Alburnam's Archive

2000-2001  Stephen A. Shepherd

Stripping to the Original Finish

Grained pine chair with over paint being removed using the grid work method.

You can ruin the value of antique and old furniture by stripping off the original finish.  You will encounter many old pieces that have been over painted for one reason or another.  Many times the original finish is in excellent condition, protected form years of exposure and wear by the over paint.  Most of my experience is with early Mormon Pioneer Furniture and architectural details on historic examples here in Utah.  With the lack of locally available hardwoods and a strong Scandinavian influence, the soft pine, spruce and fir were painted and grained to imitate fancy and exotic hardwoods and stone.  With the late Victorian style of painting everything white or pale greens much of the furniture and grained detail in historic buildings was over painted, usually several times.  While we may curse the over paint, the original finish is protected and with care and attention to detail, the over paint can be removed revealing the glorious original painted finish.

There is a method to remove over paint and leave the original finish in tact.  This method is slow but it is completely controllable and can remove any number of layers of paint or varnish and leave whatever is underneath.  Follow the procedure and it will produce excellent results.  Mix equal amounts of liquid and semi-paste stripper (same commercial brand, they must be compatible) into a container with a cover or lid.  A glass or ceramic containers are preferred, some plastics melt and metal can contaminate the mixture. 

Prepare squares or rectangles of clean old cotton denim or canvas and soak them in the stripper mixture.  The size of the cloth will be determined by how much area you have to strip.  Do not do to large an area at one time as when the over paint is soft it must be immediately removed to prevent the original finish from being damaged.  Use caution when using these harsh chemicals and wear rubber gloves to handle the stripper soaked denim.  Wring out any excess stripper from the cloth and place it on the surface to be stripped.  Smooth out any air bubbles and then cover it with plastic foot wrap and smooth it flat.  On vertical surfaces such as table or chair legs place a piece of aluminum foil over the plastic wrap and denim to hold it in place.

There are several advantages to this method, the first is that it is controllable, dramatically reduces fumes and because you are working just one area, the mess is kept to a minimum.  This method also eliminates drips and runs.  The denim holds just a certain amount of stripper mixture and the plastic wrap contains the fumes, which does the work, concentrating the chemicals uniformly on the surface.  You have to work over the entire area in a grid pattern to complete the stripping process.

After the stripper has worked for 15 minutes or so, pull up one edge and test the paint with a putty knife to see how it is progressing.  If it is soft enough carefully scrape off the residue and move on to another area.  You can have two or three areas going at one time, just keep track of the time it takes to soften the paint and remove it.  If it is not softened enough, smooth the denim and plastic wrap down and wait another 5 minutes or so and then check it again.  I use several different sized putty and painting knives to remove the over paint, some have stiff blades and others have quite flexible blades for different areas.  A small empty container is used to scrape the residue off the knives and the contain the stripper and paint that has been removed.  These should be disposed of in a proper manner.

The original finishes on most old pieces are stronger than subsequent overcoats of paint or varnish.  It is usually not properly cleaned and the over paint does not stick properly.  I also allow a little space between the pieces of stripper soaked denim, so as not to overlap any previously stripped area and damage the original finish.  This means that there will be a grid pattern of over paint that can be removed later.  You might have to spot strip any thicker residue that might be left after the grid process has been completed.  Allow the original finish to firm up after the stripping process before removing the final residue with alcohol and a clean cloth.  I always allow the piece to sit overnight before the final cleaning process. Remember horizontal surfaces will have more paint than vertical surfaces and will take longer to remove the thicker over paint.  Thick old paint and many layers may take a long time to soften or you might have to repeat the application to remove all the over paint.

While there are other methods such as mechanical removal and atmospheric stripping, the above method is simple, controllable and can save the value of old pieces by maintaining their original finish.

Use Caution when using these chemicals Please.

