Asphaltum – You gotta get some

Posted March 8, 2018 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that there has been renewed interest in (and something of a mystery about) the use of asphaltum in wood finishing.  It comes as no surprise that once one of the most widely used products for protecting and finishing wood, is now almost unknown to the majority of modern wood workers.  Or, is it?

The product has many names; asphaltum, asphalt, bitumen, pitch, tar.  It may be liquid (think LaBrea tar pits) or solid (Gilsonite, a high quality mineral asphalt or simple coal).  Over the millenia it’s been used as an adhesive, a waterproofing material, a decorative finish, a paving binder and a medicinal.  Tar can be extracted from pine, birch and numerous other trees.  At one point, the harvesting of pine pitch was one of the largest industries in North Carolina.  Pitch, tar, turpentine and rosin (colophony) were all materials made in the distillation process.

During the period of sailing ships, tar had many uses.  It was used as a protectant  for rope, sail cloth and straw hats, to name a few.  Nelson Checker, the famous color scheme of the British Navy, was influenced by the fact that hulls were painted with asphaltic paints.  Mast heads and spar tips were varnished with a black asphaltic long oil (spar) varnish.

“Black Japanning” was a commonly used method of protecting metals right up to the beginning of WWII.  Black Japanning is simply a formulation of three main ingredients; asphalt, boiled linseed oil and turpentine.  Ford Motor Company used several formulations of Black Japanning.  The first a “long oil” varnish (less asphalt, more oil, turpentine) was used as a primer and on parts that required a more “elastic” finish.  The second, a “short oil” varnish, as a final finish on parts experiencing less flexure.  Occasionally, lamp black or very finely ground coal dust might be used as an additional pigment.  Distillation quality of the turpentine (the volatile oil) or the addition of a metallic drier (probably) allowed some control of drying time.  Of course, anyone with an interest in metallic hand planes knows that all of the major tool producers used Black Japanning to coat the “non contact” iron surfaces of their planes.

So, what does this have to do with today’s woodworker?  Well, first things first.  Next time you’re at your favorite finishing store, notice how many brown wood stains list asphaltum as an ingredient.  The picture above is a good indicator of how many shades of brown can be created by a simple dilution of the product.  In varying formulas (tar, BLO, turpentine), asphaltum can be used as a rubbing stain, a glaze, an oil varnish (tar, BLO, turpentine) or spirit varnish (no BLO, turpentine or naptha).  I, for one, am always looking for ways to reduce the number of finishing products in the shop.  I want products that allow me to create the finishes I want and have good shelf life.  Plus the fewer cans and bottles I have laying around, the fewer I have to get rid of (a task that becomes more challenging as municipal waste rules evolve).

There are numerous sources for asphaltum products.  My major concerns are quality and a fair price.  Art stores offer Asphaltum Etching Varnish, Gilder’s Asphaltum, Asphaltum Artist Color, and Asphaltum Glazes.  That said, for what I’d pay for two pints of Gilder’s Asphaltum I can buy a five gallon can of Henry 101 Non-fibered Foundation Coating (Asphalt and Mineral Spirits).  (A caveat:  stay away from construction products that are rubberized or fibered.)  You might, rightfully, ask “what am I going to do with five gallons of asphalt?”  One suggestion I would offer is to give all of your woodworking friends “a bottle for Christmas.”




When you lose the muse

Posted February 7, 2018 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Looking back over 2017’s activity, I see that I posted only four times.  Four posts!  Not too long ago I’d post four times a week.  So what’s happened?  After nearly sixty years of woodworking have I had enough?  Has “the muse” deserted me?  Perhaps.  But I doubt it.

The last twelve months have included a fair amount of travel and a move.  Yes, a move.  Gone are the days of being confined in my “little shed”, tripping over lumber, blowing fuses, etc.  The new abode includes a 2 1/2 car garage that will become the shop.  Of course there’s a fair amount of preparatory work to be done; insulating, heating, painting (white, white, white).  Then there’ll be new tills and racks to build, getting the lighting just right, sorting through boxes.  All that has to be complete before I can start back to work on a number of projects that remain unfinished.

While attempting to relocate the muse, I have made a few notes to myself:

1.  Running out of room for furniture – Hmm – What to do?

2.  Explore some areas of the craft that you’ve been away from for a while.

3.  Share as much information about “trade” geometry as possible.

Wherever the road takes me…

Still Learning (after all these years)

Posted October 6, 2017 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

Eight or nine years ago I bought a new lathe.  The first thing I did was to make several sets of legs and arm stumps for a pair of Windsor Chairs.  I put them into a five gallon pail for safe keeping.  There they remained, till now.

The first of the pair is nearly complete.  Wow!  Have I learned a lot.  I’ve built a number of chairs, but this is the first sack-back I’ve done.  I have new found respect for my friends who specialize in this particular design.

Here are a few of the lessons learned:

–  You can’t overstate the importance of a good form,

–  Tangential relationships are critical,

–  Use bending straps,

–  Use green wood for bending,

–  Have plenty of bending stock on hand,

A project like this is exactly what keeps me interested in woodworking.  No matter how much you know, there’s always something new to learn.  (Or in the case of many of us, it may be that we’ve forgotten more than we care to admit.  So, shall we say, there’s always something new to remember.)





Posted July 21, 2017 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

I met an old friend on the street the other day, a friend I hadn’t seen for a year or so.  He walked up to me, smiled broadly and said, “Good Lord, I was sure you had died.  You haven’t posted anything since February!”…  What an “eye opener!”

