EARLY AMERICAN MAPLE FINISH
by J Jewitt
Maple, if left unstained, takes on a yellow tone over time, gradually deepening to a darker yellow-reddish brown. This is the color that you see on maple pieces in museums and is the color most cherished by collectors. Figured maples are the most striking, since the figured areas deepen in color against the lighter wood surrounding it.
Step One - Staining
To match antique maple finishes start with the undertone color. I use a honey-amber water dye available from suppliers of dry dyes. Other names like Early American Maple or Honey-Maple will work. Whichever dye you work with, it should be a predominately yellow tone with a hint of red and black. Before dyeing, sand the wood up to 150 grit and raise the grain by sponging it with distilled water. When dry, sand with 220 grit. This minimizes the raised grain from the application of the dye. The concentration of the dye should be such that it leaves the wood a honey-straw color when applied. It's impossible to give precise mixing instructions since all dye powders vary in concentration. The best I can say is that I usually start with the manufacturer's recommended mixing ratio and then dilute that by the same amount of water. If this is too light add more dye. If it's too dark, add more water. Apply the dye by flooding all surfaces with dye by brush, rag or spraying. Let it dry several minutes, then blot up the excess. This is where practicing on sample is important. The goal of the dyeing operation is to establish the primary undertone of color. The color of the wood when dry should be light straw. Let the dye dry at least 8 hours and then scuff sand the surface very lightly with 320 grit sandpaper before proceeding to the next step.
Step Two - Oiling
This step adds depth to the dye and kicks out figure in the wood. Apply a small amount of a drying oil like linseed or tung to the surface of the dyed wood. About a thimble full per square foot is all that's needed. Don't flood the surface. Wipe the oil on with a rag and let it dry several hours before proceeding to the next step. Caution: Always dispose of the rag by soaking it under water then letting it air dry on the side of a trash can.
Step Three - Sealing
The wood needs to be sealed before glazing. I use one or two applications of a two lb. cut shellac made from dry flakes. If you use only one coat of sealer, the subsequent glazing step will darken the wood significantly. Two coats of sealer and the glaze has less of a tendency to "take". You will need to experiment to get the feel for the difference. I usually use two coats when I want a very subtle color change from the glaze and one coat when I want a dark "dirty" look similar to very old pieces. I use dark shellacs like garnet or a dewaxed dark. Apply one coat by brush or spray and let it dry thirty minutes. Then take some 320 grit sandpaper and very lightly scuff sand all surfaces to knock down any raised fibers. Then follow up with a light rubbing with maroon synthetic steel wool.
Step Four - Glazing
Glazing establishes the final color of the wood and darkens the pores and any figured areas. I make the glaze by taking one cup of glaze and adding 2 teaspoons of burnt umber, 1 teaspoon Venetian Red and 1/2 teaspoon black. Mix the glaze thoroughly and check the color by smearing a small amount on some white paper. It should be a chocolate color. Apply it to all surfaces of the wood with a stiff bristle brush. Wipe the glaze off, leaving only enough on the surface as a thin veil of color. In corners and crevices, you can leave more glaze to simulate an aged appearance. Let the glaze dry according to the manufacturers instructions. For the Behlen glaze I let it dry 5 hours. Remember that most glazes do not dry to the touch so it's normal for the surface to feel tacky. The nice thing about glazing is that if the color is not what or if its too dark you can remove it with mineral spirits and not affect the finish underneath. Just wipe it off and apply a different colored glaze.
Step Five - Topcoats
The glaze needs to be sealed in with more finish. I apply another coat of a two lb. cut shellac over the glaze with a brush or spray gun. I don't use a rag since this tends to pull off the glaze from the surface. If you want an all shellac finish apply another coat or two of shellac. For more durability, apply a coat of oil based varnish or lacquer. I don't recommend polyurethane since it may not adhere well to the shellac.
Step Six - Waxing
When the final coat of finish is dry, rub it out using 0000 steel wool and dark wax like Antiquax Brown or Minwax. I usually thin the wax with mineral spirits to make it easier to apply. This cuts down the gloss slightly and imparts a mellow, satiny sheen.