Gustav Stickley was a finish fanatic. It is said of him that even as an old man — living at his daughter’s house after his business had gone bankrupt — he continued to experiment with finishing. One can only wonder what his daughter thought about that.
So it is no surprise that when you think of Arts & Crafts furniture built in the Stickley style, that the finish is a critical component of the piece. White oak furniture manufactured in Stickley’s factory was fumed with ammonia to create its rich, dark color. The ammonia fumes reacted with the tannin in the oak to create a deep hue that could then be topcoated with varnish or lacquer.
But when we decided to build a Stickley-inspired blanket chest, we did not really give the idea of fuming the chest much serious consideration. Fuming with ammonia is a nasty task that can actually be dangerous to do. The other challenge is that every piece of white oak will not react to the ammonia to the same degree. Stickley addressed this problem by fuming his parts before he assembled the furniture so he could select out pieces that were not the right color. We would not have that option — so we came up with an easier staining solution.
A Simple Plan
There are a variety of products that can give you a good-looking Arts & Crafts type finish. Michael Dresdner often recommends asphaltum, which can be purchased as roofing tar and cut with mineral spirits. Or, there are stains that claim to be “Arts & Crafts” that might do the trick for you.
We chose to take a deliberative process to get to the look we wanted. First, we got our hands on a box of finish sample chips (available from Rockler Woodworking and Hardware) to find a stain — in this case, we used a gel stain and polyurethane combination, but a traditional oil stain would work as well. The colors on the chips got us close, so after selecting three possible variations, we tried those stains on our white oak. It is important to sand your test pieces to the same grit level as you will your project, as the stain will be absorbed differently and potentially present a different color. We sanded up to 180-grit After a few tests, we chose the General Finishes Antique Walnut gel stain with polyurethane. One coat of that — brushed on and wiped off — was followed by two more wipe-on coats of clear poly. At the end of that process, we de-nibbed the project with 0000 steel wool and applied a coating of ebony-colored Briwax, which we then rubbed out to a nice sheen. The end results were nice to look at and to touch.
You may be asking yourself if a finishing fanatic like Gustav Stickley would be satisfied with the result. That is something we will never know, but if you are looking for an easy-to-do, Stickley-similar finish, I think this one will do nicely.