A few years ago I cut a huge American Elm log into slabs and quickly sold all of them except one piece that ended up being short after hitting a few nails. The nails dulled the sawmill too much to finish the cut, so I just cut the slab off at about five feet long and salvaged what I could. All of the other slabs where long enough to make large tables while this one struggled to find a home, until I got a request for a kitchen peninsula top.
I flattened the slab on the Lucas mill and sanded it by hand since it was too wide to fit through the wide belt sander. It wasn’t until I sprayed the first coat of finish on it that I realized how nice it was and was reminded why I like American elm so much.
The slab had a great shape with a beautiful crack down the middle and the edges had tons of character too with ridges and bumps down the entire length. But, what really made it stand out and grab your attention was the figure of the wood and its chatoyance, or the way the light bounces off of the surface. The finish has great depth and changes in brightness as you walk around the piece. It reminds me of satin sheets with ridges that reflect ribbons of light. It is really something that you need to see in person.
Here are some before and after photos of the slab.
If you want to make something look older, just add some worm holes. Sounds simple enough, but there is a major difference between just poking holes in the wood and making the holes look authentic. Now that the all natural, rustic wood look is in style, even new, or at least not very old wood often benefits from more character, and I am here to show you how to really do it.
First off, let me assure you that I have a lot of experience in this field. I often build pieces that need to be “wormed up” in some regard, either to make new wood look old or to make old wood look even older. Especially on projects like beams and mantels, worm holes help add a lot of age to a piece.
Much of the wood that I use already has worm holes in it because I let the logs sit awhile outside before I mill them into lumber (sometimes even on purpose), so I have a head start, but there will still often be spots without bug holes where the wood needs a little extra love, like in the following video:
To get things started, it helps to first look at truly worm-eaten wood. There are consistencies even in what looks to be very inconsistent patterns. Here are a few principles that hold up in most wormy wood:
1.) Hole sizes vary: Even similar-sized holes are not the same. Your method for creating holes should easily produce random results.
2.) Worms tend to focus their efforts: Holes will usually have an area of focus, with more holes in the center of an infected area fading out to fewer holes.
3.) Not all holes are perpendicular to the surface: While most holes are just that – holes, many are oblong and some are more like trails.
4.) The bugs that make the worm holes often enter around defects in the wood: Soft or punky wood, spalted wood, cracks, and sapwood are all areas that will focus worm activity. Good, strong, solid heartwood is the last area to be bug infested.
5.) Small holes outnumber the big ones: Older wood that has been attacked by multiple insects will have lots of tiny holes (1/16′ diameter), some medium-sized holes (1/8″ diameter), and just a few big holes (up to 1/4″ diameter).
Here are some photos of authentic worm holes. If you can copy any these patterns you will be off to a good start.
Here are some of my tricks for achieving realistic results:
Small holes. You’ll be tempted to use a drill bit for the smallest holes, but it isn’t the best choice. Tiny drill bits break easy and the size is too consistent. Plus, they pull out wood fibers that make the edge of the holes fuzzy. Instead use a nail or a scratch awl sharpened to a long fine point. A scratch awl is the best choice because it can be used without a hammer and produces speedy results. The long point will make different sized holes depending on how deep it is pushed into the wood. Push the scratch awl in the wood at different angles and different depths.
- Large holes. Use a twist drill bit for the larger holes. Be sure to drill deep enough that you can’t see the bottom of the holes and to vary the drill angle. Put the bigger holes in the softer wood. Sapwood, punky wood and areas around defects are a good place to start. Mix up the sizes in the 1/8-3/16″ range for a more natural look.
- Oblong holes. Some of the larger holes tend look like small jelly beans. Drill in fairly deep and then use the side of the drill bit to cut a short trail. The result is similar to two holes drilled right next to each other.
- Trails. Trails are often left just under the bark in bug infested logs and sometimes inside the log. Use a twist drill bit about 1/8-3/16″ in diameter and drag the bit in different lengths of crooked lines. Be sure to make some of the areas have more depth. Think of the trail as a river with shallow areas and deeper pools. Trails can have one, both or none of the ends finishing in a hole. Mix it up and have a few ends disappear into holes made with the same drill bit.
One of the most important things to remember when making worm holes or using any other techniques to age wood is to really go for it. You won’t destroy a piece of furniture by adding a few more holes or dents, and you can only miss by doing too little to the surface.
