Hello Again and Some Rules for Varnishing

Kaare Loftheim demonstrates work on a mahogany bureau table at this year's woodworking symposium, which focused on the furnishings of George and Martha Washington.

First of all, we’re back and we plan on blogging far more regularly this year.  Thanks for sticking with us!

Secondly: Happy New Year Everyone!  …I know that seems belated, but here in the Anthony Hay Shop the new year really begins after our annual wood working symposium.  We were happy to see old friends and make new ones as we worked through this year’s conference on the furniture of Mount Vernon and we’ll certainly keep you posted on how those projects are coming along.

Third, both Brian and I are currently finishing projects based on the work of Williamsburg cabinetmaker Peter Scott – a mahogany tea table for Brian and a walnut desk and bookcase for me.  We thought this would be a fitting time to explore finishing techniques.  Before any large finishing project I like to revisit the third chapter of Stalker and Parker’s A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing (first published in 1688).  Here, the authors set forth, in explicit detail, ten rules for varnishing wood.  Unlike their contemporary Joseph Moxon (Mechanics Exercises), one or both of the authors are believed to have been practicing tradesmen and their writing reflects the intimate knowledge of materials and techniques born of actual experience.  We’ll have occasion to write more on Stalker and Parker in future posts, but for now I’d like to share their first six rules of varnishing (the last four rules focus on polishing a finish out with rottenstone).

I’d like to call your attention to three particular aspects of this passage.  First, we must not view Stalker and Parker’s colorful 17th century English as merely a quaint affectation, but as a powerful means of emphasis (rule 2 below is a particularly good example of this).  I doubt this writing style would make it past the editors of modern woodworking magazines, but we have the luxury of photographs to expand upon written details.  Second, their account is concerned with the highest-end furniture work of post Restoration London.  Their advice is especially wonderful for the heavily veneered and japanned pieces of their time, but just how much of this advice found its way into the minds and onto the wood of 18th century colonial cabinetmakers remains an open question.  Regardless, no matter the look one is trying to achieve with a finished surface, the advice is sound and still relevant. Third, a few words about materials and terminology are necessary:

Varnish: they recommend a 1½ pound cut of seedlac (1½ pounds of an unrefined form of shellac dissolved in a gallon of alcohol).

Pencil: a brush (they recommend camel hair, we usually use china bristle brushes).

Rush:  horsetail rush/equisetum is a marshy grass that pulls silica out of the soil and has a very fine abrasive quality.  In my mind it compares to anything from 220 to 600 grit sandpaper (each rush is a little different from the last).  Its use in the 17th and 18th centuries is well documented.

Gallipot: a small earthenware container.

We plan on going into further detail on all of these matters and materials in the future, but for now I hope you enjoy the following thoughts on finishing.  One thing should be resoundingly clear from the excerpt: good finishing is not an afterthought to woodwork, it is a project in and of itself!  

Bill Pavlak.

Here’s a little Stalker and Parker for your reading pleasure…

Horsetail rush (Equisetum), a common historical abrasive, which, used on edge, results in a surface similar to that produced by 220 to 600 grit modern sandpapers. Here it's effects are shown on a varnished piece of walnut.

CHAP. III.

General Rules to be diligently observed in all manner of Varnishing.  

I am very solicitous that your Work should succeed, and therefore take all imaginable care to guide you, so that you cannot possibly miscarry; and in order thereunto shall propose rules and general Cautions,, which I desire you would have always in mind, and call them to your assistance in all your undertakings.

1. Therefore let your wood which you intend to varnish be close-grained, exempt and free from all knots and greasiness, very smooth, clean, and well rush’t.

2. Lay all your Colours and Blacks exquisitely even and smooth; and where ever mole-hills and knobs, asperities and roughness in colours or varnish offer to appear, with your Rush sweep them off, and tell them their room is more acceptable to you than their company.  If this ill usage will not terrifie them, or make them avoid your work, give them no better entertainment than you did before, but maintain your former severity, and with your Rush whip them off, as often as they molest you.

