to the final price of a piece than the total labor. A very good deceased friend of mine, Carl Kempf was a strong proponent of this approach. I owe a great deal to Carl and his approach to woodworking and to life.
Today, the value of our time has increased relative to the cost of the materials. For this reason, only the best available products and supplies should be used.
I found hide glue meets and/or exceeds most furniture applications. Hide glue has been used since the time of the Egyptians. It is made from animal proteins and has excellent properties. It can be repaired without removing all the previous glue from the joint. Attempting to remove old deposits of synthetic glues almost always results in removing some small amounts of wood which weaken the joint.
While some people consider hide glue to be messy and it does require a method to heat the mixture to the proper temperature, it produces excellent bonds. The strength is similar to most all modern glues. Hide glues provide excellent bonding properties and has some gap filling properties as well.
Note that pre-mixed hide glue does not exhibit the same properties as fresh mixed glue. And it is important to note that when using hide glue, it has a limited shelf life once mixed and can only be reheated a few times before its properties begin to deteriorate.
My finish of choice is shellac. While his finish has gotten some bad press in the past about its inability to handle alcohol and water, those claims are not completely accurate. Additionally, the type furniture I make is not what the owners would allow alcohol or water to stand for extended periods of time. Shellac produces a more natural and “warm” finish. It can be finished to a high luster or a matte surface. The finish may be applied with a rag, brush or spray equipment. It is very forgiving and can be repaired at nearly any phase of the process.
Shellac should be used from fresh mixture. Purchase a good quality dry shellac flakes or seed lac and mix with denatured alcohol. Pre-mixed solutions are not as effective. I have started using grain alcohol as an experiment. I discovered that in the 18th century that is what would have been used. More than one finisher is reported to have taken a drink of their shellac mix. I would not recommend this even though all the ingredients of grain alcohol and shellac are natural and non-poisonous. Denatured alcohol is very poisonous and should never be consumed.
Shellac is the critical ingredient in French Polishing. French polishing was used by the period furniture makers and is considered the “high end” finish. It is very labor intensive and does require more than just basic skill but can be learned quickly if practiced under proper supervision. For an excellent tutorial on the methods of French polishing visit Milburn Guitars.
The wood used in any project should be of the highest quality the maker can afford. As mentioned earlier, today’s makers time is usually more valuable than the cost of the piece. Whether the piece is made of a medium grade of secondary wood or the best available walnut, cherry or Mahogany, the labor is the same. A piece made with more desirable wood will have a greater initial value, be more desirable, retain value over time, and generally be more pleasing to the eye and touch.
Sustainable forest practices are making these woods available in a responsible way that was not previously possible. (more on this subject in the future)