I often see furniture, especially mass-produced furniture, that will have some sort of distressing that looks like it was just phoned in. Usually, someone quickly takes a chain to the surface or pokes a few holes and calls it a day. Don’t do that. Pay attention to Mother Nature’s work and try to duplicate it. And, most importantly, have fun doing it.
Sometimes in life you need a tool that you don’t own, don’t have handy or don’t have any idea where it is. I have this problem a lot and it is usually closely related to the fact that I don’t put my tools back as I use them. I subscribe to the “leave it close to where it is most likely to be used next” method of organization, which somehow, always leaves a tool a long way from where it is actually needed next.
I had this same problem when setting up to spray a two-part conversion varnish finish. I had all of my supplies, but no empty cottage cheese containers to work out my ratios. You don’t have to use cottage cheese containers, but I always had some handy and had used them consistently after I figured out how high the finish should be in the container and how much catalyst to add. The mixture is actually pretty simple–one batch of finish, plus 10% catalyst.
One thing I never liked about my cottage cheese container system was that I had worked out how much I needed for a full pot on my spray gun, but beyond that it wasn’t easily adjustable. If I only needed a little finish, I didn’t have a system for figuring that out. A scale would have worked great, or even measuring cups would have been nice. Heck, anything related in any way to weights and measures would have helped. But I am never that prepared.
So, there I was, looking around the shop for empty containers and finding none, but I had a revelation. One of the containers I did find had some old finish in it, and I could see the level of the finish inside the container by looking through the white plastic, and I realized that I was just inches away from having a measuring cup, except my cup didn’t have any measurements on it. No good – right? Actually, not so bad. I could make up my own measuring system (inspired by Bill Cosby and his story about Noah, I call them cubits) and mark them on the side, if I could just find an empty container.
Then the wandering begins, looking around the shop for something that might work. Then the digging begins, as I move everything in my finishing area to try and uncover an empty container. Then the cussing begins as I still find nothing to mix the finish in before I put it in my spray cup. Then… Wait! Hold on a minute! My spray cup. That is the one and only, now very clean and very empty container in the shop, just waiting to have something put in it.
Now, I am really on to something, but I can’t see through the aluminum cup to mark my cubits on the outside. If only the cup was clear. I needed a way to see how much was in the cup without being able to see through the cup. I needed some sort of stick, something that you dip in fluids (I don’t know what I would call that thing). And, you know what would be even more awesome? If whatever I used could always be found and be something that I would never have to worry about putting away. Yes, an actual stick of wood as a dipstick. Genius.
But wait, it gets even better. Since the stick didn’t have any measurements on it, I could make my own and make a different one for each batch. I could make any adjustments I needed . All I had to do was transfer my cubit measuring system to the stick, and I was in business.
I labored a bit over my cubits and how long they would be. They couldn’t be an inch because that name was already taken. Same with a half an inch and a quarter of an inch. Any measuring system I was going to use was based on an inch and that’s just not how cubits work. Everyone knows that no one knows how big a cubit really is, so it couldn’t be based on anything that already exists. The good news for the cubits of the world is that I still can’t tell you how long they are, but luckily it doesn’t matter.
The first step was to fill up my cup with finish. With the new fancy cubit ratio measuring system it didn’t matter how much I used, just as long as it was enough to do the job. Then I walked less than two feet and grabbed the nearest, short scrap of clean wood and dipped it in the finish. The highest point on the stick to get wet was now the new cubit.
I marked the high point (cubit) on the stick with a pencil and then marked a second point 10% higher to indicate how much catalyst to add. There are two ways to figure where the 10% mark goes. The most accurate way is just to measure the length of your cubit, say 5 inches and multiply by .10, which equals .5 or 1/2″. I like this method because it’s accurate and uses just a tape measure and simple math, but it isn’t as simple as it could be. My new and improved method (though admittedly slightly less accurate) is to, by eye, divide my cubit in half, then in half again, and then in half again. At that point I have a mark that is about 12.5% of the full cubit. Then again by eye I deduct a few percentage points so I am in the 10% range, and then transfer that mark to the top side of the cubit line. It takes no tape measure and no math.