Return to Index

Painting and Graining

Pine painted and grained chairs

For centuries people have painted, grained and decorated wooden furniture and woodwork.  This was done to cover up plain-grained woods such as pine and spruce or to cover up the fact that a piece of furniture was made of different kinds of wood.  Windsor chairs made with maple legs and spindles, a pine, elm or poplar seat and hickory or ash backs were traditionally painted green to conceal the different woods.  Scandinavian people have a long tradition of painting and graining their furniture made of softwoods and brought this tradition to the American West in the mid nineteenth century with the great influx of Mormon pioneers.  Here in the West, few hardwoods grow here and few large enough to construct furniture.  Pine, fir and spruce were plentiful, harvested, milled into boards and used to construct furniture and woodwork.  It was invariably painted and grained to imitate fancy hardwoods as well as stone.  Painting and graining can also be used to do touch-ups and repairs on real wood.

Working for collectors and museums with large painted furniture collections, I had the opportunity to examine hundreds of examples of original furniture and woodwork.  I noted details of construction and studied the methods of painting & graining.  There are two types of graining but they were always done over a light colored base coat of paint that completely obscured any wood grain.  The first type is additive graining, where the grain of the wood or stone is painted directly on the base coat to the final pattern.  This could be a simple one-coat application or repeated application of techniques to produce the final results.  The second method is subtractive, in which the glaze is applied over the base coat and is manipulated with brushes, steel combs, rags, rollers, etc. to make the glaze look like the desired material being copied.  Once the work had dried a final glaze or simply a couple coats of varnish were applied to achieve the appropriate look.

Check grainer on left - Flame grain roller on right

Checker graining tool on left and Flame grain oak roller on right.

The whole idea is to make the painted surface look more like wood than it really does.  The graining is usually exaggerated to achieve this deception.  The grain is actually a cartoon of the grain being copied.  You have to convince people from a distance that they are looking at real wood or stone.  Once they believe they are looking at the real thing, they seldom give it a second thought.  I have made an exact painted copy of wood and it just doesnít look as convincing as an embellished fanciful cartoon of the same wood.

Below are pictures of different types of wood, leather and stone with directions for painting each example.  In all cases the base color is the lightest color that the finished material exhibits, in some cases the base color is quite bright and surprising.  The brilliance of the base coat makes the painted finish glow and adds to the artificial depth that can be so convincing.  By building up in layers including translucent glaze coats the bright base coat is toned down and the illusion begins.  Some graining is quite simple such as oak, even with the flame grain.  Some graining requires several layers and different methods to achieve the desired results.

I always varnish the pieces when the graining and decorating is completed, using satin varnish on the wood and using gloss varnish on the stone.  The topcoat will always darken, at least optically the painted surface, so keep this in mind while you are graining.  I may even do touch-ups between coats of varnish.  On table tops and other areas that get a lot of wear, I will wipe on several coats of Marine Spar Varnish, sanding with 220 grit between coats.  Allow 24 hours for the varnish to dry before sanding and re-coating.  I then brush on thinned varnish (10 to 25% turpentine) on vertical or other areas that donít get much wear.  Build up with gloss varnish to avoid clouding (from the flattening agents in satin varnish) then finish with a satin coat for woods.    

The samples are all on pine, showing the raw wood, the base coat, the graining coat and the varnish coat.

Crotch Mahogany  

Crotch Mahogany

Click on thumbnail to view larger view, then use Browser Back button to return.

Crotch mahogany and straight grained mahogany are one of the most popular graining pattern in the early nineteenth century.  Itís popularity continued through that century.  Mahogany can be painted in both the additive and subtractive method but both start with a bright red or orange basecoat.  The base paint should go on in the intended direction of the grain so the brush strokes add to the illusion of real wood.  Crotch mahogany is a large arch shaped grain that is dark down the center where the wood is interlocking and arch out into thin lighter grain.  This can be painted on with shellac and burnt umber dry powdered pigment.  A coat of just amber shellac will tone down the bright base coat in areas with thin grain.  A mixture of spar varnish and burnt umber pigment can be used in an additive method by applying it over the entire surface, then using a rag to remove or subtract the pigment to expose the base coat.  There are also thin lines that follow the arch of the grain and these can be formed in the wet shellac or varnish with a pointed dowel or the other end of a fine paintbrush.  The dowel or brush handle will scrape away the darker shellac or varnish and leave a lighter line.  A light glaze of thin-pigmented varnish is usually left on the base coat to tone it down. A checker roller can be used to add finer grain to imitate the grain of mahogany. Additional cross grain hash marks common on mahogany can be added after the initial graining.  A coat or two of satin varnish will offer protection, slightly darken the grain and make the work look more convincing.

