Walnut ranks as one of the premier domestic hardwoods. In my opinion, it comes in a very close second to curly maple and well ahead of cherry. Walnut possesses an outstanding combination of strength, workability, a naturally beautiful color, with a variety of grain patterns. Yet, the typical steamed walnut has a cold gray cast to it, that isn’t all that attractive; it can also have a purple cast. I was quite disappointed with the first few pieces I made of walnut, as far as the color was concerned; one was dyed with a homemade concoction of walnut husks and ammonia, which turned out way too dark. Another was oiled, and this was perhaps even worse than the dyed piece. The oil resulted in a sort of overly dark, dull, splotchy finish that did nothing for the cool color. Later, I learned this outcome with oil, was fairly typical, as I see it quite often on oiled walnut pieces (oiled gunstocks are a notable exception). Walnut is one of those rare woods that lighten over time, and no doubt given time, the color imparted by the oil would have improved, but I wanted a way to help it along. Several years ago, I was asked to make a William and Mary Lowboy, and I knew I’d have to find a better way to finish walnut. Since I wanted to warm the walnut, I first tried yellow dye, but this lacked the reddish tint of aged walnut, so used orange aniline dye. It takes some faith to coat your carefully constructed piece of furniture with what appears to be orange Kool Aid, but that is where the testing comes in. I should be more meticulous with weighing and documenting my finishing recipes, but for some reason I don’t seem to be able to do that, so I can’t give an exact ratio of water (distilled) to the dye powder (Transfast), but I can say that dye to water ratio is quite low.
The subject used in demonstrating the finishing schedule is a miniature blanket chest, based in large part on an example shown on page 58 of Miniature Antique Furniture by Herbert F. & Peter B. Schiffer. The stock used for this, while kiln dried, had aged for quite some time, and had taken on a decidedly warm tone, but still showed some of the objectionable coolness. I wouldn’t have done anything different had it been mill fresh steamed lumber.
Like all finishing, the first step is surface preparation, and here I followed my standard procedure, starting with 220 grit paper (never go lower than 180 grit) followed by 320 grit paper, raise the grain with distilled water, sand very lightly with 320 grit paper and check carefully for any surface defects. On a side note, I have recently been reading on various woodworking forums, about how this grain raising step is unnecessary, and perhaps, you could use the orange dye to raise the grain, but skipping this step and using the top coat to raise the fibers, isn’t something I’d do with any finish that includes a coloring step. (click on any of the following photos to see a larger version)
With the surface ready, lay on a coat of the dye; I just use a paper towel. The dye will work with the natural color of the wood and it will instantly take on a superb color. As the wood dries, the orange color will appear too intense. A thin brushed on coat of de-waxed shellac will restore the color and actually improve it, because the golden brown color of this blend of shellac, really brings out the highlights in the wood, without being splotchy like the oil can. Your brushing technique has to be nearly prefect, because the dark shellac, even in a thin cut, can leave lap marks or the dreaded fat edges. With this in mind, I aim to apply the shellac in one careful stroke, with no going back and brushing it out. I’m not a fan of padding on shellac, and the sharp corners at the intersections of the moldings to the base would make padding fairly difficult.
I allowed the shellac to dry overnight and scuff sanded it very lightly with 400 grit paper. I then vacuum or blow the dust off; this step is important, because you don’t want any sanding residue in the pores.
Unfortunately filling the grain has the reputation of being difficult, and
degrading the final appearance; neither is true. After just a short learning curve, filling the grain is simplicity itself. The clarity issue comes from two sources, applying the filler to raw wood, and or, not fully wiping the filler from the surface. By applying the filler over the shellac, you will have a barrier to prevent the filler from muddying the finish.
I have only used oil based fillers. Of those I have used, I prefer the filler sold by Constantine’s. As the filler comes from the can, it is very thick; far too thick to be workable. Depending on the working conditions in the shop, I will cut the filler with mineral spirits (for a longer open time) or with naphtha (for a faster set). I aim for a consistency of latex paint. Brush the filler on and let it set until it turns really dull. Until you get comfortable with the process, you should only work in easily manageable sections. In the photo here, it was so ungodly hot in my shop that even as small an object as this miniature blanket chest nearly got away from me. Having said that, I find I get the best results when I wait what appears to be too long, as opposed to when I rush it.
Scrape the excess filler from the surface with a plastic putty knife, going across or diagonal to the grain (be sure to check the edge of your scarper for nicks or anything that would mar the surface before use; don’t ask me why I offer this precautionary advice.
Again wait a few minutes and then wipe across the grain with burlap, using moderate pressure. You’ll have to change to a clean piece of burlap as it loads with the excess filler. Moldings can’t really be cleaned effectively with putty knife, nor can they be wiped across the grain, so here you’ll have to wipe gently with the grain, to remove the excess filler. After yet another short wait while the filler sets up, wipe the surface completely clean with cheese cloth, going with the grain. Look carefully, for any traces of filler left on the surface. When you’re satisfied, the surface is perfectly clean, let the filler dry at least 3 days.
I like the look achieved with a glaze, it gives some depth the finish, can tweak the color a bit and accentuates the moldings. I usually use Minwax mahogany gel stain as a glaze, but my can had dried up. A little experimentation found that Bartley dark brown mahogany gel stain mixed with a little of their Pennsylvania cherry, resulted in a nice color. The glazing is very simple, just slap on a thick coat and wipe the excess until you get an effect that pleases you. Like with the filler, you should work in small sections until you get the hang of it.
I let the glaze dry 12-24 hours, and top coated with super blond shellac. Since I wanted an “in the wood” look, I applied only two very thin coats. Here again, your brushing technique has to be nearly prefect, because when rubbing out, the film is easily cut, but the color is not easily repaired. Shellac Wet, from Homestead Finishing, really helps ease the brushing. Let the shellac cure 2-3 days, before rubbing out.
The rubbing out goes very quickly, but its impact on the finish is astounding; nothing beats a well done shellac finish. Since the film is so thin, I very lightly sanded with 600 grit wet and dry paper, using mineral spirits as a lubricant. To bring up a nice soft sheen, I used 4/0 steel wool, saturated with mineral oil and dipped in 4f pumice. Run the steel wool in long straight strokes, lifting it when shifting to another track (this keeps the scratch pattern even, whereas shifting the steel wool sideways while on the surface causes a distortion in the scratch pattern, making the ends appear duller). Wrapping the steel wool around a block of wood, will help in getting an even scratch pattern at the intersection of the moldings and other sharp junctions.
I cleaned the surface with paper towels to remove the majority of the mineral oil, and then I used warm soapy water to remove all traces of the oil. At this point I waxed the piece with brown Antiquax