Here’s a quick rundown of the process:
The new and improved, super-simplified, cubit measuring system works for any fluid mixing in a straight-sided container and is accurate (as long as you aren’t blind). It is simple simon and knocks the whole process down to a stick and a pencil. And, if I can’t find those two things buried in the shop somewhere, then I am really in trouble.
All of the woodworkers I know like the woodworking part, but most of them dislike the finishing part. They have a great time using their tools to craft something beautiful and useful and then get paralyzed when it is time to wrap it up. They want it to come out perfect, or at least really good, and are sure that they are going to mess it up. Usually, they have tried applying a finish with a brush, or a roller, or a cloth, or all of the above and more, and the results were never great. It is possible to get a good finish with a brush or any of the above, but it isn’t easy and usually comes up short of perfection.
In the quest for a better finish, many woodworkers ask me about spray guns and spraying in general. They are looking for a better finish, a finish that is easier to apply, and a finish that makes their hard work shine. Their reasons for not already owning a spray gun are numerous, but when I am asked if they should purchase a spray gun, my answer is always a loud and excited, “YES!”, followed by, “What in heck are you waiting for?”
On my list of essential woodworking tools, a spray system ranks near the top, only after a table saw, jointer, and planer (and, logically I suppose, after sandpaper). I use a spray gun on nearly every project and for a multitude of reasons, with the main reasons being quality of finish, speed, speed and speed. Quality of finish is self explanatory, but the triple speed thing may need a bit more description.
With a spray gun, the application is fast (speed #1). From spraying stain to applying the last coat of finish, the spray gun can move some material quickly. There is no faster way to get finish from the can to a project, short of just dumping it on. If the gun is working well and the finish is flowing nicely, I can often put down finish as fast as I can move.
The spray gun also allows me to use fast-drying finishes (speed #2) like lacquer or conversion varnishes, which are impossible to apply any other way. With lacquer products, the finish is often hard enough to sand and be recoated in just 15 to 30 minutes, compared to a full day with oil-based polyurethane. Lacquer dries so fast, that I often spray parts just before heading to an install, throw them in the bed of my truck, and they are ready to install by the time I get to the job site. It can’t get much faster than that.
The best part for me, not being the most fastidious of woodworkers, is the time it takes to prep the spray area when using lacquers (speed #3). Besides covering areas from potential overspray, there is no prep required. I usually spray right next to my table saw or anywhere that I have room in the shop and do nothing about the dust. I just blow off the piece I am about to spray and get on with it. The finish dries so fast that dust doesn’t have time to get in it. I literally do nothing before I spray, even if I am standing in a pile of sawdust (the piece I am spraying is on sawhorses and not in the pile of dust, of course). I would never even think of working like this using something like an oil-based polyurethane, which seems to pull in dust from everywhere. (Quick note: I do use the gun to spray slow-drying finishes too, but the spray area needs to be clean and dust free, and I would prefer to skip that here in the speed, speed, speed section.)
Besides the above four advantages, I am often asked additional questions when it comes to spraying, but I must warn you, the answer to all of them is still, “Buy a spray gun!” Here are some of the most common questions:
- Can I spray ________ with it? Yes, YES, yes, yes and YES! You can spray any liquid finish by changing its viscosity and/or your spray tips, if needed. It is no different from a brush – a spray gun is just a vehicle to move finish from the can to the project.
- I don’t have anywhere I can spray inside. Can I spray outside? I think outside is the best. Spraying outside requires no exhaust fans and usually provides ample space to work. Plus, it is just nice to be outdoors. I often move outside to finish large projects, or if I am out of room in the shop and need to spread things out. The best outdoor spot is a garage (with the door open), which has good ventilation, controlled wind, and a shield from the sun – a lot like an actual paint booth.
- What about the fumes when I spray indoors? Yes, there are fumes when spraying solvent finishes, but they can be dealt with quickly and easily. First, spray near a window with a fan in it (instant paint booth). Second, wear a mask while spraying. Third, don’t spray when your wife is home.
- Won’t the overspray get on everything? Sort of. The spray gun will shoot finish beyond the workpiece (overspray), but most of it will land in the form of dust. Fast drying finishes like lacquers dry almost instantly in the air, so only overspray close to the workpiece is wet and sticky. Even the overspray on the floor directly beneath the sawhorses just sweeps up.
