An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 173

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 21, 2022 - Issue 173
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The feedback I received about color suggested that some people are confused about whether color is created by the finish, or partially created, or not even part of the equation or possibly integral to the color of the wood. In a way, all of the above applies. The earliest finishers, for example, used whatever was at hand, but when cabinet shops became more sophisticated, finishers were entrusted by cabinetmakers to show off their woodworking skills. To wit, the goal was to find the clearest material possible so that any coloring of the surface would be intentional and not a byproduct of the finish. The search was on for a material lacking in any color, that would help protect a surface--mostly from moisture, but also heat. There is a book from 1688 called the "Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing" which outlined all sorts of varnishes that might be used on a surface. It should be noted that varnish is a term denoting viscosity so when one talks about polyurethane varnish, one is talking about a material with a particular "cut", meaning the ratio of resin to solvent. Hence, you can make a varnish from just about any sticky material that dries. All types of resins were used to create a good varnish. Stalker and Parker, the authors of the treatise on japanning, have a list of materials with which to make varnish, shellac being one of them. Their problem with shellac was in getting a "bloom" in the finish. "Bloom" is water in the finish and that was a function of a too watery solvent, meaning that you can't make shellac varnish without very high proof alcohol or the finish will whiten (bloom) on you. As a finish, shellac was therefore resigned to a corner. At least for a while. 

However, Londoners had their own problems with water in that London's sanitation system polluted the potable water and could make one quite sick. One solution were home stills (a major fire hazard) that is to say that Londoners got good at making high proof spirits. Eventually, those spirits made their way into shellac finishes and a near-to perfect finish (there is no such thing) was close to being borne. It was the French who figured out how best to apply shellac in the mid 18th century and by the time the craft reached England, it was known as French polishing. As good as French polish was for creating a reasonably hard surface, it still had color and it still was only shellac meaning that water could damage the surface (if left untended--meaning days, not minutes or even hours) and most shellac had a color tone, usually red or yellow. In the early part of the 20th century, cellulose finishes were created that were almost colorless--problem solved. Sort of. When the finish died as all finishes do, it required stripping and that meant that either the finish or the piece of furniture itself had a limited shelf life. Why would you want to strip your dining table every time the finish started to die? As the 20th century rolled on, more polymer finishes were created. They all, however, die from the bottom up, although they are quite tough and resilient--but they are definitely not for antiques.

The answer to the question of what the finish has to do with wood color is not much and quite a bit. Walnut, for example, was often polished with a shellac that has a yellow cast. This helped the tone of freshly cut (European) walnut which has a gray-brown color to it. It was also used on American black walnut which is purply-blue-gray when cut. But tinted polish also fades and will occlude those things that you want to include in the aging process--notably sunlight, but also all the other little things that happen to a surface that mark time and influence the color of the wood. Mid-Victorians went for red mahogany like nobody's business and so, particularly in America, we have pieces whose redness just won't fade because there is so much red dye in the polish. And often, underneath that redness is some magnificent mahogany veneer. When you strip that red off, something I have done only once as people are very touchy about retaining original finishes, you have wood that is as fresh as if it were first cut. (American finishers either didn't want to use water based stains or didn't have them.) So to sum up, finishes can occlude sunlight which is essential to the aging of wood so you do not want a lot of polish (meaning shellac) on an old surface. Further, you do not want to put color into a finish because even a thin finish with color will occlude sunlight. Great old surfaces tend to be a thin finish that has been well looked after with wax and possibly a little magic--whatever that might be, because I don't know what that might include. Therefore, I would say that finishes matter immensely as does the care of them, but when you have a piece with great color, refrain from messing with it--do no harm and leave it alone. That is, unless you want to call it "brown".