Archive for the ‘Finishing’ category

More fun with household chemistry – Potassium Permanganate

September 26, 2013

Potassium Permanganate is an oxidizer that is used in many ways.  It is used in the maintenance of water distribution equipment.  It has been used as a disinfectant.  And, it has been used to provide “instant aging” for the stage and movie industries.  It is a caustic agent and should be handled with care.  It has a long history as a chemical dye for wood.  It produces a wide range of browns on various species.  Because it is, usually, dissolved in water, it will raise grain.

I dissolved one (1) teaspoon of potassium permanganate crystals in eight (8) ounces of water.  In the following samples, I used a Walnut derived stain (see previous posts) on the right side of the samples.  I used the Potassium Permanganate dye on the left side of the sample.  The lower half of each is covered with three coats of garnet shellac (I use this frequently in the shop), to give some idea of the finish under a reflective top coat.  There has been no attempt to “finish” the top coat.  Certainly, buffing and waxing would change the result.  But my purpose here is to simply provide a reference for the potential of Potassium Permanganate as permanent colorant for various species of domestic wood.



An important conversation with Mr. Jack Plane about Walnut stains

August 30, 2013

Jack Plane writes, what I feel is, one of the best blogs on Anglo-Irish period furniture, the collection of fine antiques and the condition of Western Civilization, at large.  He is also as fine a craftsman as you are likely to come across.  I’m always very pleased when Jack comments on any of my ramblings.  While his observations can be full of erudite humor, they are always to the point and, without fail, very instructive.    Jack’s comments on his preparation and use of Walnut stain (Van Dyke crystal) offer rarely found information about a coloring method that was widely used and is still an incredible tool today.  And, the product can be found at the base of any Walnut tree.

I’m not sure if Jack uses ammonia in his original preparation.  I assume that he does.  But understanding that this product is essentially a “food stuff”, Jack has developed a method of handling and storage that we can all use.  But here it is in Jack’s words:

The tonal qualities of Van Dyke make it one of the most versatile stains – natural or synthetic.

I brew the stain to reduce it and then pour some into a very large plastic storage container – just enough to cover the bottom. I then place the lid loosely on the box to keep out contaminants, while allowing moisture to escape.

I leave the container in full sun until all the moisture has evaporated and the walnut solids have dried and curled up. The solids are then ground up and stored for future use.

I keep a jar of concentrated Van Dyke stain made up, from which I draw and dilute as necessary.

I asked Jack what his method of re-hydration was, and it’s surprisingly simple:

I make up Van Dyke with hot tap water and a drop or two of non-foaming surfactant. The dry stain is some somewhat water repellent (at least it is inclined to clag initially), so the surfactant aids with miscibility and also assists penetration.

The stain doesn’t need to be hot when applied.

And, again, if anyone doubts the beauty of the results of this method, visit Jack’s blog.  While the Irish Elm dressing table is an outstanding example of this stain’s use, my guess would be that Van Dyke crystals have been used to color other projects seen on the blog, as well.  Van Dyke brown is a standard artist color that is commonly used for the illustration of trees and other woody plant stuffs.

Have fun.  Look for the good stuff right in your backyard.  Think outside the box.

Put “Pegs and Tails” on your “favorite” list.  You’ll be glad you did.


Jack just provided some additional information that will prove helpful:

If you wish to edit your post, yes I do use ammonia to draw the tannin out of the husks (the husks are all that are required for stain making, you can eat or plant the nuts). To be pedantic, the dried solids are a powder, not crystals.

Vandyke Brown (cassel earth) is not the same as Van Dyke. Vandyke Brown is an earth pigment which is used to make artists’ colours and in our world, an opaque stain roughly the same colour as Van Dyke. Confusing? Yes, but worth pointing out.

You are correct in your assumption that I have used VD for colouring other furniture, but often so dilute as to not warrant mentioning for fear of confusing the other reader (most amateurs are of the opinion that stains must be intense or they haven’t got value for money).

Walnut husk stain – chapter 2

August 28, 2013

The Walnuts (in their husks) soaked in the household ammonia for eight days.  The Walnuts  turned very black.  The ammonia fluid was about the same color as Guinness Stout, so it was time for a test.