- Isn’t a spray gun a pain to clean-up? No. If you stick to solvent-based finishes, like lacquer, that dissolve with lacquer thinner you only need to clean-up when the gun isn’t working right and then only by soaking the parts in lacquer thinner. If I am spraying lacquer, I treat the gun just like a can and leave the finish in it until the next time I spray. If you are using finishes that aren’t soluble after they dry you can’t be so cavalier, but it still isn’t a big deal. Often, it is only a matter of spraying the solvent through the gun until it is clean.
After I berate someone for not already owning a spray gun and then tell them over and over again to buy one, the next question they ask is usually, “Which one should I buy?” My answer is simple, “Not a cheap one.” I have used several different high-quality, name-brand HVLP spray systems, and all of them did a good job. There are, of course, subtle differences in the way the guns work and some may be better than others, but none of the higher-priced systems will be a bad purchase. I have personally used HVLP systems from Fuji, Apollo and Graco, and all of them give similar results. At the same time, it is worth noting that I have used cheap no-name guns, and they were painful to use. The spray was splotchy and the guns would only put down a wet finish in the very center of the fan pattern compared to the entire width of the fan pattern from a good gun.
When selecting an HVLP gun there are lots of choices, and again, as long as you don’t buy a junk gun they are mostly just different, and not necessarily bad. I currently use an older HVLP system made by Graco. It has a turbine and a small compressor that pressurizes the 2-quart pressure pot for the gun. I use a pressure pot because it holds more finish, so I can refill less often and keep moving. Plus, with the pressure pot system the gun profile is small to fit into tight spots. For most uses and especially for those of you that don’t even own a gun, one without a pressure pot is fine, leaving you only to decide on two items, the type of gun (bottom-feed or gravity-feed) and the air delivery system (air compressor or turbine).
As far as the guns go, I prefer the bottom-feed gun because it holds more finish, and since it is the type of gun I started with, it just feels right. At the same time, I know several people who use gravity-feed guns with no complaints. They like that the gun is a little lighter and fits in smaller spaces, and they don’t mind refilling as often. Between the two there really is no bad choice.
The air delivery system is the other area to focus on when deciding which system to purchase. The guns can either be powered by an air compressor or a turbine, and you get to choose which makes the most sense for you. Again, neither is wrong or bad, just different. First off, do you own a large compressor (5 hp, 50-gallon tank)? If you do, and you don’t need to be portable, you can save some money and just buy a gun. If you don’t, I wouldn’t recommend buying a big compressor just to spray. I would spend the compressor money on a turbine unit because it is very portable. I know I often take my gun with me to the job site or just outside, and I appreciate not having to lug around a giant compressor just to spray.
Here are the key decision points to address when purchasing your new system:
- Do you already own a large compressor and don’t need to be portable? If you already own a large compressor you can save money by only purchasing a compressed air gun. Don’t buy a big compressor just to spray, spend the money on the more portable turbine system.
- Would you like to use your spray gun outside of the shop, maybe at the job site or at your house? Turbine systems are the lightest and most portable. If you need to take your spray gun with you, pick a turbine. If you are only spraying in the shop, either a turbine or compressed air system will work.
- Are your jobs big? Bigger jobs (full kitchens, for example) require more material and may benefit from a system that can hold more finish. If you are spraying very often or are consistently spraying large jobs, think about a system with a pressure pot. Otherwise, stick with a gravity-feed gun or bottom-feed gun. Note that even large jobs can be sprayed without a pressure pot, but will require more refills.
- Do you have extra money? Here’s your chance to spend it. None of the good spray guns are inexpensive. Expect to pay $800-$1,000 or more for a complete turbine system. And, remember, don’t buy a cheap one.
If you have been thinking about buying a spray gun, stop! There is no reason (except for money) to think about it anymore. Start living your woodworking dream and buy one. No one, and I mean no one, has ever been unhappy knowing that they had a good spray gun to use whenever they needed it. You will use it so much more often than you think, and, though a good spray system is expensive, it may make you actually enjoy finishing.
If you have any concerns about using or purchasing a spray gun, let me know below in the comments section. I am certain that I can allay any of your fears and maybe even answer a question or two.
One of the best finishing tips I’ve ever picked up came from an episode of “This Old House”. Norm and Tommy were building some cabinets for a house, and they were spraying a lot of plywood. They showed how they used a razor as a scraper to knock off the nubs between finish coats. It looked simple, so I gave it a go, and I haven’t looked back since.
