Finishes in the Balance

This is an essay I wrote for an undergraduate class in 2010. At the time, we were living in Mt. Vernon, Ohio and I was just starting to explore the world of fine woodworking. It is interesting to see how much I still incorporate the ideas I speak about in the essay.

Squaring oak with a Stanley No. 5

A gentle thrust sends the plane skating across the wide board. Long, slender shavings pile on the bench beneath in curly clusters. I enjoy working with wood. Whether I’m gazing up the massive trunk of a tall oak, smelling the fragrance of newly sawn lumber, or running my hand along the soft edge of hand planed wood, each of these hold a special place in my daily life. There . . . a few short swaths with a razor-sharp chisel and the dovetail slides into place.

Altar for St. Raphael Mission, Quincy, IL

The woodworker, for me, resembles the farmer, digging his hands into the moist soil, tilling and watching it produce fruit. There exists an organic connection between the craftsman and the object being crafted. How can one be closer to nature than when fingering a delicate shaving, glowing in the sunlight?

The human and natural interaction in creating a piece of furniture is important to me. I want the wood to speak at every step of the process. This value has led me to make several choices in my method of craftsmanship. A large percentage of the raw lumber I use comes from my own sustainable timber source. This gives me the satisfaction of knowing that my material was not harvested with disregard for the environment. This also guarantees that both I and my customers are able to have a deeper connection with the wood that we have seen in living form. Typically, I use only hand tools. This practice conserves energy and allows for more hands-on workmanship. It troubles me that in large, mechanized shops pieces are transformed from a log to fine cabinetry without any human contact.

Smoothing spalted curly soft maple with a Wood River No. 4

5:00 P.M. Time to leave the shop for the day. I make a quick glance at the maple table I’m building. “Some light sanding and it will be ready to finish,” I say out loud. I’ve been thinking recently about the finishes I use on my completed projects, and their impact on the environment. For me, preserving the environment is an issue of balance and sustainability. Louis Bromfield, in his book Malabar Farm, remarks frequently on the idea of “working with Nature rather than against her.” I like to think of my woodworking as a utilization of wood rather than its abduction. When a completed piece stands in my customer’s home I want nature to remain present. One of the primary elements in furniture is its finish. If my goal is to work in balance with nature it seems contradictory to apply a finish that is harmful to the environment, and the world’s sustainability.

In the past, upon completion of one of my projects, I would have dutifully slapped on a few coats of polyurethane. Modern cabinetry has consistently favored mass production, machines, chemicals, and petroleum based finishes. George Frank, the author of Classic Wood Finishing, raves over a contemporary finish that involves sandblasting, application of black aniline dye, and bleaching. However, in recent years craftsman have become increasingly concerned about such methods, and their impact on the environment. Research by the Green Seal Organization have shown that many varnishes, artificial dyes, and polyurethane-based shellacs produce high amounts of Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs can lead to long-term negative effects on both personal health and the environment.

Amber Shellac (with raw flakes behind)

I arrive home that evening and, after a quick bite to eat, I start researching wood finishes. I hope to find a finish that is less pollutant than what I have used previously. However, my search is also for a product that will preserve the entire balance between human and natural life. This requires a finish that is produced sustainably, enhances the natural beauty of the wood, and has no ill effect on either humans or the environment. In order to be sustainable it has to be practical, durable, and economical, without compromising the future needs of the world. The finish needs to enhance rather than hide the wood’s character. This necessity rules out dyes and stains, products that alter natural color. It also has to be safe, free from toxins and poisons.

Kliros for St. Tikhon’s Monastery, Curly Red Oak (Yoder Lumber, Millersburg, OH)

My research leads me first to an article in Fine Woodworking magazine entitled “Selecting a Finish.” The writer is Jeff Jewitt, author of several respected books on wood finishes. He briefly describes each type of finish, discussing its various attributes and ingredients. From a document published by the Green Seal Organization I am able to note in Jewittt’s article which ingredients are environmentally positive. Varnish is a mix of oils and alkyd or urethane resins. According to Green Seal these ingredients are likely to be high in VOCs. Lacquer is a product of nitrocellulose. Disturbingly George Frank notes that nitrocellulose is also the base ingredient for explosives. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that lacquer also contains VOCs in dangerous levels. Varnish and lacquer, two common finishes, thus stand no longer as viable options.

Continuing my exploration of various finishes I become increasingly favorable towards organic oils and waxes. Oils, such as Linseed and Tung oil, are produced from sustainable sources. They are inexpensive and non-toxic. The Green Home Guide reports that these oils also have a lower VOC count than varnish or lacquer. They produce a subtle luster that enhances the wood’s tone without marring its original character. Combining these oils with wax, either beeswax or vegetable wax, such as Carnauba or Candelilla, produces a sealed and moisture resistant finish. According to Jewitt’s article, shellac is also a positive option. Shellac is a resin produced naturally by certain insects in India and Thailand. Thus it also comes from a sustainable source. A favorite among traditional woodworkers, it produces a more durable finish than oil and wax, and is not toxic to food. The only downside is that it requires highly flammable alcohol to dissolve the flakes into a workable liquid. Certainly there are no perfect finishes, yet shellacs, oils, and waxes offer far greater benefits than other conventional products.

Altar for St. Nikolai, Louisville, Ohio. Finished with linseed oil and shellac

I return to my shop the next morning. Sunlight is pouring through the windows. A smell of fresh cut cedar and maple makes for a fragrant aroma. Lumber sits neatly stacked in one corner while my nearly finished table occupies the other. I quietly put away the can of polyurethane and reach back on a dusty shelf for some forgotten linseed oil. A rag lathers the rich oil into the fine grain of the maple, illuminating its golden texture. I stand back to examine the results. Beautiful! There is a feeling of satisfaction and appreciation for my research. I feel that I can now produce furniture that will make a positive impact on the world’s environment and sustainability.

Altar for St Nikolai’s, Louisville, Ohio. Oak and spalted maple with stamped aluminum accents.
Finished with linseed oil and amber shellac

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