techniques for finishing midcentury furniture

Finishing MidCentury Furniture

I often get asked about how we finish our wooden furniture – and this often sparks conversations about lacquer and wax and oil – and other things. So this blog is a short summary of finishing midcentury furniture, what we do and why. I concentrate here on the final finish – there’s another blog coming soon that discusses our restoration and refinishing techniques.

The starting point is obviously the fact that wood needs to be protected – it also needs a bit of help with the ageing process (don’t we all?). The problems arise when we try to combine protection with aesthetics – the desire to keep the natural look and feel of the wood.

Very broadly, finishes can be divided into two groups – those that create a protective film on the surface of the wood and those that are absorbed into the wood. Varnish, lacquer, polyurethane and shellac based finishes fall into the former category, whilst oil and wax based finishes fall into the latter.

Historically, before the middle of the 19th century wax, oil, varnish and shellac were the most common finishes for all types of furniture (along with paint, of course). From the middle of the 19th Century and into 20th Century French polishing became very popular as it gives, perhaps, the glossiest of all finishes (think grand piano). And from the 1930s lacquer, in all its various forms, (along with more recent polyurethane finishes) has become the almost universal finish for commercially produced furniture.

As with so many things, there is no perfect solution. Film based finishes will always offer the highest degree of protection, yet, because they sit on the surface, they detract from the look and feel of the wood. Wax and oil finishes enhance the beauty of the wood and increase “feel appeal” yet they offer less protection. There is also a need to consider the options for repair, should that be necessary. Modern, lacquer based finishes are very difficult to repair; stripping and refinishing are usually necessary. However oil and wax based finishes can usually be easily “spot” repaired where necessary.

Taking all this into account, and with the benefit of much trial and error over the years, the finish that we now use on virtually all our furniture is a blend of natural waxes and oils. The application process is lengthy and quite labour intensive (we usually apply 5 coats), but the results are worth it. Here are before and after pics of the same chair.

finishing - before fiishing - after

Because the finish penetrates the wood, there is no loss of feel, the natural beauty of the wood is enhanced, yet the finish is durable and provides good protection against common spills such as water, tea, cola and wine. The finish provides some protection against heat but our advice is never to put hot things onto a wood surface – always use coasters, mats or cloths.

If you have any questions about finishing midcentury furniture, or would like to know more about the techniques we use, please get in touch with us by visiting the Contact Us page.

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