There are two types of people in this world: those that like their new furniture looking new now and forever and those who want that “settled” look. I think I fall into the latter category. On most pieces I’m not fond of over doing the patination but every once in a while a piece calls out for some serious distressing. I know the use of the word “distressing” conjures up visions of folks beating on furniture with chains. Let me tell you, while that certainly is one method of achieving the look of wear and tear, it probably isn’t the best method if you want your pieces to look naturally aged.
One of my recent projects, the William & Mary bookstand from the November issue, is one of those pieces that cry out for proper distressing. The idea of patinating something is to make it look older. In order to achieve that look successfully you have to think about how a piece made during the period would come to look the way it does today. What factors contributed to the current look of the piece? If we break it down into two different categories we come up with physical wear and variation in color.
Another thing to consider in “aging” a piece is that everything didn’t occur at one time. Much like an archeologist digging through layers of earth, we need to consider that patina is developed in many layers over many years. Years of an object being used, cleaned, polished, waxed, damaged and refinished. If you want to do a convincing job of aging your pieces, you have to get into the mindset where you’ll relish the idea of adding layers only to remove them further along in the process.
In the case of my bookstand, I like to start by lightly breaking the corners as I would on any piece. One would naturally think that my next step would be to merely apply some sort of color and then a clear top coat if I’m sticking with my premise of layering. After all, that is the first thing that happened to the original. Before you run off to the stain cabinet we need to consider what happens to the wood over time. Even with stain and finish on the piece the wood still oxidizes. Since the bookstand is walnut, you need to consider what happens to the wood as it oxidizes. Some woods oxidize differently than others. Cherry, for example, darkens a bit while walnut lightens. So, the first thing I want to do is add the base color which simulates the natural oxidation process. This is the foundation upon which we will build our patinated finish.
Since walnut ages to a mellow orange brown, I need to lean in that direction with my first layer of color. I use TransTint honey amber as a base and add red mahogany, drop by drop, until I achieve the color I’m looking for. In this case I used about ½ ounce of honey amber with 5 or 6 drops of red mahogany in about a pint of water. You might need to adjust this formula depending on the natural color of your walnut. Use some scraps from making the piece as a test board until you get the color you want.
After the dye has dried I like to add a layer of physical distress. I reach for my favorite rocks in this case. The rocks are not meant for beating on the piece but for burnishing corners and edges. Sure I’ll occasionally take a glancing whack at the piece to add a dent or scratch but don’t overdo it. Something to consider, when physically distressing a piece, is where the piece would have received normal wear. Don’t start wearing the piece in places that could not possibly have been worn down. In addition to the rocks, I use a wooden burnisher to help with the wear. If you wear completely through the dye, put on another coat so that you have a fairly uniform color.
Once things are worn down sufficiently, I brush on a wash coat of shellac at about a 1-1/2 to 2 lb. cut. At this point you don’t need to be too concerned with laps, runs or sags. This layer becomes a base for the next few layers which will get mostly washed off at some point. I like to use amber, or orange shellac because it imparts a nice warmth to the piece.
After the shellac dries knock it down with some 280 grit paper. Now the fun begins, it’s time for one more burnishing with the rocks and wooden burnisher. This is yet another time to remember, less is more. This will also be the final layer of physical distress. A bookstand of this type would have been cared for and displayed in a place of prominence. It would not have received massive amounts of physical wear. The primary aging for this piece is going to be color distressing or patination.
This brings us to the next step: adding grunge. Some people use heavy bodied oil stain, or glaze, to achieve this layer of color variation but I like to use colored shellac in a full 3 lb. cut. Fresco colors or powder pigments are the best to use for this. They turn the shellac into an opaque paint-like material. For this step I use some rotten stone as a thickener along with lampblack, burnt umber and a tiny amount of Venetian red mixed into the shellac. I’m looking for something that is a dark reddish brown. You’ll have to play with it to get the color you want.
Paint the entire bookstand and don’t worry about drips, runs or sags. Before this layer is fully dry, we need to get messy and wash it off. Load up a rag with lots of alcohol and start stripping off the layer we just put on. The idea is to have the colored shellac be thick enough that when we start stripping it off it will begin to fill the pores and be difficult to remove in corners and tight places. Make sure you adjust the rag frequently to expose a fresh surface and keep it wet with alcohol.
After this layer is dry, lightly sand with 280 grit paper and apply another coat of shellac at about a 2 lb. cut. Wait for this layer to dry and knock it down with 280 or 320 grit paper. At this point you need to decide whether you want to re-grunge or just build up layers of amber shellac. I’m adding another coat or two of shellac and then I’m going to lightly wash off some of the layers in order to create dry, worn through places on the stand. When I’m done with that, I’ll let the finish cure a bit before I rub it out and give it a light coat of wax.
Patina is something that pieces develop over periods of time. It comes from people using, touching and abusing pieces. The great thing about old pieces is that no two are exactly the same. The patina tells a tale of separate lives. When you try patinating a finish in your shop, remember to vary your technique. Don’t wear everything in the same way or color distress thing identically. This is your chance to cut loose the reigns of confinement and have some fun. Dive in and give it a try. If you don’t like the results, strip the finish off the piece and start over. It won’t be a failure, it’s just another layer.