Updated: Jan 3, 2020
When it comes to fine furniture making in Australia, I often think we fall short in the design process when it comes to decisions on how to finish a piece. I'm not sure we really know what we are doing when selecting and applying finishes. I'm not sure we properly understand our options and how finishing works, and I am concerned that how a piece will be finished is not being considered enough in the early design phases for a standout piece of furniture.
At a furniture making school you can learn a range of techniques from traditional to modern which can all be implemented in making your design the shape you want it to be, but in terms of what the surface will look like when it's done, and how it will perform, the choices appear to be limited.
Studying historic furniture and conservation, I have begun to understand the range of surface textures and finishes available and utilised throughout the history of furniture making, and it is now difficult for me to imagine designing a piece of furniture without putting equal amounts of time into how I am going to finish it and how I want the surface to look and feel. Very importantly, this doesn't mean just choosing one type of finish and cover the surface with it in the same way everywhere.
I recently had the absolute honour of watching young furniture maker Harry T. Morris work on his beautiful sideboard while undergoing his artist in residency at The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre. Harry is trained in historic craft practices. He studied at West Dean College in England, and has travelled Japan learning traditional carpentry techniques and staying with renowned furniture makers. The piece he made with The Bower was built from reclaimed materials using mostly traditional joinery and hand tool techniques. It is a beautiful piece, available for viewing at Bungendore Woodworks, and it is also a wonderful lesson in how an informed furniture maker can approach finishing in a nuanced way.
Making it look and perform 'Right'
The motivations for the finishing choices on this sideboard were found within the motivations behind material choice, shape, function, and design. The major motivators for the design were as follows:
The piece needed to reflect Harry's style and training. This means an emphasis of historic craft woodworking, as well as Japanese woodworking. Harry is massively motivated by making things that anyone can make with basic tools, and being able to see that in the finished result. The viewer should be satisfied by the craftsmanship but not feel as though it is unapproachable. The piece of furniture should be as repairable as a traditional craft piece.
The piece needed to reflect the value and potential of reclaimed materials. The timber and fabric used was all salvaged and secondhand. Harry wanted to make a refined piece which still was clearly made from secondhand materials with the beauty of those materials on show. It wasn't enough to just make a standard design from reclaimed materials - the final visual result needed to highlight and showcase those materials within a graceful and functional design.
The final surface coating is an important part of achieving these goals. Do you leave it rough? Do you polish it to a high shine? If it is left too rough, you might reinforce a notion that secondhand materials are only for rustic work. If it is highly polished, you start to distance the piece from having a tangible crafted feeling, and the materials themselves can get lost beneath a smooth surface.
How Harry Dealt with This:
A single finish or finishing technique was not used over the entirety of the piece. Different areas were selectively finished in different ways in order to get the best results, but in a cohesive way.
The interior was sanded smooth and given a basic shellac and wax coat - This gave the interior a finished smooth feeling ready for use. When you open it and want to work inside, the surfaces are smooth and ready for easy cleaning and use. This highlights it as a functional piece.
The cedar and douglas fir pieces were given 5 or so brush coats of shellac - None of these are surface pieces and are the most stick-like elements of the piece. The relatively low number of brush coats with a light shellac leave the pours of the timber open and leave a natural wood texture and look to the piece. They are smooth enough to the touch, but the visual beauty of them is in the natural wood look. You can see that they are timber pieces potentially salvaged from building frames, but they don't look rough.
The exterior of the carcass was french polished - French polishing is more a process than a material, and there are many degrees and methodologies for french polishing. Harry cultivated his french polishing while studying at West Dean College, and was able to implement that knowledge here. This polished surface on the top is both more durable than the brush coats on the doors and frame (Harry repeatedly mentioned being concerned about people dropping their keys on the top), but it also works well with the wavy grain of the reclaimed eucalyptus (potentially stringybark, but it is hard to be certain). The fine polish on just the exterior of the carcass gives the piece a shine and smooth exterior which allows harry to have a more textured lower surface on the cedar and hessian panels.
This combination of techniques completely tackles the concerns of having a refined piece which allows textured reclaimed materials without any feeling that this is a rustic piece. It highlights the best of both worlds, and yet doesn't feel jarring in the contrast of surface textures. By using shellac and wax, he highlights his historic craft practices education, and creates a repairable finish one what is designed to be a repairable piece of furniture.
A Note on Colour
Not only did harry not remain consistent in his finishing method, he didn't stick with the same shellac through the entirety of the piece either. On the light cedar and Douglas fir pieces, he selected to use the palest de-waxed shellac he could find. These materials have a tendency to become more orange when polished, and he wanted to reduce that colour change to give them the lightest appearance possible.
The stringybark on the other hand, was polished with an orange shellac. The orange shellac brought a warmth to the grey tones of the timber and brought its colour in line with the cedar and hessian to give the whole piece a colour coherence.
I really can't emphasise enough how pleased I am with this seemingly minor decision. It would be easy to just pick one shellac and use it over the whole piece without further thought, but the different materials respond differently and this was taken into consideration when finishes were chosen.
More to Say
There are other comments I could make on ways he handled damage and mistakes in the furniture finishing process, but I will leave that for another day. There are a million other options that could have been used on this piece. We discussed chemical stains and burnishing finishes. We tested a number of materials on the hessian to get the right consistency and look. The methods chosen were based in some regard on his skill and knowledge, which doesn't include modern finishes or spray techniques (although I don't believe those would have been appropriate for him personally to use on this project).
The conversation on how we finish furniture is a big one, or at least it should be. I understand in a commercial sense how you might not have the capacity to make these decisions, or to use these techniques, but if you want to pride yourself on your craft and you want to pride yourself on your design approaches, than I urge you to consider the finish more; it is the surface and image of what you are spending so much time making. It deserves more attention.
You can find more about Harry T. Morris at his website: htmorris.com
Read more about his craft influences and approaches at Garland Magazine: garlandmag.com/loop/harry-t-morris/
You can read more about his project at Wood Review Magazine: woodreview.com.au/news/harry-morris-and-the-bower-woodworks-project
You can check out this piece at Bungendore Woodworks in Bungendore, NSW: bwoodworks.com.au/