Curly Maple  

Curly Maple

Maple and especially curly maple is one of my favorite painted finishes, although it is a little more difficult to pull off successfully.  Maple tends to be subtle in its overall look there fore it is more difficult to make a good caricature or cartoon.  The base coat is light yellow ocher and should be painted on in the intended direction of the grain.  I do not sand the base coat but count on the brush marks to add to the deception.  I use yellow ocher and a little burnt umber pigment and spar varnish or clear shellac and apply it to the surface following the intended grain and brush marks in the base coat.  I brush the glaze until it starts to tack up and can be manipulated.  By oscillating the brush back and forth in a continuous pattern will produce the curly grain.  The curls should go at 90ļ to the grain of the wood and the grain should always be at a slight angle to the edges of the groundwork being painted and grained.  The curls tend to occur on the edges of the real wood and not in the center of the tree.  And remember that curl is something that goes through the wood, so the edges will also have curl.  Look at the real wood and carefully examine how it looks in the board then imitate it with slight exaggeration to help fool the observer.  A couple of coats of varnish, sanding between should produce a smooth finish typical of maple.

Flame Grain Oak

Flame Grain Oak

Oak graining and flame grained oak are one of the more common patterns that appear on furniture and architecture during the last half of the nineteenth century.  The base color for oak is a tan yellow ocher color.  The over-graining is burnt umber dry powdered pigment in spar varnish.  The base coat is painted on in the direction of the intended grain, not necessarily the direction of the grain of the wood underneath.  It should be sanded smooth and another coat applied if necessary.  After the paint has dried the graining glaze is prepared by mixing a small amount of burnt umber in a small amount of spar varnish, depending on how much surface area you are covering.  The pigment should be mixed thoroughly into the varnish and the mixture needs to be stirred periodically as the pigment will settle out of the varnish.  With a brush or rag cover the base paint with a coat of the tinted varnish, I prefer a brush and leave brush marks with darker streaks to imitate how wood is not of a uniform color.  I work the varnish until it holds the marks of the brush, then I comb over the surface with steel graining combs.  A piece of cork can also be fashioned to accomplish the same effect.  If the marks left by the comb flow back together, the glaze is not ready and needs to be brushed out again.  If the varnish / pigment is at the right stage, the comb marks will be left in the varnish.  This is a subtractive method with the teeth of the comb removing the pigmented varnish leaving the lighter base coat to show through.  I then run the comb over the first combing at an angle to break up the straight lines of the combing and to more closely imitate the oak grain.  You can also wiggle the comb as you draw it over the surface to make the grain appear curly.  I then use a special roller (see picture at top of article) that will imitate the flame grain apparent in quarter sawn real oak.  The roller presses the pigmented varnish out of the way leaving bright flame shapes.  This can also be done with the side of your finger or the edge of a rag to remove the material and imitate these medullary rays.  I allow this to dry and apply a coat or two of satin spar varnish to provide protection and add to the artificial depth.

Leather  

Leather

Most leather is painted in the yellow brown pattern, usually over canvas.  Darker russet colored leather is less common, but both start with a light yellow ocher base coat over the canvas.  The paint should be applied thick enough to almost totally fill the open grain of the canvas, so it may take several coats.  The canvas is usually installed on the piece first then painted but the canvas can be painted then installed.  The canvas should be washed and dried.  I have left fine wrinkles in the canvas prior to gluing down to help with the illusion; I have also ironed the canvas flat before gluing it down.  To make the canvas inset look like leather a varnish with burnt umber is daubed onto the surface and it is always darker around the edges.  Graining of leather can also be done on wood or other materials.  There is some grain (from wrinkles) to leather so add the grain in a diagonal direction to help with the illusion.  By putting on the varnish with a rag in successive coats with some areas darker will give the semblance of real leather.  The more coats of pigmented varnish the darker the leather but remember the final coats of spar varnish will also optically darken the leather as well.   Several coats of spar varnish will protect the paint from use.

