Greene & Greene Walnut Finish

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The Gamble house bedroom chiffonier, photo courtesy of David Matthias.

Recently three people e-mailed 360 Woodworking to ask the same question, so it seemed like a worthy topic for a blog post. In essence there are two questions. Question number one is “why don’t the walnut pieces in the Gamble house bedroom look like walnut?” And the follow-up is “how can I get a piece I build out of walnut to look like that?”

Here is a snippet from Larry in North Carolina:

I recently purchased a bundle of books that included your book, Shop Drawings for Greene and Greene Furniture.  I want to make a piece from black walnut and would like to achieve the color of the Gamble Chiffonier and Gamble bed, both shown in your book.  These are described as black walnut, but with a very different color from the black walnut that I am accustomed to.  I have a bunch of black walnut rescued from a barn in West Virginia, but it is very dark, almost black as the name implies.  So, the first question is – can I achieve the color that I am looking for and if so, how?  Did they use the process that you describe in your book for achieving the desired look for the mahogany pieces – the potassium dichromate and stain process – or some other process?  Or, is the walnut used in the Gamble pieces different and I just will not be able to get there using the wood I have on hand?

Our answer: The Gamble bedroom is 106 years old, and in our opinion that accounts for the color of the walnut. Where lighter woods tend to get darker over time, walnut tends to lighten in color. With old pieces it can be difficult to tell the exact species of wood as the colors tend to become similar. The primary wood in the Gamble bedroom is walnut and to the best of our knowledge, the finish on those pieces was either oil or shellac, possibly a combination, but we don’t think a stain was used.

So what can you do if you want the lighter color, other than wait a century for the wood to lighten up? Don’t use the potassium dichromate; it’s a strong oxidizer and will make the walnut darker. You could possibly bleach the walnut to make it lighter. With any of these chemical treatments you are rolling the dice as the color changes depend on a reaction with the bleach (or oxidizer) and the chemical composition of the wood. That’s the wild card as there is a lot of variation from tree to tree.

You might consider using butternut instead of walnut if you can find it. The grain is similar to walnut, but the color is lighter. Larry decided to use cherry instead.

— 360 Woodworking

If you like Greene & Greene furniture, check out the online Greene & Greene Virtual Archives. Don’t say we didn’t warn you if you don’t get anything done for the rest of the day. Maintained by USC the archives contain thousands of images (both period and contemporary) of Greene & Greene projects. If you click “Search” from the home page, you can browse all the images project by project. This link leads to the Gamble house images.

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5 thoughts on “Greene & Greene Walnut Finish

  1. Bob,

    What would happen if you gave the finished walnut a serious dose of UV? I have seen conflicting ‘authoritative’ claims posted on the Internet. Do you have an answer based on experience?

    Charles

  2. The one thing I have learned about building furniture is if you don’t like the looks of the wood it will change, in time. I’ve built walnut furniture years ago and it has definitely changed in color, especialy if exposed to sunlight over a long period of time. Recently I am building bedroom furniture of cherry based on the Gamble House using Shop Drawings for Greene & Greene Furniture and the on-line Greene & Greene Virtual Archives. You are right, one can spend a lot of time at the archive, it gives much detail to the subject and thanks you for the details in your book. One thing I came across was why the “z” joint at the top rails and stiles. In building a prototype of the bed I have found the “z” joint help facilitates in the clamping of the joint. I’ve seen others leave extension of wood at both pieces to help with this clamping. But as it is the “z” joint when clamped pulls the joint together with out the need of these extensions.

    Don

  3. I’m sure you are right. I have had the chance to look closely at the pieces in the Gamble house, and the walnut has the fading which walnut usually gets over time. Much of the teak and mahogany furniture designed by Greene and Greene seems to have been colored with dyes or chemicals, but this walnut suite shows little sign of this: the color is even and consistent throughout, even on areas usually unexposed to light. The wood is very fine-grained walnut and I couldn’t satisfy myself whether a pigment filler was used or not, but if so it was subtle. I think the finish was probably shellac. Some of the existing specs for millwork call for shellac with linseed oil on top, 2 coats.

    I made a walnut table based on one from this suite, and finished it with shellac and oil. After about 8 years it is well on its way to the paler color of the originals, and the lignum vitae details, originally an interesting but somewhat jarring green against the dark walnut, has mellowed to match the tonality of the originals as well. I’m glad I decided to be patient and let the color settle down on its own.

    1. John,
      We’d love to see a picture of your table, and have you write for us.

  4. I will send you a couple of pictures. I have decent ones of the table as new, but I need to take one of its current state.

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