Let me first start by saying that the razor isn’t perfect. It is flat and straight, so it doesn’t work for profiled edges or rustic, wavy surfaces, but it is great for big, open flat spots. I use it most often on sheets of plywood, but also use it on the flat spots of doors, including the stiles and rails.
The beauty of the razor is the simplicity and speed. With one razor blade, I can quickly smooth a surface between coats on a job that would eat up several sheets of sandpaper. The big difference is that the razor doesn’t clog up with finish like sandpaper does, it just scrapes off the high spots. This is especially helpful when I am trying to finish a job in just one day (which is usually the case). As long as the finish is set up enough to handle, I can start scraping with a razor and never have to stop. In the same scenario with sandpaper, it would clog almost immediately causing me to use more sandpaper and not get consistent results. The clogged sandpaper also tends to drop off little boogers of coagulated finish that stick to the surface. That never happens with a razor.
Using the razor is simple. Hold it up nearly vertical to the surface, lean the top into the cut and pull or push the direction you want to go. It works just like a cabinet scraper, only on a smaller scale, and it doesn’t need to be sharpened. When the razor is dull, just grab another one and move on. I often flip the blade around and cut the opposite direction to make the edge last even longer. If it feels like it isn’t cutting, flip it around. If it still isn’t cutting, just grab another one and get back to work.
Quick tips for using a razor:
- Make sure the finish is dry before scraping.
- Make sure runs are super dry before scraping. The finish should scrape off in shallow layers, not rub off in big chunks.
- Always use a new razor. Old razors can have nicks that scratch the finish.
- Use a razor on flat surfaces. Razors do not work on profiled edges.
- Watch the sharp corners. The corners of the razor can easily scratch the finish.
- Use a light pressure to start. Apply more pressure as you get more comfortable.
If you are going to be doing a lot of scraping, I highly recommend wearing gloves or putting tape on the top of the blade to serve as a handle. The blade gets hots and starts to dig into your hand during heavy use, so it is best to make it as comfortable as possible. There are plastic blade holders commonly available as well. They work fine, but they got lost easily. It seems like I can always find the blades (mostly because they came in a jumbo pack), but I can never find the holders.
As I mentioned, the razor is great for flat surfaces, even curved, flat surfaces (what?). Yep, that’s right, the ol’ curved flat surface, like the belly of an arch. The razor will work on a surface like this, as long as it can sit flat. You can still follow the curve by changing the angle of the blade and quickly scrape the surface.
The razor is not a good choice for profiled edges. First off, it often can’t reach where it is needed, and secondly, there is a great risk that one false move might destroy an edge. In this case, sandpaper or a Scotchbrite pad is the poison to pick.
I use the razor between coats of sanding sealer and even topcoats, when necessary. It makes for a speedy job and a quality one at that. The razor takes off only the highest finish, which is usually just dust nibs and other loosely clinging items (like the legs of flying insects). And, with a little extra pressure a razor will dig in deeper to help remove runs and other problems, like finger prints, smudges, etc.
When you use a razor for scraping a finish, watch the edges of the razor and your pressure. The edges of the razor are sharp and can easily leave an errant scratch. Use a light touch, so if you bump the edge into something it won’t plow a line through it. The lighter pressure also ensures that you don’t take off any more than the imperfections. Only apply more pressure after you get the hang of it and when you really need it.
Lastly, make sure to use only new razors. A razor that has even just one ding in it will scratch up the surface, and the scratches won’t show until the next coat is sprayed. Don’t be a cheap skate and try to stretch the blades you have. Buy a pack of 100 and rest easy knowing that you will use all of them, either for scraping or in a knife.
Using a razor on your newly applied finish will seem scary at first. Go slow, use light pressure and be careful. In just a few minutes you will get used to the feel of it. As you work, use your hand to feel the progress along the way, by rubbing the surface to feel for imperfections. Your hand will tell you what you’ve missed and where you need to work a little more. Give it a try, and after just one swipe of the razor, I think you will be hooked.
I am a man. I like to build things and I like to burn things. Heck, I have even been known to build something just to burn it down or blow it up (especially around the Fourth of July).