Maple Burl  

Maple Burl

Maple burl and other burls such as elm or walnut are all done in a similar manner, the color and amount of the glaze determines the look as well as some grain differences, which I will explain.  The base coat is a light yellow ocher paint that can be daubed on the surface leaving some of the marks of the rag that is used.  Determine the number and spacing of the circles and donít forget to put some on the edge to add to the look of a piece of burl veneer that was cut from a bigger piece.  Do not sand the base coat paint until after the first glaze coat.  Maple uses yellow ocher and burnt umber in spar varnish or clear shellac to produce maple burls.  For walnut burl use burnt umber with a little red iron oxide and for elm burl use burnt umber and black iron oxide.  With elm burl a thin glaze of light green after the first coat will add to its look.  Daub the glaze on with a rolled up rag using the end to imitate the round burl clusters.  Donít try and do all of the graining at one time, build up with layers to add to the artificial depth of the wood.  After the first glaze has dried, lightly sand the surface to remove some of the glaze revealing the brighter base coat to show through.  I then use a fine brush and start drawing concentric rings around the burl clusters.  There is always some general grain to burls so some fine lines go in between the clusters.  I also use the end of the brush to put clusters of dots in the centers of the clusters.  This may seem like a lot of work but burls on old pieces are usually not too large but with the extra work you can make very convincing burl grained wood.  I then coat the surface with a thick coat of spar varnish, allow to dry and sand.  I may add some more lines, thinner washes or grain as necessary and then apply another coat of varnish.  Always build up with gloss spar varnish then add a satin spar varnish at the end to give the satin finished look.  If you build up satin spar varnish it may tend to turn cloudy.

Red Marble

Red Marble

Click on thumbnail to view larger view, then use Browser Back button to return.

The basecoat for red marble is a brilliant white paint.  (Because stone is smooth, you need to avoid brush marks.)  Several coats of base paint may be required, sanding between coats.  This is done to give the depth by glowing through the over paint that forms the grain.  Next step is to mottle the white with a bit of red paint dabbed on the surface with a rag and twisting at the same time just to break up the stark white paint.  Then decide on how the final white veins are going to be located and brush or daub on the red paint leaving the white veins showing through.  Brush marks and / or rag marks should follow the general grain of the marble.  Next thin the red paint a bit and daub or brush on a thin translucent wash over what has been previously painted.  The wash should go slightly wider that the previous coat helping to create the artificial depth of the finished stone.  At this point you can paint in some brown or black with a thin brush.  Twist the brush as you are applying the paint and change the pressure to produce irregular yet vein shaped lines. These darker lines can also be done with a feather.  Thin a little of the dark paint and paint lines next to the dark paint which will be translucent and show some of the red paint below.  A light yellow wash of thinned yellow ocher paint is done over the entire surface and allowed to dry.  Then a little more red paint is daubed on the darker red areas to brighten the red paint after the wash.  Some black or brown can also be done with a fine brush to delineate the dark veins.  Then with some white paint, apply the final fine white veins at a different angle than the original grain to indicate a later inclusion of material, much like stone forms.  After the graining has dried it is lightly sanded then a final coat of gloss Spar Varnish is applied and allowed to dry overnight.  Sand lightly with 220 grit paper and apply another coat that gives the final look of stone.

Rosewood  

Rosewood

Rosewood can be a rich dramatic finish when the lines are crisp and the color is right.  The basecoat paint for rosewood is red iron oxide.  A couple of coats with the brush or rag applied in the direction of the intended grain, sanding between coats.  The grain is brushed on using a dry brush technique with black iron oxide in varnish or shellac.  The grain is clustered with lighter areas in between.  A checker roller can also be used to add finer grain but the main grain is usually in stripes.  A brush charged with pigment is held lightly against the checker roller to load the wheels to create the fine grain lines (see picture at top of article).  Study the real materials to get an idea of how they look, and then copy it in an exaggerated manner.  Lightly sand the piece after it dries then coat with a couple of coats of gloss varnish, sanding between coats then finish off with a coat of satin varnish.  Because rosewood is a very hard and dense wood, gloss varnish can be used then wet sanded with 600 grit sandpaper and linseed oil to produce a shiner satin finish.

