I once had a decorator bring a client to my shop to look at a dining table. It was a table that I was selling for a friend. The surface was filled with scratches and dents from fairly rough use, but it was a perfectly good two pedestal table with a reasonable patina. The friend needed the money from the sale and I priced it very inexpensively. The decorator knew the table was inexpensive and thought her client was more averse to spending money than worrying about scratches an dents. That was not the case, however.

Having talked about stains, I omitted talking about polishing because antique restorers seldom build a finish from scratch. Occasionally, you have to match a leaf to a dining table, but that is likely to be the largest surface you will work on. Good restorers always try to find already finished old wood for repairs and then resort to “new” pieces of wood, usually old timber but freshly cut, to fill in missing pieces of veneer. Good staining technique is paramount in such circumstances. What restorers never do is sand off an old finish, even if it is marked excessively as this table was. You lose the patina and I knew that sooner or later, someone would come along who liked the patina and could live with the dents and scratches.

I try not to buy surfaces that are too scarred because my customer base has a limit to how much history they want to see on a top. I never buy something where I think I will have to sand a surface down, re-stain and re-polish. It goes against everything that I think an antique dealer should stand for, i.e. the retention of all that has happened to a surface. There is always a customer for every piece who is looking for something that they would call the perfect antique, regardless of condition. Don’t tell anybody, but it is just a case of the right person finding the right object. It is also called falling in love.

There are two kinds of stain used on raw wood, water borne and oil based stains. Of these two, water stains are more complex as they include chemical stains which react to the wood they are being used on as, for example, copper sulphate does on mahogany in eliminating the red color. A clever stainer knows which stains will react well together and how they affect different kinds of wood. The simpler water stains that merely add color are really not so simple to use as they require an understanding of finishing altogether, that is the laying of a polish on the stain. Oil based stains are basically designed for the novice that wants to occlude the surface of the wood they are working on to give it basic color. Oil based stains can be used in faux finishes, but for the purposes we are talking about, they are a simplistic solution to coloring wood.

The simple-ness of oil based stains, however, is not so simple. Yes, they allow you to stain in a one step process, but in so doing you lose the subtlety of tone and wood grain. It is not unlike our president’s policies which boils issues down to who is wrong and who is right. It is not equivocating to see shades of gray in issues and to act according to subtleties that might not yet be apparent. A good stainer is no different in that he judges the wood he is working on, knows what his stains will do and how the polish will affect the stains and proceeds accordingly, often in the opposite direction from what you think might be the obvious way to go as, for example, in provoking the red in mahogany to go bright with a lye based solution and then knocking it back with peroxide. Oil stains and antiques don’t, as a rule, mix all that well simply because they lack subtlety.


I was asked to look at a banister rail to determine what I thought was wrong with it. The first thing I could see was that someone had put a very dark oil stain on it and that this was done to cover up the second rate craftsmanship of the manufacture and installation of the rail. It was  clearly a simple minded and wrong headed solution to a problem that has nothing to do with stain. But oil stains are often used thusly. I refer to my analogy of yesterday.

At this point, I have to say that one of the things that is so compelling about English antique furniture is the color that it has. The combination of wood choice, stains, finish, aging and care often produce astounding patina. Very little is known about how antique furniture was stained and finished, however, although there are plenty of theories some of which sound great but which in practical terms are quite silly. And yet, the variety of water borne stains that existed in the 17th and 18th centuries certainly exists today and a good stainer/finisher both then and now would closely guard this information. It is a hard won knowledge. The complexities of the art, however, make it all the more appealing.

It is quite certain that stains from the 17th and 18th centuries were used to make things brighter. Virtually all of the harewood we see, and there was a great deal of it used in the 1760-1800 period, was quite green when it was first stained. That is what harewood is after all, green stained sycamore. Would I have liked the furniture so brightly stained? That is hard to say.

In summary, I would say that oil stains bought on the market today are not really intended for use the way water stains are. Oil stains, which come named as cherry or oak or walnut, are a modern look. If you want your pine to look quite dark, a walnut stain will do the trick. If, on the other hand, you want your pine to look like walnut wood, you better use that wood, because pine will never look like walnut no matter how often you stain it.