The Furniture Guys

Ed Feldman and Joe L'Erario


The Furniture Godfather's Lesson in Lye - Continued

I once had a friend who had replaced a couple of new, white oak, panels and several lengths of oak molding in a church. Next, he did exactly what most people do: they go to the hardware center and purchase an oil stain that seems to match the color they’re after. When this did not work for him--- simply because oil stains will never, once applied, appear on new wood as the color swatch on the can label indicates, and, without his having mastered the act of layering such colors one atop the other, his valiant attempt of matching the church brown color on his newly applied wood with a single application of oil-stain was doomed from the very beginning.

Not that there is anything wrong with these kinds of oil penetrating stains. I have used them extensively throughout my finishing career. However, when attempting the matching old wood to new it is simply impossible to achieve a sameness of color with a single application. Anyway, once he got around to calling Furniture Godfather, yours truly, and, after he had bought me lunch, he took me to the sight so I could see. I saw. See?

The replaced wood looked great, but I knew he’d never going to get anywhere with something out of a can. I told him not to fret; he bought me some canolis and then brought me back to my shop. I amassed the things I was going to need and went back to the church the next morning.

Here’s what I did.

First I washed off all of his stain with some lacquer thinner and steel wool. I removed as much as possible, washing it with goodly amounts of thinner and lots of hard rubbing---a specialty of mine. Ask my wife. Next I sanded and scrubbed the wood with a wire brush that’s about the size of a scrub brush. You have to be careful with wire brushes. While wire brushes can be scrubbed over oak, you have to be extremely careful that you are always going with the grain and not across the grain. Otherwise, you will make definite scratches. Next I sanded the wood with an 80 grit garnet paper and then dusted all surfaces. Experimentation had led to the recipe of about a quart of hot water to an ounce or so of lye crystals. This I mixed in a heavy plastic container, and, after having tarpped the surrounding area with news paper and plastic--- taking special care to not wet the tape with the lye otherwise it would have loosened or dissolved it---I applied my solution of lye and water.

The Instant the lye hit the wood it turned a glorious brown color. After I had treated all the new wood with the lye bath, I washed the wood with plenty of fresh water. In fact I washed it about three times using a fresh pail of clean water each time. Into the last bucket-full of fresh water, I included a cup of white vinegar to neutralize any lye reside. I wiped the wood dry with paper towels and went home ---actually, I went to the bar and had a few beers, then, I went home.

The next day, with the wood dry, I could see my color was getting there but still needed some form of doctoring. Wearing my trusty dust mask, I sanded the new wood I had colored with the lye because as you may or may not know, water raises the grain of the wood.

I sanded with a 220 grit garnet and then scrubbed all areas of wood with my collection of trusty wire brushes, always being careful that I was going with the grain. This is necessary to remove any sanding dust from the pores of the wood.

To color the wood further I used some burnt umber oil color (available from finishing houses, or, in a pinch, you can use artists oil colors in a tube) which I placed into a tuna can--- (my lunch and later rinsed) and mixed with a dribble of turpentine.

I took this mixture and rubbed it into the wood in circle motions. The magic of this is : the oil color darkens the face of the wood, or the flats, while the action of rubbing in small circles forces the pigment into the deep pores of the oak which had been opened by the bristles of the wire brushes. But you know, even after all this effort, the new wood was still not true to the old wood.

Close, but no Lewinski, er, ah . . . that is, cigar. . .

Now when you do something like this you have to see beyond the finish, or, I should say, what the finish is becoming. In fact, you have to be the Amazing Kreskin! There was still a need for something else, which as I remember, in my minds eye, was akin to the color of an ebony, oil based stain. Yet I did not want to stain again. I wanted to put something over the wood and call it quits. Something that could color as well as being a finish topcoat. An ebony oil stain could have rendered the color I was after but it would not have created the same luster, or “glow” of age.

It was then I remembered, (pondering the mental bulletin board in my brain), of having read about making a black shellac out of old 78rpm phonograph records. And so, after breaking up an Art Mooney and His Orchestra platter from the mid- 40's and placing the pieces in a jar, I covered the jagged bits with denatured alcohol and a touch of lacquer thinner. You see, old 78's, especially those platters released through the early 1900's to the late 1940's were shellac based! Can you dig it? I mean try doing that with your modern day MP3 player, folks!

Overnight I had created a brew that was true. I placed the liquid in the vessel with the pestle -- or was it the flagon with the dragon? In any case, I strained the mixture through a fine paint strainer, thinned it with a bit more alcohol and, with the first stroke laid down, I closed my eyes. Opening, I saw the light. It was exactly the color I had wanted. "Church pue brown" is what I called it. And, since I was in a church whose interior was always dark, as most Gothic style churches certainly are -- I had only to work with the existent light which was a bonafide plus because the wood took on the same tonality as the original. And I dare say only the most discerning eye would have been able to tell. After I had coated all the wood, I sanded lightly with 320 grit silicon carbide paper and applied a second coat of my black shellac. I allowed this finish to dry overnight, went back the next morning and gave all surfaces a light buffing with #0000 steel wool. After rubbing with steel wool, I applied a Minwax, dark paste wax, for dark colored surfaces, polished it up and by then it was after three in the afternoon so I went to the bar and polished off a few beers.

The end.