Tromp líoeil

Trompe l'oeil

Tromp líoeil is the French word for fools the eye.  With furniture it can be as simple as cross-banded veneer edging to moldings and chair rails in architectural applications.  Moldings are laid out and painting fine lines with a dark colored, usually burnt umber paint delineates their edges.  The graining is done to the appropriate wood and after it has dried shading and shadowing can be applied to give the molding their shape.  A darker wash is done in the areas of shadow and a light wash on the area where the light would usually reflect.  You need to choose a direction from which the light comes and make all reflections and shadows in their appropriate place.  In this example I have shown how a raised panel is painted.  The basecoat should be painted on in the direction of the intended grain and masking tape can be used to isolate areas where the grain changes to make the painted grain easier to accomplish.  Fine layout lines can be drawn on the basecoat to aid in the graining process.  The initial graining is done, after it has dried, the highlights and shadows are added.  When I apply the varnish I also apply it in the direction of the painted grain to further help confuse the eye.

Walnut  

Walnut

Walnut is not a common graining pattern because it is quite dark but when it is done right, it looks like real wood even up close.  The base coat for walnut is also the light yellow ocher paint and it is applied in the direction of the intended grain.  Sand the paint smooth between coats to produce a smooth surface.  Next mix up some spar varnish with burnt umber pigment and a touch of red iron oxide and paint the glaze onto the base coat.  I always make some areas along the grain lighter and some areas softer to produce the natural streaking along the grain of real wood.  I use a stiff bristle brush to apply this material and work it until it starts to tack leaving brush marks. By wiggling your brush back and forth in a uniform pattern at a slight angle to the work will produce curly grain.  You can also use graining combs to add grain but unlike oak they grain lines should not cross but be parallel.  Wiggling the graining combs will also produce a curly pattern.  I then allow it to dry and if necessary put on a thin glaze of burnt umber and varnish to darken up the overall look.  I then use a checker roller to add fine open grain lines to the piece.  With this tool I use black iron oxide in shellac and apply the very fine lines always following the grain of the painted wood.  These add details to the work that makes it look good up close.  Then finish with a couple of coats of satin spar varnish, sanding between coats.

White Marble  

White Marble

White marble can vary from subtle grain to bold deeply veined examples.  Start out with several coats of brilliant white paint for the base coat, sanding between coats to produce a flat surface for graining.  Then take a little black or blue pigment and tint a bit of the white paint and form the veining with a thin wash in a wide pattern.  Then add a little more of the pigment and grain a narrower pattern in the center of the previous one.  Next darken up the paint and make an even narrower pattern in the center of the one you just applied.  The next step is to grain in the fine veins in a darker pigmented paint.  This makes the veining look like it is deep as it goes into the stone visually.  When making the veining patterns you can daub or brush the paint to feather it into the lighter color underneath.  A thin wash of slightly pigmented white paint can also help add to the effect and this can be done at any time and several applications will only add to the artificial depth and the illusion of real stone.  I will also daub on the pure white paint in the lightest areas after a wash or two has toned down most of the base coat.  It is a good idea to lightly sand between coats to keep the surface flat like the real finished stone.  The final touch is usually the very fine lines done in the darkest color chosen for the veining.  Cracks can be added and should fade out on one side of the crack to indicate that it goes into the stone.   Several coats of gloss marine spar varnish, sanding between coats to produce a stone smooth surface.  When properly done the only way to tell it is not real is to touch it, real stone feels cold, painted stone feels warm.

I find it handy to have examples on hand of the material being copied.  I also take the opportunity to closely examine good examples of crotch mahogany, rosewood, curly maple, marble and other materials I paint to become more familiar with the real material.  I look at the material and try and determine what paints I need on my pallet to recreate the example on furniture.  When you build furniture you try and use straight grained boards but for painted wood it is better to slightly angle the grain to add to the look that is necessary to convince someone they are looking at real wood.  Also look at old furniture and see how the wood looks in place.  Corners are always darker as are the edges of doors and tabletops.  Inside corners and inside details on turned pieces are always darker that the more exposed surfaces.  Mixing painted designs such as a mahogany table with a marble top or a cross banded mahogany apron with a crotch white birch panel can provide a dramatic contrast and convincing detail.  Decorations such as striping and banding done in gold or bright yellow add to the look, break up the painted grain and add more to the illusion of the real thing.

Always dispose of oily rags properly.  Place them in water and then in a airy location (outside) where they can air dry.  A pile of oily rags can spontaneously combust and cause a fire, so always dispose of oily rags properly.

Return to Index

ilovewood.com