When an Authentic Arts and Crafts Finish Leaves You Fuming

Scott Gibson

We were lucky enough to find an Arts and Crafts bungalow with much of the original trim and built-ins intact. Judging from its beautiful figure, we think the wood is quarter-sawn white oak. How do we capture the rich color of the original woodwork in new furniture we'd like to add to the house?

Minwax makes wood stains in dozens of appealing colors, but if you really want the authenitc look of period Arts and Crafts furniture consider fuming new wood with industrial strength ammonia instead.

Wood stain consists of finely ground pigments suspended in a carrier. After you've glopped the stain on the surface, the carrier evaporates, leaving the color behind. But the color isn't always even. Pigment can collect in big, open pores on the surface, leaving lap marks where the finish was applied unevenly. That's not the look you're after.

Fuming with ammonia doesn't obscure the grain patterns in the wood like stain, and it won't make the surface look blotchy. The rich color that ammonia coaxes out of tanins in the wood won't fade, and the technique isn't especially difficult.

Kevin Rodel, a Maine furnituremaker who specializes in Arts and Crafts designs, is a big fan of fuming with ammonia. He described his approach in an article for Fine Woodworking magazine some years ago, and it basically goes like this:

Get your hands on some aqueous ammonia, which is quite a bit more potent than household ammonia. While you're at it, invest in some rubber gloves, tightly fitting goggles, and a respirator with cartridges that are designed to absorb ammonia fumes. Be careful when handling this chemical.

Build a simple wooden frame large enough to enclose the piece of furniture you're coloring and cover it with plastic sheeting. Put the piece of furniture inside.

Pour some ammonia into a glass pie plate and place it inside the fuming chamber.

Come back in several hours, remove the ammonia, put away the fuming chamber and apply a coat of finish to the piece of furniture.

It's about that simple. Experimenting with some scrap of the same species can give you an idea of how long the furniture should remain in the chamber. Rodel has let some test pieces go as long as 32 hours. The longer you wait, the darker the color.

Ammonia can be used to color entire interiors. George Frank, a big time wood finisher in Paris in the 1920s and '30s, tells a very funny story about a poor work crew that had just finished trimming out a new bank in oak only to learn from the manager that it was the wrong color. It was too light. With the grand opening scheduled the next day, this was a disaster.

But Frank had a plan. He sealed the bank, placed containers of ammonia throughout the interior and left for the night. In the morning, the bank was unsealed. The woodwork was perfect. After the place aired out, the bank could open on schedule.

OK, this is a little extreme. But fuming on a smaller scale can get you the results you're looking for. If you can hunt down a copy of Fine Woodworking #126 (October 1997) you can read more about it.


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