Re-Creating a Historic 1775 Finish

Walnut shells? Milk paint? Finishers discuss farmhouse furniture finishes from our forefathers' time. October 25, 2007

I have accepted a small but intriguing assignment. I have been asked to reproduce a piece of furniture for a historical group that would date from 1775 approximately. It is a multi-purpose chest and chair that converts into a table. A very rural multi-purpose piece. It is solid white pine construction.

I have been asked to not add my own interpretations, but rather stick to the provided diagrams and use only authentic period finishes. There seems to be a sensitivity to not re-write history, merely reproduce it as best as the facts present. I think it's very challenging and I'm excited to do it.

Does anyone know what a New England craftsman would have finished pine furniture with in the late 1700's, particularly if he was making the piece for someone of little means? Any opinions would be greatly appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor P:
Milk paint, varnish, wax and oil. I would think that the most popular finish would be milk paint for something like that. After that, some sort of varnish. Varnish would be less difficult to antique, but you'll likely want to do some research as to what to use. Modern conversion varnish isn't gonna do. I remember my great uncle mixing up varnishes using all sorts of stuff and I've read about everything from berries and tea to shellac and fish parts being used to make varnishes, so this may be a chore.

If I were making this thing, and I've done a couple similar, I'd use milk paint with linseed oil over the top. Then you could char it or beat it up or whatever if it needs to look old. If it can remain as new, then some sort of varnish with wax looks very nice and wears fairly quickly.

From contributor B:
Get a qualified restoration guy to give you the info. I'll qualify the "give." To sell you the info you need. Don't guess what it should be. Client should have indicated some idea what they want. Paint, stain, what? A lot of local ingredients were used. Depending on what's available in the area, shellac was probably the clear finish, as varnish possibly wasn't available or known about yet. Might be exciting to you, but would be a pain and stressful to me not knowing what client wants.

From contributor L:
In the US, shellac was not in wide use until the mid 1800s. To be practical and authentic, you may want to limit your choices to wax or a drying oil (e.g., linseed), especially given your characterization of the item as a "rural multi-purpose piece."

From contributor D:
Paint may have been used, but my experience is that a piece which was multi-function involving moving parts, and was made rurally, would have most likely been just waxed. Paint is often determined to have been a later campaign. Color may have been applied with natural materials such as walnut hulls, or the wax may have been colored if the maker had access to dry colors. Most likely, though, it is multiple coats of wax burnished on over the years. As was stated, shellac was not readily available yet, was expensive when it was, and was mostly grabbed quickly by the higher end cabinetmakers along the seaboard as it came in, with not enough supply to get out to the rural areas.

From the original questioner:
All great information. This piece will contain a plaque indicating some of the processes and materials. I will start trying some samples based on all your suggestions immediately. The client did indicate that they were less thrilled with the idea of paint and wanted something more natural. But really deferred to me due to their limited knowledge of the finishing side of the furniture. As far as this being scary, by the lack of finishing information being provided from the client, I find it flattering to be given the responsibility, and love to make things that tell a story. That's why I got into custom work. Nothing more rewarding than building something special for someone that they just don't own, but instantly cherish. What a feeling.