Best finish for black walnut bookcase
I am close to finishing a large black walnut bookcase for my hallway and was wondering if I could get some advice on a finish that would make the walnut really pop. I would prefer a rich hand rubbed look. I have the capability of spraying or hand applying of finish.
You'll get a zillion opinions on this one, but I'd use the "witches brew" popularized by Sam Maloof. It applies well to walnut, and makes it look very good -- that's why Maloof uses it on his signature rocker. It does take a while, so spraying is more popular in commercial woodwork.
Thank you for your comments. Very useful! But I have one question though, "Witches Brew" where, what, how? Everybody seems to have there own brew going on. But which formula works best?
Don't use an oil finish or you will really have "black" walnut.
An oil finish looks quite nice on walnut, but I'd opt for the oil/varnish mix route rather than a pure oil. Watco is one example, or mix your own from equal parts boiled linseed oil, varnish, and paint thinner. The effect is like no finish at all except with an even satin sheen. Of course any oil based finish will have an initial darkening effect--that's what pops the grain--but certainly won't turn the walnut black. The color would be just a little different that applying a clear liquid like mineral spirits.
The other alternative would be a film finish that could have a sheen from anywhere from dull satin to high gloss. One of the best choices would be shellac. Shellac comes in a variety of shades ranging from fairly dark to very pale. While it is a naturally glossy finish it rubs out very well to duller sheens. Walnut does have open pores, although not as large as oak. For a formal piece, the pores can be filled, either with shellac itself by applying several coats and then sanding back to the point of cutting through on the surface or by using a pore filler. After the pores have been filled the final look can be determined by applying a few more coats and then rubbing to the desired sheen.
Watco is the worst finish in the world for walnut, unless you really like the wood black. I think walnut looks better natural. Watco natural will also darken the wood, so I never use the product for anything.
What finish have you found that doesn't darken wood? In my experience any finish applied to any wood darkens it at least somewhat, even waterborne finish will darken wood a little. Black walnut also lightens with age as opposed to the darkening that happens to most other woods, so a little oil to start with isn't necessarily a bad thing.
I use a waterbase minwax Vermont Maple, let it dry 24 hrs, then put on a few coats of minwax wipe on poly. First coat gloss, and the rest of the coats satin. You will have the most beautiful honey walnut color that look fine in any room. I use minwax poly for all my finishing after reading the test article in fine woodworking on finishes. I threw the rest of the stuff away after using this product.
I build bookcases and I used Watco on one of them, and the books in the case smelled like watco after a short time, and I never could get the horrible smell out of them.
Edited 2/2/2008 6:53 pm ET by 9michael9
So you use Minwax poly for everything you finish and you are here to give finishing advice?
Of course we all know that there is one finish that is the best for every project, and that it is poly. And we all know that the best poly available is made by Minwax. Right? (Rolls eyes)
EDIT: In the future please don't write messages to me about using stain on walnut, it made me throw up in my mouth a little.
Edited 2/3/2008 9:30 am ET by Rob A.
Edited 2/3/2008 11:19 am ET by Rob A.
Sorry you have a problem with my input. I bow to your superiority.
Hear ye hear ye.
Edited 2/3/2008 10:03 am ET by 9michael9
My experience with Watco on walnut isn't nearly so bleak. Watco Danish Oil Walnut is meant as a stain--it contains asphaltum (roofing tar) to provide the darkening if needed. But Watco Danish Oil Natural, is just a basic amber toned oil/varnish mix. It will darken the wood only a hair darker than what you would get with by wetting it with clear mineral spirits.
I am perplexed by the idea that Watco could have contributed odor to books placed on a bookshelve finished with Watco. Watco should have no film on the surface at the end. It should be applied, kept wet for a short time, and then thoroughly wiped off so that no film is left on the surface. It's meant as an "in-the-wood" finish. If it were mistakenly applied like a wiping varnish, with film left on the surface that film would be soft, and might collect dust and dirt, and might rub off on items placed on it. Here are the basic instruction on Watco from catalog sources. I've highlighted in red the key point.
Use only on dry wood from which all previous coatings have been removed.
Flood surface using a brush or cloth, applying additional finish to areas that absorb all of the liquid.
Allow to penetrate for 30 minutes.
Reapply, allowing an additional 15 minutes of penetration.
Wipe surface completely dry.
Ready for use in 8-10 hours.
If a topcoat such as polyurethane is desired, allow oil to dry 72 hours before applying.
Coverage: 100-150 sq. ft. per quart.
Clean up with mineral spirits or paint thinner.