Fire mesmerizes and bewilders me. I find it amazing that it can come from virtually nowhere, you can’t really touch it even though you can feel it, and it makes things disappear into thin air. Heavy things, really, really heavy things, like a whole stack of wood, can be gone in no time.
I know this, of course, because I have burnt a lot of things in my lifetime, including my last shop (a complete accident, by the way). What was amazing about it was the fact that just the day before, I had a shop filled with tools, and the next day I had a shallow pile of charcoal mixed with rusty metal. I remember going there the morning after the fire and looking for anything to salvage and being amazed at how rusty the metal was. It looked like it had set out in the rain for years and it was only hours since the fire department was there.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was just cleaning up the debris and throwing the chunks of rusty steel into the scrap pile. But it didn’t take long for things to click. You see, rusty metal is a very desirable finish in these days of worn, industrial, antique, distressed furniture – a style that I find myself doing on a regular basis. Even if it’s not officially a rusty finish that I am looking for, it is usually something that looks not new in some way. And, I have to tell you that burnt, rusty metal does not look new. It looks very, very old.
All of this was a welcomed revelation because I have spent lots of hours in the past trying to get the “not new” look. I had used paint stripper to remove the protective clear finish from new hardware. I soaked steel directly in salt water and in salt water towels so it would get more air, and hopefully, rust faster. I’ve tried a lot of things on brass too, like ammonia and vinegar. But, I never considered heat until the shop burned down.
Heat makes sense. Heat is what they use to make the metal, so it seems like it could work to “unmake” it a bit. And after I saw the magic that happened to all of the metal in my former shop, I gave it a go. The first batch worked great. I was doing a cabinet with very small hinges, so even if I destroyed them it would only cost me a few dollars. I made a little fire and threw them in. I put the fire out with a lot of water and just let it sit in the water-logged charcoal mix for a day and it looked just like the rusty metal from my shop.
The second attempt was as amusing as it was informative. Now that I had one burning under my belt, I confidently came home, started a fire in the fireplace (it was winter time), and nonchalantly threw them in like I had done it a thousand times. Chris (my lovely wife), of course, questioned my actions and I, of course, acted like she was the idiot this time. Turns out, I was the idiot again. Why do I always have to be the idiot? Mostly, because in this case, I threw what appears to have been aluminum or some other metal that easily melts into the fire. It burned in a beautiful rainbow of colors, which told me that the metal was actually being consumed by the fire. After the fire died down, I dug around and found only the screws. Everything else vanished. I made myself feel better by saying that they were cheap and I didn’t want them anyway.
Because of that, I now make sure that my victims are made of steel or something like steel, something that can take the heat. I would recommend testing one piece before you throw them all in the fire if you aren’t sure about their metal content. Besides that one bit of caution, all you have to do is build a fire and throw your hardware in. Make sure that you act like you have done it before and don’t even bother to take it out of the packaging (it all disappears).
Let the fire burn until all of the wood is charcoal and the metal looks discolored. While everything is still hot, put out the fire with plenty of water, just like the firefighters would do it. At that point, you can immediately dig out the hardware if you don’t need the metal to rust, or you can let it sit in the wet charcoal for a day or two and get rusty. The amount of time will depend on the metal. Better steel, hardened steel with more carbon, will rust quickly.
When the hardware comes out of the fire it looks very different. If you like the look you are done, but for me it looks a little rugged on most pieces. I usually put a thin coat of lacquer on the hardware to make it look more like an old piece, but one that has spent more time indoors than out. Depending on how it looks when it comes out of the fire, it may only take a little bit of cleaning to have the right look.
The beauty of the burning process is that each piece comes out different and looks authentically aged. Compared to “antiqued” hardware from many large hardware makers, which often look like a lackluster attempt at aging, the difference is night and day. And, the best part is I have a reason to burn things. Now, I need to find a reason to blow things up.
If you are looking for a way to work out your frustrations, boy do I have a job for you. It also helps if you are looking for a backache and blisters as a bonus. This job involves the simplest of tools and the weakest of minds. It’s simple. Take some wood and whack away at it. Then whack some more. Then a little more. That’s all there is to it (at least to the first part).
The fun part for me starts after the grunt work is done. That’s when I get to stop complaining about the backache and blisters and let my softer, more artsy side come out. I get to play with my paint brushes and spray gun and try to make my recent work look like it has been there for a long, long time.