3. Keep your work always warm, by no means hot, which will certainly blister or crack it; and if that mischance through inadvertency should happen, tis next to irreparable, and nothing less than scraping off all the varnish can rectifie the miscarriage.

4. Let your work be thoroughly dry, after every distinct wash; for neglect in this point introduces the fault again, of which we warned you in the second rule, That your varnish should not be rough and knobby.

5. Let your work lie by and rest, as long as your convenience will admit, after tis varnished; for the better will your endeavors prove, the longer it stands after this operation.

6. Be mindful to begin your varnishing stroak in the middle of the table or box that you have provided for that work, and not in full length from one end to the other; so that your brush being planted in the middle of your board, strike it to one end; then taking it off, fix it to the place you began at, and draw or extend it to the other end; so must you do till the whole plane or content be varnished over.  I have reasons too for this caution, which if neglected, has several faults and prejudices attending it; for if you should undertake at one stroak to move your Pencil from end to end, it would so happen that you would overlap the edges and mouldings of your box; this overlapping is, when you see the varnish lie in drops and splashes, not laid by your brush, but caused by your brushes being at the beginning of the stroak overcharg’d and too full of varnish, and therefore we advise you to stroke your pencil once or twice against the Gallipot, to obstruct and hinder this superfluity; small experience will discover these mistakes.

[Rules 7-10 concern polishing finishes with tripoli, which we do on occasion, but we’ll reserve a discussion of these for a future post]

To conclude, let this Chapter be well studied, and remember, that without it you cannot regularly or safely perform the task; This is the Common-place-book, to which I shall continually refer you; and if you will prove negligent and remiss in this particular, I shall prophesie, that nothing can so infallibly attend you as Error and Disappointment.

[A modern edition of this book was published by Alec Tiranti (London) in 1971 with a brief introduction by H.D. Molesworth.]

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5 Responses to Hello Again and Some Rules for Varnishing

  1. Follansbee says:

    Bill

    Great to hear from your shop again…and thanks for the Stalker & Parker stuff. I particularly enjoy the phrase “nothing can so infallibly attend you as Error and Disappointment.”

    When you say “on edge” for using the horsetail rush, is it really one end? It looks like the short pieces in your photo are rubbed on their busted-open ends. Oh, & do you guys harvest this yourselves?

    Say hello to the whole crew, and when you see Garland & Ted, tell them my cohorts at Plimoth have taken a shot at a blog as well http://blogs.plimoth.org/rivenword/

    • Thanks Peter – how is it that five us 18th century guys can’t keep up with one 17th century guy when it comes to blogging? We do usually harvest and dry out the rushes ourselves or we’ll ask our landscape crew to bring us some they’ve cut. We still need to experiment further with the rushes. The photo, in addition to being bad, is a bit misleading. I did only use the one end of that rush on the sample, but only because the finished surface area was so small. I’ve played around with bundling them together to work broader surfaces, but have yet to find a completely satisfactory way of doing that. Normally I’ll cut off the joint sections of the rushes since they tend to scratch the work. I think we still need to experiment with how dry they should be for work – some of our stuff is so dry it’s become brittle and fairly useless. Have you, or others, had occasion to try these out?

  2. Dennis Heyza says:

    Thanks to everyone at CW for another great symposium. Glad to see you posting again and looking forward to more regular blogging.

    Dennis

  3. Marsh Jim says:

    Thanks Bill. That is great stuff. Glad to see the log is back.

    Jim

  4. Chuck Walker says:

    Fascinating material that is new to me! All of the steps are spot on but the most difficult for those of us in the later generations are steps 4 and 5. We become eager to complete the project as a whole not taking care to consider the finishing an entirely separate project. Patience and a stout critical attitude to your work is a must. And of course, step six tells us that we must practice to get the strokes just right. Demanding!

    Thank you for publishing this post.

    Chuck Walker

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