COMBUSTIBLE! Dispose of all rags according to manufacturer’s instructions.
My guess is that it was a closed bookcase (i.e. with doors) and that the Watco, like any oil based finish, caused the inside to smell. That should hardly be an indictment of Watco as much as it is proof of the rule that you shouldn't use oil base finish inside any closed piece.
Watco is used car motor oil with driers added. ugh
Of course, Watco Danish Oil is not car motor oil, used or not, it is a linseed oil and alkyd resin varnish mix, along with a lot of mineral spirits. Why make such outrageously untrue statements? I suppose little harm is done since I doubt few people would really be confused. By the way, ALL oil/varnish mix finishes will give virtually identical appearances when applied to walnut. Walnut with an "oil finish" is darker than bare wood--that is the effect of all finishes that "wet" the wood--but is certainly not black.
The Walnut tinted version of Watco Danish Oil is colored with asphaltum (also called Gilsonite), a coloring agent used by a number of stain manufacturers. It's intended use is to give wood other than walnut a coloration a bit reminiscent of walnut.
I'll bet I can use car motor oil and some drier, and some Watco and make two test boards and you couldn't tell the difference. The only difference is that Watco costs more. LOL
I wonder at what project you screwed up and want to blame the problem on Watco. Clearly, you derived your irrational dislike of Watco from some traumatic event. If you don't like oil finishes on walnut that's fine, but it's not the basis for recommendations to others who admit their lack of knowledge.
I stripped an antique walnut dresser and put a Watco finish on it. It was a beautiful honey walnut color that had a age old patina deep in the wood. I had it in the backyard on a nice summer day and put clear Watco on it, and went inside to eat lunch. My wife looked out the window and exclaimed you painted it black! I looked and couldn't believe my eyes, it had turned a dark dark color. I immediately stripped it again and the gooey Watco finally came off after about an hours work. I never touched a Watco product again.
"I had it in the backyard on a nice summer day ...." Not a good idea, especially if it was in the sun.forestgirl -- you can take the girl out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the girl ;-)
How did you strip the dresser? Mechanical or chemical? If chemical, how did you neutralize the stripper? Just wondering if there could have been a chemical reaction in combination with the sunlight.John
I was suspecting it was something like that. Stripper has a way of finding itself in some of the pores so unless vigorously scrubbed and neutralized strange things can occur. (I've even seen a table turn bright purple when a finish was applied. It wasn't mine but a friends so I don't remember the details of how he fixed it. I'm sure he would, since it was due back at the clients in a few days time.)
Stripped furniture often doesn't have its pores opened sufficiently for a penetrating oil finish such as Watco, so that Watco ends up on the surface where it will always dry soft and practically gummy. It must penetrate and then be wiped completely off the surface. In the sun you would have very little time to do this before it would start to cure. (Surface temps of wood in direct sun could easily be in the 90s or above, even in air temps below 70°.)
This kind of problem would have happened with any oil/varnish finish (and likely with any oil based varnish as well.) You can't always predict--it's easier to see in hind sight, but the problem wasn't Watco, but the circumstances under which it was used.
That's probably right. I used it on other stuff and it was ok. I fell for the bull the company put out the said it hardened the surface as an added benefit. It took several years before somebody tested the claim and proved them wrong. I went to a tung oil finish after that and never had any more problems. I added a few drops of japan drier and could recoat after a couple of hours. I stuck with that until the Minwax rub on poly came along and that's all I need anymore. Four coats and it looks great on everything I make.
I'm glad you found a finish that works for you. Attempting to discourage others from using a finish that has no inherent problems, because you had a bad experience with it, probably isn't the most rational thing you could do though. Some people come here for advice on how to advance their finishing skills beyond the wipe-on poly stage and they might believe that the problem you had was the fault of the Watco.
I never "wipe" on the poly. I always use a brush, and can therefore put on a heavier coat. I rub out with a 280 sanding block after the third coat, and then lightly apply the last one. I tell you one thing it is a lot faster and neater than slopping on Watco, and the finish looks better if one uses satin for the last two coats. Try it and you will never go back.
Next time you want a low risk experiment, substitute some Waterlox Original/Sealer and Waterlox Satin wipe on varnishes for the Minwax Wipe on Poly. Apply it the same basic way. You might be surprised at the difference. Not dramatic but subtle---a little clearer, a little easier to sand, and a little easier to repair dings and the like down the road. Just as durable in every respect except for the kind a abrasion you would get from walking on it.
Another alternative would be to make your own wiping varnish. Start with Pratt & Lambert 38 or McCloskey Heirloom and add thinner until you get a nice consistency. Since you are using a brush you can keep it a bit thicker and still apply well. These choices will be a little less amber than the Waterlox.
I have used Waterlox and really like it. Frank Klause made a video on using it a few years ago, and it was my preferred method up to finding out about Miniwax poly. For a real special project I would use the Waterlox in a heartbeat. If you add a few drops of japan the drying time is much less, but not as fast as Miniwax poly. If you apply two coats of gloss and finish with satin the Miniwax looks the same as Waterlox to me. I like to use the Miniwax in conjunction with Miniwax water based stains for depth of color. The Vermont maple on walnut is quite nice.
I think that I will continue to use whatever finish is best for the wear characteristics and the look I want on the project I am finishing. Often that is shellac. Sometimes it is an alkyd or phenolic resin varnish, other times it's an oil/varnish mix that I blend myself so that I can control it's properties. If I am finishing the interior of a cabinet or a closed bookcase I will use shellac or a waterborne acrylic so that it doesn't smell for years. I will also use an oil finish topped with wax on occasion. I have yet to find a situation where the best choice is paying a company that intentionally misleads its customers to add mineral spirits to a varnish that has relatively poor clarity, adhesion, UV resistance and is difficult to repair. If I do I will be sure to try the Minwax wipe-on poly that you recommended.
Ummmm. Sometimes you need to look at the label/ color and see if it matches the type/color of the wood you are finishing. You used a dark watco which wasn't what you needed.
Did you do a wet test to see if you even needed ANY sort of coloration to bring out that gorgeous patina? I have found a few needs for Watco (and I make my own), but matching it to the wood at hand is important. And I am talking about refinishing, as you were.
And yes, you can indeed get a really heavy coat of poly on with a brush. As I shop at antique shops I see your work very often. Poly and thick.
Edited 2/7/2008 6:05 pm ET by Gretchen
I don't put poly on thick. It gets rubbed out after the second coat and the following coats also. You assume to much Gretchen.
I use BLO all the time on air dryed walnut followed by thinned shellac. I never had a pc. come out black!!! I think the BLO "pops" the figure the way i like it.
Edit: I thin the BLO w/ mineral spirits b/4 using.
Edited 2/6/2008 8:41 pm ET by JamesS
Have you ever tried just a coat of shellac? To my mind that really causes the Black walnut to "pop" beautifully!
Try it on a scrap piece if you haven't If you have and still prefer your method I'll forgive you <grin>
I'll try your way next project. Thanks Frenchy
Yeegads! Someone actually tring my advice!
Should I send walnut?
Wait a minute! Your jus' funnin' me! <grin>
Yeah, they are!! BIG GRINGretchen
I'm with Steve on this one. My absolute favorite finish for Black Walnut (there is no other kind around So. IL thankfully!) is to use an oil/varnish mix similar to his recipe as a first coat. Depending on the piece I will use only one application of this or I may use 2 or three and fill the pores with this mixture. No matter how many coats I use I ALWAYS follow with Shellac. He's right on with his description why. It being a film finish will allow the beauty of that walnut to just really shine through. The best part is that you can indeed control the sheen or luster of the finished result. This sounds like a great piece. any chance of photos? (I always have to ask!)
Thank you for your time and advice. It is very helpful for fellow wood workers to agree on subjects. I have a few left over pieces of stock and will do a test and let you know. When I finish the project i will be happy to send some pics to you.
I would be reluctant to use an oil mix (either Watco or a home-made version). While I generally like an oil-varnish mix, I'm not sure it's suitable for a bookcase. It takes a very long time to dry completly. The bookcase may feel dry but I think you'll find books sticking to the shelves 6 months down the road.
I would use a film finish: shellac, poly, or lacquer. My personal choice would be an alkyd varnish in a satin finish.
Thanks for the advice. I am going to try the mix on a scrap piece of the Walnut and see how long it will take to dry. Otherwise I will take your full advice and move quickly forward.
Let me argue in favor of shellac.. That's a finish which really "POPS" when it's applied!
All oils by their nature tend to fade away.Periodic renewal is natural and required.. You won't see oiled furniture holding up for a century or more as some shellac has..
Shellac is the preferred finish of antique dealers because of the natural beauty of shellac.. Aside from that shellac is durable safe and really easy to do (ask I'll give you my method but others will gladly chime in with theirs)
Shellac is safe, you've been eating it all of your life.. It's on the pills you take and the candy you eat..
It's easy to apply and impossible to screw up! Plus should anything ever happen to it it's extremely easy to do a flawless invisable repair..
Thank you for your insight! Interesting enough, I have 5 sample scraps of Walnut and have applied 5 different methods to them including yours truly-Shellac. To my amazement the shellac looks the best right now. I will let you know next week what the final decision will be. leaning on the shellac side for now. Thanks!
What is your method?
How tidy of a painter are you? I'm lousy and know it so my approach deals with my weakness and still provides a nice finish..
I use over thinned shellac. Normal is something like a 2# cut but I go further to a 1# cut.. (an extra can of denatured alcohol) A bookcase you will be working with a gallon of shellac (Zinsslers Bulls eye) so buy two gallons of denatured alcohol..
Mix flakes if you are inclined to. Too expensive and an added step for me...
I flood the shellac on and make no attempt to control drips or runs.. when it's overthinned like it is they don't develope. By flooding it on you avoid the dry edge which plagues most shellac work and causes the finish to have ridges..
Start at the top and work as quickly as you can flooding as you go. You've got to do the Indy 500 of painting but you wind up ridge free.. Do not go back and get holidays. Never go back over anything!
I've tried spraying and this flooding approach winds up faster and smoother..
I can usually get a satisfactory finish in three coats.. the first coat dries in 15 minutes and then I take 220 sandpaper on a sanding block and sand off just the nubs.. don't attempt to correct problems just sand off the nubs.. That's a fast, job about a second to a second and a half per sq.ft. Always use a sanding block or a DA sander. use care around the edges.
The second coat just check that all the nubs are gone it will dry in about 30 minutes. The third and usually the final coat dries in an hour.. (a fourth coat takes two hours)...
Edited 2/1/2008 2:47 pm ET by frenchy
I've used what I call "Frenchy's method" with good results. I had been used to slow drying oil finises and brushing them out to remove every brush overlap etc. Adopting the slop it on and run method was difficult for me, but it worked out. Because the shellac is so thin, when it dries, the brush overlap marks and sags go away. In my mind, as the shellac dries, the finish shrinks and spreads out. I don't know if that's really what's happening, but that's how I rationalize it. Also, I see it not so much as a finish, but as a really thorough sealing of the grain. After that a rubbing out with steel wool and a coat of wax leave a finish that almost looks like no finish. In fact, I've even experimented with just one coat of shellac to get the look of only wax. That works if the wood has consistent grain, but burly areas need extra coats to make the overall porosity even. For me, three seems to be the trick. The finish does require the sanding and steel wooling steps though. With varnish, you could get away without rubbing out if you have a dust free environment. In the Frenchy method, some uneveness will still show up in the final coat, but it quickly goes away with the steel wool and wax.
Thank you for that endorsement.. It's true that skilled careful painters may not need my approach but I know so few of those and so many who's painting skills are somewhat less than perfect..
The flood it on and spread it out approach seems to solve that problem for most of us mere mortals.
It's not me,, it's the beauty of shellac that does the heavy lifting. I just found a way to get out of it's way <grin>
I have a favorite way to finish walnut. I dye it orange with a water based aniline dye, this really warms it up,especially steamed walnut. Despite the mental image dying it orange brings up, it looks great. Then I apply a wash coat of de-waxed dark shellac, prior to applying oil based grain filler. After the filler has dried, I apply a dark gel stain as a glaze; this helps give some depth to moldings and crevices. Once the glaze has cured, you can top coat with any compatible finish. You'll notice that I don't use oil at any point. A one time I did use oil, but I found the walnut looked much better with just shellac.
You mentioned that you have the capability to spray, so you may want to try Target Ultima Spray Lacquer (USL). I have just started using this product, and have been extremely impressed with it, although my spraying skills aren't up to spraying a bookcase (it's flat work for me). The USL, really gives depth to the grain and is very durable. The lacquer is available in several sheens, so in theory you could get the hand rubbed look, without the hand rubbing ( here again my spraying skills wouldn't make that possible).
I have attached a photo of piece finished this way, as far as the coloring goes, but it is topcoated with shellac, not the USL.
Edited 2/8/2008 4:53 am ET by RMillard
Edited 2/8/2008 4:55 am ET by RMillard
I cannot thank you all for the wonderful insight. I have collected all the responses and will study them this weekend and let you all know which way I will be going on Tuesday. It may just be a variation of a few, but I'm going to make this piece a thing of beauty thanks to the great input. Pictures will follow when I complete this gift to my loving wife. Unfortunately, not in time for Valentines Day. What the heck! Patience is a virtue.
Many thanks again,
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