Truth be told, the past few months have been full of travel, visits from family and, honestly, I just haven’t had anything to say that I thought was worth saying.  That’s not to say that there hasn’t been anything going on in the workshop.  Although I have to admit that my level of productivity has been seriously diminished. But, maybe now is a good time to “get back in the game.”

Lester (my partner in the crime of woodworking) and I have managed to finish a couple of projects during this “black-out period.”   We completed a small tavern table (based on one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) that Les had started a number of years ago.  While dry fit, it served to provide a small amount of temporary storage for a number of years.    He opted for a oval top made from a single piece of curly maple that he’s had in storage since the last Dempsey fight.  He decided that heavy distressing was just the ticket.  So, Les, our friend Scott Midegeley and I attacked the thing with lanyards full of keys, sticks, rods, stones.  It was scorched earth!

After the beating, the top was dyed with amber water based dye, then glazed with “black oil”, a combination of asphaltum, turpentine and BLO.  The top was then finished with several coats of Waterlox.  The cherry base was stained, coated with Waterlox then painted with a satin black alkyd enamel.  Then the paint was “wet wiped” to create a heavily distressed look in the areas that would have been subjected to the most wear.  Imagine the Founding Fathers sitting around one of these little beauties, drinking warm ale and trying to determine the best way to run a Republic.

The turned legs were terminated with simple Spanish feet of the “fluted” variety.  Ends of the “ogeed” aprons were finished up with a decorative cockbead.

I became so enthused that I ran right home and started my own Tavern Table.  There are a few differences, but the design is essentially the same.  The carriage is of walnut, the top is elliptical, the finish is the same with less distressing and I opted for a little longer, more feminine Spanish Feet (probably a subliminal influence of having just watched a Penelope Cruz movie).  The aprons are relieved to create a lighter look and the top has a simple torus edge and I nixed the cockbead (for no good reason other than the fact that I wanted to get the thing finished).

Here’s a look at the table through part of the construction process:

And, if you don’t believe in the possibility of resurrection, just stand near the parking lot gate at “quitting time.”    “Gramps”




Andy gets his own chair and “iddy-biddy” parts

Posted February 27, 2017 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Woodworking has been subordinated by the work of giving the home interior a new look.  But we still manage to scratch out a little time for “making chips.”

Les completed another high chair for Raggedy Ann’s soulmate, Andy.  Cherry was used and Les opted to give the chair a little “sun tanning.”  The result was rewarding.  The chair darkened to a deep reddish color, then was finished with three coats of Waterlox Original, prior to the seat weaving.


We continue to plug away on the jewelry box project, changing designs “on the fly.”  We’re at the point of making small interior partitions.  I’ve concluded that sawing up bunches of small parts is not my favorite part of woodworking.  But the final product should displace the anxiety.


Winter work

Posted January 28, 2017 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Working in my shop in winter is akin (I imagine) to being sent to the Gulag.  Suffice it to say that it’s difficult to be at the top of your game while wearing a toboggan cap, gloves, a sweater and a mackinaw.   So the bulk of the winter months provides me with time to work on designs, play the banjo and catch up on reading.

However, Les and I get together at least once a week to indulge our creative “demons”.  The projects tend to become somewhat smaller during the “first quarter” of the year.  This year’s effort is centered around getting rid of scraps.  My guess would be that just about all woodworkers share a certain reluctance to get rid of “shorts and drops.”  A number of justifications for this “failure to eject” seem to be universal: “These can be used as glue blocks”;  “The minute I through that away, I’ll need another”; or the “classic”, “I’ll never be able to find another piece like that”.  (If anyone needs glue block material, let me know.)

This year Les came up with a plan to rid his shop of “fancy and exotic” scrap.  His plan?  Jewelry boxes.   So we’ve been doing our best emulate several of the older elves at the North Pole.  The process is proving to be rewarding.





There are few things better than the feeling of freeing yourself from the aggravation of “surplus, potentially unusable inventory.”  However, this project poses a conundrum in it’s own right; what will become of all the finished boxes?

Not forgotten – just finally complete

Posted December 9, 2016 by D.B. Laney
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

Those of you who have followed this blog for any length of time know that Les and I tend to work slowly. And, it’s not unusual for us to put aside an unfinished project due to being distracted by some new “bright shiny object.”  (One might argue that this is evidence of old men being similar, in many ways, to children.)

We started our Asian inspired hall tables quite some time ago.  We’ve both gotten tired of tripping over, navigating around and moving them out of the way.  So we completed them.

Les’ table is all blood wood.  Mine has a blood wood top and an ebonized walnut base.  Our first plan was to finish them in sprayed lacquer but the weather just never proved to be cooperative.  We opted to use a variety of finishes but the common thread was the use of Waterlox Original finish for the tops.  Waterlox is a marvelous finish, one of the very best wiping varnishes on the market.  But a word to the wise, it is a fairly expensive product and it doesn’t have a very long shelf life.  The manufacturer recommends one year after purchase.  Normally I look the other was at shelf life dates.  But not on Waterlox!  A final word of caution:  Never, never shake it!  (It polymerizes and when you entrain air, especially if you’re closing in or past the “use by”, you’re in for a big surprise – a can of semi-solid goop that can’t be re-solubilized.)



Now that we’ve had our little adventure in the realm of contemporary furniture, I expect that we’ll get back to the “old lookin'” stuff.

%d bloggers like this: