NGS Finishes

Wood Finishes From 1600 – 1950

Finishing is the least studied and most inaccessible aspect of our antique furniture heritage. The workmanship on antiques show the skill of its maker, but the finish appeared to be insignificant. We can not learn from the pieces themselves, because there are very few pieces that have any of the original finish remaining. Finishes that were used in the early years in the United States which were wax, shellac, varnish and lacquer were not considered an essential part of the furniture and therefore information on what was used was not recorded.

Robert Mussey says, “The problem with finding information regarding finishes of earlier years is that traditional finishing materials include some temporary, degradable, and fugitive natural materials. Resins, oils, the most common components of clear furniture finishes in the 18th and early 19th centuries, undergo complex oxidative destruction which begins almost immediately after they are applied. They are among the most complex and difficult to separate and identify, but particularly in their oxidized states. It has only been recently that reliable methods have been developed to identify them, and even these are difficult especially when traditional materials used to establish controls may be unavailable. Cabinetmakers, varnish-makers, and other tradesmen did not commonly write about their work. The difficulties of a craftsman left little time for record keeping, plus their skills were learned through apprenticeship, practice, communicating verbally, and by example.” Also many of their skills and formulas were a trade secret. When ever any formulas and directions were written, it was probably completed by a historian or small publisher. While some of these had connections with working craftsmen and studied the subject by going around to various shops and seeing what was done, others got their information from hear say or copied it from other works. Many resins used in finishes appear similar and may possess similar properties which caused inaccuracies in naming and identifying specific materials. Just because a receipt book recommends a certain recipe or formula does not mean that formula represented the actual practice of working cabinetmakers. It was necessary for the researcher to confirm the information by looking for entries in the cabinetmakersÕ account books for the materials that were actually purchased, or newspapers for advertisements for materials actually available. Practices varied depending on local taste, availability of materials, and how much was being paid for the piece. The range of materials from 1670 to 1840 did not change significantly nor did they vary widely among workers. A list of painting, varnishing, and dyeing materials used in 1680 resembles one of 1820, (Transparent Furniture Finishes in New England).

Mussey States “During the Colonial days, demand in Great Britain for scarce materials limited their export to the Colonies. The revolution of 1776 and the embargo of Great Britain in early 19th century brought a total halt to the importation of finishing materials to the United States. During those periods, then, it is logical to assume varnishes, for example, would have been made of local materials: rosin in its various forms, and turpentine making a cheap inferior, but locally manufactured and available.”


Mussey says wax was a very common finish for a period of 75 years from the mid 1700s to the early 1800s. It was on of the most frequently mentioned items in the cabinetmakers’ account books. Beeswax was the most common wax and beehives were also purchased by cabinetmakers for the wax they used and/or to be sold to their customers. Wax was universally available in rural New England and formed an important item of commerce both in the cities and in the country and with the expensive cost of imported varnishes we can assume that much of the United States 18th century furniture was wax finished. Wax was used in various ways, but usually polished to a high gloss finish. Some methods was mixing the wax with turpentine to make the wax softer and make the work of polishing easier, others rubbed the wax with a cork and fine brick dust, (Transparent Furniture Finishes in New England).


Mussey says shellac was advertised as early as May 9, 1738 by John Merritt, whose ad called it “seedlach”, but there was no single purchase found in any account book until the early 1800s when it began to appear frequently. This may possibly be explained by its cost. Shellac was imported to Great Britain from India, then to the Colonies, and was subject to considerable import duties levied by the Crown. Beginning in the early 1800s the American merchant fleet began to import directly from the Far East and a huge trade developed, (Transparent Furniture Finishes in New England).

Don Williams says “Lac, the raw material from which shellac is made, is refined from the secretions of the tiny insect Laccifer Lacca, a native to Indochina and India. The Lac bugs live on trees, sucking out nutrients from the sap and secreting a protective shell that eventually covers the twigs and branches. When these deposits are abundant, the branches are cut off and the resin is prepared for processing. The raw material “sticklac,” is crushed and washed in water to remove the twigs, dirt and the lac dye in the insect carcasses. The finished product can include the amber color and the wax (which acts as a plasticizer) or can be blond (color removed) and dewaxed. The final step is assigning a grade to the shellac which is based on the host tree and the time of year it is harvested, wax content, color, clarity, and hardness”, (Shellac Finishing).


T. Hedley Barry, F.I.C. says “The history of the manufacture of varnish is necessarily associated with that of the arts and of industry. The application of a varnish is invariably the final stage in the preparation of an article for use, and as regards to both the quantity of the material and the labor involved, usually represents a comparatively small item. It is natural therefore that the manufacture of varnishes began as an incidental process, and in the early stages was ultimately connected with the arts rather than with industry. As to the nature of the varnishes used, we have in the works of Jean Felix Watin, a very detailed account of the types of varnish made and the method of manufacture. It was published in 1773, achieved great popularity and was re-edited no fewer than fourteen times, the last edition being published in 1906 by L. Mulo of Paris. The formulas are given in ounces and it is evident that the amounts made at one time were very small. In the case of spirit varnish, he recommends that the resin be dissolved in alcohol by heating on a water-bath whilst in the case of oil varnishes, he describes melting the resin in an earthenware pot, preferably glazed, over a hot fire, but not flaming. When the resin is properly run, the hot oil is added and heating continued until incorporation is complete. In fact, WatinÕs process is little more than a transcription of that described by; Theophilus at least 600 years before,” (Varnish Manufacture).

Mussey says Alcohol necessary for spirit varnishes was probably derived from various sources. While account books and newspaper advertisements rarely mention it, we know the colonies produced and exported huge quantities of rum and brandy, often high in alcohol content. Much of it was drunk but many varnish formulas specifically call for brandy as spirit vehicles, and its universal availability and cheap price probably led to its common use in spirit varnish. According to the Cabinet Makers Guide a typical varnish formula is “To one gallon of spirits of turpentine add five pounds of clear rosin pounded; put it in a tin can, on a stove, and let it boil for half an hour; when the rosin is all dissolved, let it cool, and it is fit for use”. This would have yielded a not-so-hard varnish with a decided yellowish brown tint. As turpentine and rosin are among the most frequently mentioned finishing materials encountered among entries in cabinetmaker’s account books of the period, and because they were among the cheapest, we can’t go far wrong in assuming a varnish such as this was commonly employed on much 18th and early 19th century furniture. The process was extremely simple, and required only domestically produced materials, free from the constraints of the various trade embargoes and taxation that imported resins were subject to. However, it would have been suitable only for darker woods. Another typical recipe recommends — To make the best white hard varnish: Rectified spirits of wine, two gallons; gum sandrach (a commonly used spirit varnish resin), five pounds; gum mastic, one pound; gum anime a relatively soft, Zanzibar copal mostly soluble in alcohol, four ounces; put these in a clean can, or bottle to dissolve, in a warm place, frequently shaking it, when gum is dissolved, strain it through lawn sieve, it is fit for use. The mixtures of old attempted to combine the best properties of the various resins and thereby to overcome the disadvantages of each. Sandarac was used for its lustrous quality; Venice turpentine to overcome brittleness; elemi resin for elasticity; copal gum for hardness; and benzoin as a plasticizer for the varnish. Another varnish from the Cabinetmakers Guide suggests 4 parts amber to 1 part gum lac dissolved in turpentine, with a small addition of linseed oil, (Transparent Furniture Finishes in New England).


Joe Amaral says “Cellulose Nitrate” was discovered in 1846 by Dr. Schonbein in Switzerland to be used for explosives. It was used in the film industry from 1880-1920. From 1870-1920 cellulose nitrate (celluloid) was the basis for many plastic objects, French Ivory, imitation tortoiseshell and mother of pearl. In 1855 Nitro Cellulose Lacquer first came into commercial use in England as Liquid nitrate. In 1870 American John Wesley Hyatt found that camphor made an excellent solvent and plasticizer for cellulose nitrate and patented his discovery on July 12th and called it celluloid. In 1882 Production of amyl acetate by J.H. Stevens in the U.S. initiated the development of modern lacquer coatings.” (History of Nitrocellulose) Lacquer was developed as an alternative to shellac at a time when shellac price instabilities were causing small-scale economic turmoil in the US. Lacquer’s principle component, cellulose nitrate, was easy to process from wood pulp and was already in plentiful supply in “nitrate,” form as “gun cotton”. Post-war gun cotton stockpiles were a dangerous nuisance and as such, the chemical industry was asked if these stockpiles could be turned into anything useful. As an added bonus, lacquers became more durable than shellac and easier to apply in production furniture manufacturing. Russ Ramirez says A nitrocellulose film by itself would be much too brittle so plasticizers are added to add flexibility. Plasticizers come in two varieties, the oil type that does not chemically bond to the cellulose molecules, and the chemical type that modifies the cellulose derivative chemically to yield a molecule with improved characteristics. Resins are used in lacquer formulations to enable the cellulose film to bond to the surface it is being applied to and to minimize any shrinkage of the film. Resins also impart a physical and a chemical durability, as well as enhancing the overall appearance of the lacquer,” (Lacquer by Design).


Ramirez “The following is a formula of classic nitrocellulose lacquers that follows the same across different brands. This old recipe shows what goes into a batch and what role each component plays.”

Ingredient %ByVol Role
1/2 second Cellulose Nitrate packed in alcohol, 75% non- volatiles 5.5% Binder
Non-reactive Alkyd resin, 70% non-volatiles 7.9% Resin
Maleic resin, 50% non-volatiles 5.1% Resin
Dioctyl Phthalate 1.5% Plasticizer
Castor Oil 1.2% Plasticizer
Butyl Acetate 16.6% Solvent
Ethyl Acetate 6.4% Solvent
Butanol 9.1% Solvent
Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK) 27.3% Solvent
Toluol 19.4% Diluent

Events that affected the United States also affected the finishes used. The revolution in 1776 and the trade embargo in the early 19th century stopped the importation of finishing materials and local materials had to be used. This caused varnish to be made with local materials and the use of wax became popular. In the early 1800s the American merchant fleet began to trade directly with the Far East. That caused shellac to be more available at more competitive cost. Lacquer was developed as an alternative to shellac at a time when shellac price instabilities were causing small-scale economic turmoil in the US and there were stockpiles of post-war gun cotton (used to make lacquer) available. Lacquer also dried faster and was easier to apply which made it very appealing to manufacturing. Lacquer, because of its improved durability and fast drying, has become one of he most popular finishes in manufacturing of wood products. So through research we have found that there is not much information regarding what was used as a finish on antique furniture. The reason for this is because the furniture was built originally for functional purposes and the aesthetics of the piece was secondary. It was believed that if the finish became a problem you could easily remove it and put on another. There also were very little instructions written regarding finishes. The cabinetmakers skills were learned through apprenticeships, practice and verbal communication and many recipes of finishes were trade secrets.

Earl LaMott April 30, 2003

works cited
  1. Amaral, Joe – History of Nitrocellulose Lacquer, July
  2. Barry, T. Hedley F.I.C. – Varnish Making, Chemical Publishing Co., 1940
  3. Mussey, Robert – Transparent Furniture Finishes in New England, 1700-1820
  4. Mussey, Robert – Old Finishes
  5. Ramirez, Russ – Lacquer by Design
  6. Williams, Don – Shellac Finishes

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