I may not enjoy it as much as the finishing, but the work that leads up to the finishing is really just as important. I usually start with White Pine because it is easy to work, takes a nice dent, and if the log isn’t new, it can have a lot of character. From a lumber processing standpoint, I like that it is easy to mill, the boards stay flat, and it is quick to dry. I also use White Pine because I can get long logs and the wood is lightweight, which is good for big beams that need to be installed inside without a crane. In instances where I can use a hollow beam it is especially lightweight.
For the job that I specifically reference for this post, I used solid wood for the mantelpiece and made up hollow beams to be applied on the bottom side of an already-finished vaulted ceiling. The solid wood looks slightly more authentic because it benefits from deep cracks that occur during drying. After all the pieces are done, the cracks, or lack of them, are the only way to differentiate between the hollow and solid pieces.
The first step in making new wood look old is adding texture to the surface. From tool marks, to bug holes and cracks, old wood has texture. The more texture that you add, the more authentic the piece will look. It is easy to identify a piece that is not legitimately old because it doesn’t have enough texture. We have all seen cabinets that are distressed by adding a couple of bug holes and a few dents and then sent on their merry way. They might have the right overall feel, but no one will believe that they are old. In this case, don’t hold back and don’t get lazy.
For this project the surface was finished with an adze, but I often hand plane or use rough cut lumber with band saw or circular saw marks. After the pieces were worked with my new-to-me antique adze (that I got for $27 on ebay), I sanded the surface until it was smooth overall, but still had pronounced tool marks. Bigger pieces like these are usually viewed from a distance. Don’t be afraid to make obvious tool marks. If using a hand plane, set it deeper and stop at the end of the cut to tear off the chip.
In old pieces of wood like these the corners are usually rounded, dented or busted of. My favorite tool to use for the corners is a drawknife. It quickly removes material and you can change the depth of cut by adjusting the angle of attack. Be sure to pay attention to the grain of the wood. If the drawknife wants to dig in turn around and work from the opposite direction. The same holds true for the adze, especially around knots, where the direction of attack can make the difference between producing a chip and removing a giant chunk.
After the hand tools, I like to hit the surface with a sander to make the surface look slightly worn instead of freshly cut. Sand more where a piece would have been worn from hundreds of years of use. Tabletops are worn where people sit, posts are worn where people grab them, and furniture bases are worn where people kick them. In this case, all of the work was up high except for the mantelpiece, which was the only one that would have any wear from use.
Once the surface is prepped, it is time to start the staining. A truly old piece of wood has many different colors, and if you try to stain a new piece of wood with just one coat of stain, it will look flat. Even subtle differences in the colors can add a lot to the final effect. I like to use several colors of dye stains, on the surface of the wood and added to my finish, to build up to my final color. In this case the final color was fairly dark, so I had a lot of room to work before things got too dark.
The first coat of stain was TransTint Dark Mission Brown mixed with a little water and applied with a brush to the dry wood. I worked the corners along the length of the beams to simulate the sapwood, which is naturally darker in the older pine. The extra effort on the corners also helps camouflage the seam on the hollow beams. The next coat was a very diluted mixture of Honey Amber and Medium Brown TransTint that I quickly sprayed with my hvlp gun to make the new pine color similar to antique pine. This is where the water-based stains shine. The lighter color and darker color bleed into each other and start to blend. If the color is too dark it can be lightened with more water, if it is too light just add more stain.
The next step was to seal the surface with two coats of tinted sanding sealer. For these coats, I added a little Medium Brown TransTint to the sanding sealer. This darkens the color overall, helping me sneak up on the final color. It also seals the surface for the next step.
After the sealer dried, I used a Walnut Minwax gel stain. The gel stain (glazing) over the sealer only slightly darkens the surface, but it will get into, and highlight, the cracks and crevices. This is a good spot to add even more contrast by varying the amount that you leave on the surface.
The gel stain officially takes a day to dry, but I spray lacquer over it almost immediately with no problems. This last coat can be clear if the color looks good already or TransTint can be added to darken it. In my case, all of the coats of lacquer, sealer and topcoats, were lightly tinted.
This entire process takes a little more effort than just applying one coat of stain, but I think the results are more than worthwhile, and now I can’t do it any other way. Once you see how authentic this process looks, especially in person, you won’t want to do it any other way either.