I’ve been doing some woodworking lately – building a nice buffet out of quarter sawn white oak. I was going to give it to a friend, who had admired a similar buffet I built out of pine – but the friend has sort of gone nutso, had a big falling out with our other friends, and sorta shacked up with this kinda-not-yet-divorced-dude-but-oh-he’s-wicked-nice…
So she’s not getting this new oak one. She’s getting Buffet 1.0, the pine version. I’ve got my reasons, not least of which is that when she and Mr. Kinda- break up, I’ll be damned if that hound makes off with this thing I’ve poured a lot of time and thought into. I have other reasons too, that are more compelling.
When you work a piece of wood, you risk falling in love with it.
I can’t quite explain the feeling – it’s like when you plant a bunch of tomato plants or flowers in the early spring. You get this feeling of ownership, of some kind of wierd unity with the cool damp earth. Similarly, as you cut, sand, chisel and shape a nice piece of wood, you feel that something of yourself gets into the wood, and you absorb something of the wood yourself. The wood itself in this case, is some noble white oak, with a fine straight grain dotted with tiny brown bits that look like wild rice fragments. It’s harder than a rock, and if you don’t take care with the drill and router it will catch fire. So you have to really think about the wood, and look after it if you want it to reward you by allowing your end table or buffet or chair act as a window into its soul.
So that’s one reason our friend “D” isn’t getting this buffet. I’m falling in love with this wood – which by the way, is damnably hard to work properly. The pine was much easier – it’s soft and cuts like butter. You can trim little bits of pine with a jacknife. The oak on the other hand, is a chisel job all the way. It takes a lot of firmness, and as anyone with kids could tell you, it’s harder to be firm and good, than it is to be soft.
The other reason D isn’t going to get the oak, is that she wants it stained as dark as possible to fit into her decor, which quite frankly is from the late Ikeastocene era. And she wanted me to make the thing out of oak. Taking nice oak and basically painting it, is like having somebody airbrush the Mona Lisa because some of the paint is crackly. Sorry, beotch – this buffet is made from pieces of wood that pretty much talk, and I’m not letting you slather my girl with the furniture equivalent of pancake makeup. Nope – I’m going to go with the old-fashioned Stickley recipe for finish.
What is the magical old-school Stickley recipe? I’m not sure if I’m allowed to reveal it, since my dad got it from an extremely elderly Stickley worker, who had worked at the factory since the early part of the last century, but what the hell. It’s too good to not share – I’ve still got a photocopy of the recipe my old man wrote down after talking to this guy and I can’t help but be touched by it. So yeah, I really am pouring a lot of myself into this piece.
2 pints boiled parafin oil
1 pint turpentine
2 ounces linseed oil
1/2 pint white vinegar
Mix together, shake often.
After wood is sanded down, rub on with the finest wet emory paper. Soak the wood with the mixture, let it soak in for a while, then wipe it with a cloth.
According to my old man, “The old boys used to say, do it once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year, and once a year forever. ”
[Aside – sounds like a married couple’s sex life to me… but nevermind.]
The finish that results from the Stickley mix is a smooth, warm, honey-ish finish. It starts very light – a mild yellow tint – and over the years grows darker as the wood’s grain comes out, and you keep repeating the process. It also has a wonderful smell of turpentine and beeswax. It is perfect for Arts & Crafts / Prairie-style furniture, stuff that takes time to make right, but which is timelessly pleasing to the eye and to the touch. See, e.g. Stickley’s vintage stuff. If you check out the Stickley buffet here you will see the color that oak starts out as using the Stickley stain – the difference being some intrepid woodworker did this with polyurethane gel, so this nice looking piece will always look new. Using the old school stain, that same piece would turn darker brown, the color of a roast chestnut, after maybe a decade.
I don’t know if Stickley uses this mix any more. They probably don’t – it’s too damn hard, and that site above (Rockler – a good woodworkers supply, BTW) sells gel. But if you are interested in doing something really good old-school style, this is totally worth it. When I was a kid, my dad bought a grandfather clock mechanism, and carved up a beautiful clock out of walnut blocks. That same winter, he also carved up a stock for a muzzle-loading pistol out of oak. He used the Stickley mixture on both pieces, and by God, they are both still beautiful. There were other Stickley methods – it’s just this one may have been the oldest of the old ways of doing it – and what the hell, if you are being all old school about something, you might as well go all out.
I’ve found some other folks that use a similar process. Here’s the U.S. General Services Administration (US Govt) guidelines for restoring woodwork of historical significance using a similar recipe. The “Furniture Cream” here appears to be a similar recipe. And this appears to be a pretty good book on the topic, though I haven’t read it yet.
Anyhow, that’s my adventures in woodworking for tonight. And prolly forever, I’m betting you’re bored to tears if you read this far. Oh well. It beats watching “The Biggest Loser” I suppose. Wait a minute… was that a Freudian slip?