A rogue Arts and Crafts finish


Synopsis: Though not the finish intended by C.F.A. Voysey when he designed his two-heart chair, this rich, dark-brown finish is the one often found when you see this Arts and Crafts chair in collections. So when Nancy Hiller made the chair for an upcoming article, she used this finish. It requires a three-step coloring system to get its warm, layered appearance.


In 1898, when British architect C.F.A. Voysey designed his two-heart chair, he specified that it should be “made in oak and left quite free from stain or polish.” This direction for the finish was not relegated to a footnote, but handwritten in capitals at the top of the drawing.

As anyone who does custom design or builds to order will know, customers often have their own agendas. This is how many examples of the chair came to have a dark finish, long associated with wood species such as mahogany that were considered “higher quality” than English oak. Such sleight of hand was inconsistent with the basic values of the Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized honesty (for example, through exposed joinery) and encouraged people to ask themselves just why they attributed higher quality to things that were not home-grown or homemade, which implicitly disparaged the simple, local, and not contrived.

In 2017, when I went to England with the primary goal of measuring one of these chairs at The Wilson (formerly the Cheltenham Museum), the one I spent time with was dark. I don’t know the particular finishing materials or processes used on that chair, but it was a rich, warm dark brown; like a little black dress, the darkness played tricks on the eye, making the chair seem more delicate and spindly than it looks when finished to Voysey’s specifications.

I’ve finished most of my chairs only with linseed oil, but for an article I prepared for an upcoming issue, the editors and I decided to color the chair dark. I use a three-step coloring system to get a warm, layered depth of finish typical of turn-of-the-century furniture and millwork—in other words, exactly the kind of finish Voysey did not want for his two-heart chair. 

Begin by sanding the oak to 180 grit. Remove all dust, using a vacuum with a brush attachment, compressed air, or both. Raise the grain with a lightly dampened cloth. Let it dry, then sand again. Then move through dye, stain, shellac, and finally wax.

A layered finish 

TransTint, wood finish, shellac, and paste wax

First add color with a dye. Then enhance that color and bring out the wood’s character with a stain. Next, seal all that in with an amber shellac that warms the color at the same time. And finally, add a layer of paste wax to protect it all.

Boost color and grain

Starting with a dye instead of stain pops the grain. The dye darkens uniformly, coloring the medullary rays along with the rest of the wood.

Brush on a base color. Hiller uses TransTint waterborne dye in Dark Walnut #6005. Apply the solution with a foam brush, then use a dampened cloth to spread it evenly on all parts of the piece. Wipe off the excess with a dry cloth. When the dye is dry, check the surface. If it feels rough, carefully scuff-sand with 320-grit paper.
Brush on a base color. Hiller uses TransTint waterborne dye in Dark Walnut #6005. Apply the solution with a foam brush, then use a dampened cloth to spread it evenly on all parts of the piece. Wipe off the excess with a dry cloth. When the dye is dry, check the surface. If it feels rough, carefully scuff-sand with 320-grit paper.

Wipe off the excess with a dry cloth.

Round out the color with stain

Staining over the dye adds color and dimension, and further defines the grain. Because the oil-based stain will not color the medullary rays, using it after the dye makes the now-dyed rays stand out even more.

Apply a coat of oil-based wiping stain.
Apply a coat of oil-based wiping stain. Hiller uses Minwax Ebony 2718, applying it full-strength with a natural-bristle brush. Allow the dye to penetrate for about 10 minutes, then wipe off every trace. Go back and check for dye seeping out of the pores and remove any you find, using a clean, lint-free cloth.
A final wipedown.
A final wipedown. Leave the stain to dry overnight, and then use a clean shop cloth to make sure the wiping stain is fully absorbed, dry, and no trace remains on the surface, as it can react with shellac, causing problems.

Seal and protect

Amber shellac brightens everything while adding a sheer layer of color, as well as a protective topcoat. One coat is enough. Hiller is not looking for a built-up finish, but a protective layer of brightness and warmth. 

On with the amber shellac. Hiller uses Zinsser Bull’s Eye, which is pre-mixed, and applies it with a natural-bristle brush. Be especially careful to avoid “rolling” the finish around a corner, which can cause drips. If you are proficient in the use of a small pad to apply shellac, you can use that method.
On with the amber shellac. Hiller uses Zinsser Bull’s Eye, which is pre-mixed, and applies it with a natural-bristle brush. Be especially careful to avoid “rolling” the finish around a corner, which can cause drips. If you are proficient in the use of a small pad to apply shellac, you can use that method.
Scuff it up. The shellac will dry quickly, but you should still allow it to harden for a few hours. Scuff-sand the shellac with 320-grit paper and remove the dust with a clean cloth.
Scuff it up. The shellac will dry quickly, but you should still allow it to harden for a few hours. Scuff-sand the shellac with 320-grit paper and remove the dust with a clean cloth.

Add extra protection

Paste wax dries to a hard but very thin finish, giving added protection and a silky smoothness to the touch. 

Wax on. Hiller covers the shellac with Old Masters Crystal Clear Paste Wax 30901, simply rubbing it on in small circles.
Wax on. Hiller covers the shellac with Old Masters Crystal Clear Paste Wax 30901, simply rubbing it on in small circles.
Wax off. Let the wax sit until it puts up a slight resistance to buffing, then buff it off briskly with a clean, dry cloth until you reach a soft sheen. 
Wax off. Let the wax sit until it puts up a slight resistance to buffing, then buff it off briskly with a clean, dry cloth until you reach a soft sheen.

A rogue Arts and Crafts Finish Sprd Image

From Fine Woodworking #298

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