I picked four samples from the scrap box; White Oak, Red Oak, Walnut and Cherry.  I applied a liberal coat of the fluid and allowed it to dry.  Later I applied a second coat at the right side of each sample.  There was little, if any, difference in color when the second coat was applied.

Top to bottom:  White Oak, Red Oak, Walnut and Cherry

Top to bottom: White Oak, Red Oak, Walnut and Cherry

The color on the White Oak is very similar to that of many Craftsman pieces.  This should come as no surprise, as many pieces in that style were fumed with ammonia.  The stain turned the Red Oak sample a very attractive reddish brown.  On Walnut, the stain deepens the color and might be used to “balance” stock that is “streaky”.  The color on the Cherry sample was a very nice warm brown.

After the stain had dried, I “slapped on” (with little or no attention paid to technique) a coat of Garnet Shellac, just to see what it would look like.


I believe that the colors created by the Walnut Husk stain are very similar to those produced by the application of dilute potassium permangenate (commonly available in crystalline form at hardware stores and plumbing supply houses for use in water filtration equipment).  Care should be taken when using chemical dyes as they are, at least, an irritant and can be dangerous (skin contact and inhalation).  Do your reading.

Well, I think I’ll put a fresh batch of Walnuts back in the jar to see if I can actually manage to darken the stain a little.  To see what “Van Dyck” Walnut stain (commercially available crystalline dye made from Walnuts) looks like on Elm, take a look at the Irish Elm Dressing Table on Mr. Jack Plane’s blog, Pegs and Tails.

Why are those pickles on the chopping block?

August 19, 2013



Well, the short answer is, they’re not pickles!  It’s that time of year in Northwest Ohio that the Walnuts are beginning to fall.  We’re walking on them, driving on them, hittin’ ’em with the lawn mower.  So, always wanting to investigate the “old ways” (and always looking to save a buck), I filled up a Vlasic pickle jar with the little darlings still in their husks.  I brought them home and promptly filled the jar with household ammonia.  This is not something I dreamed up.  It’s a recipe from Sam Allen’s book Classic Finishing Techniques (which is, unfortunately, out of print).  Allen refers to it as Walnut husk stain and by its French appellation, brou de noix (brew of walnut, hmm…).  Allen says it will take a week, but after just a few hours, it’s already showing its potential on a couple of teenie scraps on the block (red oak and walnut).  Time will tell…

Then I walked out of the shop and heard the unmistakable sound of someone blowing hot air into their balloon.



As if today was not already one of the “banner” variety, I found that Paulaner Oktoberfest (IMHO one of the World’s very best beers) has returned to our local distributor.  Life is good, very good.

Remember, DO NOT DRINK alcoholic beverages and operate power tools.

There are so many reasons to improve your hand tool skills.

“Perseverare autem diabolicum” or thoughts on blackening Ash

May 22, 2013

In my last post I discussed the difficulty of trying to carve ash.  Hey, don’t get me wrong.  Ash is a wonderful material.  Right now it’s plentiful and it’s cheap.  It turns very well.  And, properly finished, it is a very attractive wood that can be used (nearly) interchangeably with other ring porous species.  But, as I recently testified, you’d have to be real masochist to want to carve it on a regular basis.  Walnut or mahogany,  it is not!  You’re probably not going to see many highly carved pieces in ash.

Another real challenge with ash, is ebonizing it.  Anyone who is familiar with this blog knows that I am keenly interested in traditional finishing methods.  My ebonizing method of choice is iron and tannin.  While this method gives absolutely beautiful results on walnut, mahogany, cherry and a host of other woods, using it on ash has always been a real challenge.  In fact, I have “stooped” to the use of aniline dye and the “wiped, thinned paint” method on more than one occasion in the past.  But after stumbling across an article by Brian Boggs on the subject, I decided I’d try it one more time; ergo:  Preserverare autem diabolicum.  (This is very similar to the definition of insanity being the act of repeating a behavior with the expectation of a different result.)  The subject product is the coffee table I’m building for our living room.  Hope it works (remembering that ash offers pretty good heating value).

