I’m no different from most woodworkers. I don’t really enjoy finishing projects any more than the next guy. (For me, the fun is building the piece, especially as the project begins.) My early finishing involved oil-based stains that were slathered on, then adjusted to the final color by how much or how little you wiped the surface. With nearly zero penetration, the finish laid on the surface and was easily nicked or scratched to show raw wood underneath. Later, as I contemplated building furniture to sell to customers, I was advised about aniline dye and gave that a try. The results were first-rate, and the finish schedule – the number of steps to completion – was not too long. (I’ve talked with woodworkers whose finish schedules are so difficult as to never be repeated without written instruction.)
I went for years working with the same aniline dye finish. The dye soaks into the wood fibers and builds a nice depth to your finish, but I knew there was more that could be done. I was always on the lookout for an added step or a better way to finish. I attended a local woodworking show at which a fellow woodworker announced that he had a solution to cure cherry blotch. As did the rest of the crowd, I watched as he described his process. He began with sanded cherry, misted a light coat of shellac, then wiped on a layer of paint from an artist tube before spraying another layer of shellac. His results were nice looking, but the result was riding the wood like a surfboard on the ocean. His process left the project ripe to be scratched and dinged to uncover raw wood. Actually, what he did was not a finish at all; it was a glaze.
What is glaze? In woodworking lexicon, it's anything trapped between two layers of finish. I had read a little about glaze, but now I was spurred to further research. How was glaze use on furniture? I knew large companies used glaze to highlight surfaces, especially the edges of panels. I learned that with glaze you could add age to your furniture, 50 years or more.
I was trying to build and sell reproduction furniture, so if I could make my work look older I might have a better chance selling pieces. Not knowing what to buy or where to buy it, I stopped by a Windsor chair company in my area to see what they used, knowing that the company offered an “aged” finish. We talked, and before I left I was handed a small sample of a heavy-bodied glazing stain from Mohawk Finishing Products (www.mohawk-finishing.com). (Sharing woodworking information makes everyone better at the craft.) Mohawk’s glazing stain has a creamy texture that allows the product to be easily distributed over your project without excessive runs or drips. And as with all stains, there are finely ground pigments suspended in a carrier; in this case the carrier is linseed oil. I continue to use this glaze today.
Of course, this product is not the only glaze around. There are plenty of products to use as glaze. The easiest to find while perusing the aisles of your local hardware store is probably my old friend, oil-based stain. Our relationship ended as a way to color wood, but if you pour off a majority of the liquid before stirring the can you get a thick concentration of pigment that makes a great glaze. Straight out of the can, stains are not thick enough to stay put on your project (you may need to add back some of the carrier, so don’t toss it.) As shown with the artist oil trick above, there are a myriad of potential glazes. Gel stain makes a good glaze. It, too, is thick and will stay put on a vertical surface. Other options include paint, japan colors or universal tinting colors.
Today we also have water-based products that can be used in areas of the country where oil-based products are hard to come by, illegal to use or simply out of favor. These products can be effective glazes. They differ from oil-based glaze as far as dry time. Water-based products dry quicker than their oil-based cousins, so you’ll want to run a test piece before moving to your project. You should follow this advice with any finish process. It could save you a great amount of time and aggravation. Let the experiments begin.
On my very next piece after receiving the sample glaze, I put the product to work. I brushed on a light coat around all the moldings then wiped away the excess with a clean cloth. (A word of caution here: oil soaked rags are a fire hazard in the shop, so please dispose of them properly.) Things looked better, but there was a problem blending the finish as I moved from the moldings to the rest of the furniture parts. The results were better, but there was more to do. With the next application of glaze – the very next piece I finished – I worked glaze over the entire surface, working one side at a time. If you apply glaze over the entire project, there is a chance things will get out of hand with the glaze drying before you have time to complete your work. If that happens when using oil-based glaze, there is no need to worry. Simply apply a layer of solvent on top of the glaze and you’re back in business. Also, if you don’t like the results, clean the surface with solvent then begin again. Because a layer of finish is under the glaze, you don’t effect any work below that layer. I let the glaze sit for a while before wiping away the excess. The results were way better. My piece gained in age and appearance as the glaze warmed the overall patina of the surface. The coloration was more even-toned from crown to foot.
At first, I wondered how and why the tone of the piece had changed. If I was truly wiping away excess glaze, how was any of it remaining on the shellacked surface after it was sanded smooth. Even with the surface sanded with #400-grit sandpaper, there are small scratches in the finish. Those scratches grab the glaze and that is the reason for the change in tone - a nice benefit. Another benefit of glaze is that it helps fill the grain on open-pored woods, but don’t let this be your only filler if you choose to fill your work.
How I Glaze
1. I prepare the surface for aniline dye, then apply the dye by soaking the surface. Let the dye soak for five minutes then wipe away the excess. (If there is nothing to wipe, you didn’t use enough dye.)
2. When dry, sand the entire project with #400-grit sandpaper to knock down any raised grain before beginning topcoat work.
3. This is where things change from piece to piece. If I am working with figured grain, I apply a coat of boiled linseed oil immediately after knocking down raised grain. Oil soaks into the grain to better reflect light and add depth to your finish. If the grain is not figured, I don't see the need to apply oil.
4. A layer of shellac is applied to seal the dye or oil. I choose shellac because it can be applied over most anything, and most finishes can be applied over shellac. Sand the shellac with #400-grit sandpaper.
5. It’s glaze time. It’s best to use glaze as early in your finish schedule as you can so you have plenty of additional finish layers built over top. I use only two shades of glaze – I appreciate easy-to-follow finish schedules.
6. When glazing lighter woods, such as maple, tiger maple and birch, I use burnt umber shaded glaze. For cherry and mahogany, or darker woods, I use van dyke brown glaze. That’s it – keep it simple.
7. I spray the glaze onto the project because it goes on quicker. (If you apply your glaze with a brush, work on one facade at a time.)
8. Allow the glaze to flash off – turn a whitish color as it dries – then wipe away the excess. The more you wipe, the cleaner the surface but you will not wipe allthe glaze off the project. Also, don’t leave thick areas of glaze. Thick deposits easily lift off your project after later topcoats.
9. Allow your glaze to dry sufficiently. (To me this is 24 hours. Company literature says you should coat glaze within six hours, but I’ve not had any problems.)
10. Add another layer of shellac to turn the oil-based glaze into a true glaze then complete the job with whatever finish you like. That’s another four to six layers of shellac for me.
Glaze is a great way to add age to your work, to even furniture tones and to add depth to the finish. I don’t glaze every piece I build, but if it’s an important piece or a piece to which I want to up the ante, I’ll take the time to add an extra step to my finish schedule. Give it a try. You will notice a difference. It’s worth the effort.