Ash is not high in tannin so, following Boggs’ suggestion, I mixed up a batch of “oak bark tea”, 1 tbs/pint water.  In this case, I used a bark powder product used in leather tanning.  In the past, I’ve used oak bark, leaves and oak galls (which, I believe, have the highest concentration of tannin) to brew the tea.  (I have heard of folks brewing a very “thick” tea from regular black tea, as well.)  I brushed the surface of the table, liberally.  The “tea” deepened the color of the ash after drying.

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Next, I prepared a solution of iron acetate.  This was made by simply soaking some steel wood in white vinegar for a couple of days.  (Note:  a gas is produced in this process, so don’t cork up the jar too tightly, lest you be injured by potential flying shards of glass.  Put a rubber glove over the jar, or use a plastic container.)  I’ve heard of other folks using iron (ferrous) sulfate  which can probably be found in garden stores.  What you’re looking for is iron to react with the tannic acid provided by the tannin tea.

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I “decanted” the iron acetate mixture, through some cheese cloth and was left with a grayish, yellowish, greenish fluid, rich in iron.

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Then I brushed the surface with the iron acetate solution, liberally.  This is a messy process.  So, unless you want  black marks all over the floor, put down a dropcloth.

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After this application had dried completely, I noticed the chemical process had not taken effect in certain areas of the surface.  This was in the areas of the porous rings.  (This is the problem when trying to ebonize ash.)  I remembered that Boggs had said that he had put another coat of the “tea” on in order to get more tannin on the surface to react with any free iron.  So, I figured that if one coat would help, two coats would work even better.  I was sure that there would be plenty of tannin.  After the second coat of tea was dry,  I hit the table with another coat of iron acetate.  I had my evening scotch, then went off to bed.  When the morning arrived, I was startled by what I encountered.  A deep brown precipitate had formed.  (A light precipitate is normal, but grey or black not brown.)

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It turns out that this was not a huge problem.  After some light buffing with a “scotchbrite” pad, a lovely “warm” black color appeared.  However, the area of the porous rings still had not been uniformly affected by the process.  But with the judicious use of some “black oil” (lamp black in boiled linseed oil) a uniform look was achieved.

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Three or four coats of rubbing varnish will produce a finish of incredible depth and durability.

So…what is the upshot of all this Alchemy?  If you’re “into” historic finishing techniques, you’ll enjoy using this one.  But as a commercial finish for anything made from ash, I’d have to recommend against it. What you’d save in product cost, is more than offset by the amount of labor involved.  Any client who wants something built from ash will, very likely, not see the value of this finishing method.  Use a thinned alkyd enamel or black milk paint, throw a couple of coats of oil or spirit varnish on it, and collect your payment.  However…if you’re working with cherry or walnut and you need some ebonized surfaces…

Errare Humanum Est….

May 18, 2013

perseverare autem diabolicum. 

So… you make one mistake, you’re just human.  But, if you continue to do the same thing, the Devil’s in your head, or you’re just plain stupid.

The last time I carved in Ash, I make a solemn promise to myself that I wouldn’t do it again.  But hey, I never claimed to be the “brightest penny in the purse”.   Recently I decided to replace our old “coffee” table with something a little more..uh, unusual.  The goal was a table that had some period influence, but was rather unique.  I decided to do a “bandy-legged” design that harkened back to the Oriental origins of much of what we recognize as late 18th century English and American furniture.  I decided to do an ebonized finish, which meant I wouldn’t need to use the best of “show” woods.  What did I have at hand in large squares?  You guessed it, baseball bat material!  Here we go again.

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After sharpening up the tools, I went to work.  There were moments that I wished for a power carver or a 4″ grinder.  My design has a very curved “ankle”.  The shape is easy to draw, but presents some real challenges when you’re carving it with conventional tools.  (Carving against the grain in Ash just isn’t going to happen, trust me.)  After hours spent cursing under my breath (and sometimes out loud), the task was completed.

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In the Oriental tradition, these legs would be in the “Dragon’s foot” family.  Whatever they are, the table frame looks like it’s going to chase me right out of the workshop.

Now to turn it black and “top it off” appropriately.

Lowboy project – Gallery

December 19, 2012

You start out with a really nice piece of curly stock and then you decide what it should become….

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