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It’s all about the color! Stains and finishes 101

It’s all about the color! Stains and finishes 101

 

This blog post is very information heavy.  Most people only want to know what color their furniture will be stained or painted, and don’t care about the particulars of finishing.  Some customers however, do want to know if the finishes are safe and how they are to be cared for.  I tried to provide as much information about stains and finishes as I feel would be necessary for the average person to be able to make an educated decision.  I also provided some info at the end from the EPA on some of the safety issues for those who are interested.  Maybe we can deal with stain colors in a future post; this one will be long enough as it is!

First we will focus on the two types of stains that dominate most furniture finishing today.

Pigments: A pigment is a very finely ground, solid-colored particle. Pigment stains are usually suspended in a binding agent to help attach the pigments to the wood. They are usually “heavier” than the binder used and settle to the bottom of the can. Pigments actually color the wood by getting into the pores on the surface and don’t penetrate deeply into dense woods. Pigment stains will sometimes mask the more wild grain of some hardwoods.

Dyes: Dyes are very small molecules and very translucent when compared to pigments.  Tree Bark, coffee, tea and food coloring are examples of dye stain. Dye stains actually penetrate deeper into the wood fiber since they are smaller. This is especially helpful when staining hardwoods where the grain is very dense. They usually enhance and accentuate the natural character and contrasting grains of the wood.

Neither a dye stain nor a pigment stain is superior to the other.  The degree to which they stain each appropriate wood is mostly dependent on the length of time they are left on the wood and the softness or hardness of the wood. Soft woods like pine and cedar have large open pores, where hickory and hard maple have small dense pores. The larger the pores in the wood the deeper the penetration of the stain and the richer the color can become. The openness of the grain can also be affected by sanding, bleaching, washing, stripping or sealing the wood before staining.  Many professional finishes, and most commercial stains, mix both dye and pigment elements together to enhance the beauty of real wood furniture. This is an excellent way to color woods such as brown maple, hickory, or cherry because it will balance out different variations in the woods natural color and grain patterns.

Paints:  Paints are heavy pigments of color suspended in either water-based or oil based solvents.  Paint will completely cover over most fine grain patterns in wood.  Rough grained wood like oak, will still display the coarse pattern through at least the first 2 to 3 layers of paint.  Paint bonds only to the surface of wood and does not usually expand and contract with the breathing of the fibers as the wood ages and dries.  This leads to cracking, chipping and wrinkling of the paint over time.  Painted surfaces will show imperfections in the wood more easily than stains.  Some softwood like pine and cedar can “bleed” sap through the paint over time.  Brown maple and poplar are often the better choice for painted furniture, due to their finer grain and lower cost than other hardwoods.

Once your furniture has been stained or painted, there should be some type of top coating or “finishing” applied to seal and protect the wood. Most professionals will apply a sanding sealer to the stained surface first.  Staining tends to raise the grain of the wood, so a sealer will first close off the pores to seal out moisture.  This sealer is then sanded to smooth out the rough surface of the raised grain and prepare the surface to receive the top coat.  Top coats are available in several different sheens.  The sheen is how glossy the finish appears on a scale from 0 (flat) to 100 (high Gloss).  We use 20 sheen as our standard top coat.

There are two main types of top coating or final finishes; penetrating and film. 

Penetrating finishes such as linseed oil or Tung oil penetrate deep into the wood to seal the wood from moisture, but it requires many coats over a long period of time and is very labor intensive. The drawbacks are that they don’t protect the wood itself from scratching and bumping, or against other household chemical products, and they dry from the outside in so they need to be re-applied regularly to keep the wood protected from moisture. But they also don’t contain the harmful chemicals some lacquers and poly-urethanes do, so they are more environmentally friendly.

Film finishes such as varnish, lacquer and urethane are built up using layers of the finish to completely seal and protect the wood from moisture.  Older versions of this type of finish were unreliable over time, often scraping off easily with a fingernail.  The newer versions, such as conversion varnish, use a catalyst agent to harden the finish and create a long lasting resistant coating. This is much like epoxy glue where you mix a catalyst with the glue and when hardened, it makes a much more powerful bond. Conversion varnish is fast drying, non-yellowing, and cures from the “bottom up” so the solvent must work its way out of the film so the finish molecules can cross-link. Once cured, usually in 2-3 days, this product provides superior protection from water as well as most common household chemicals. The drawbacks to some of these finishes are that they contain organic chemicals in order to aid in the curing process.  VOC’s or volatile organic compounds are regulated by the EPA to keep them under “safe levels” (see section I below).  These compounds are emitted as gases as the finish cures and are greatly reduced in 2-3 days.  Our conversion varnish is a low-VOC qualified product that is certified non-toxic once cured.  It is used on everything from our tables to our cribs to provide a strong, water and chemical resistant finish for your furniture.

Caring for furniture finished with a conversion varnish is very easy.  You can simply wipe it down with a damp cloth and you are done. No polish, wax, pledge, or other product is needed to keep it looking good.  If something does stain the finish such as a permanent marker or newsprint, you can even use fingernail polish remover on a rag to clean it off.  While not scratch proof, it is resistant to normal wear.  This finish is also resistant to heat, so a warm plate from the microwave will not hurt it.

 

SECTION I   VOC’s – Volatile organic compounds are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.  (EPA)

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.

Source EPA

Chemical resistance tests:

Using the 0 to 10 system with 0= severe effect, 10= no effect

Item

Lacquer

Conversion Varnish

Hair Spray

0

10

Perfumes

0

10

Acetone (Nail Polish Remover)

0

10

Shoe Polish

3

7

Soda (Cola)

7

10

Ketchup

7

10

Coffee

5

10

Alcohol

5

10

Hot Water

5

10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How do you really know what you are buying?

How do you really know what you are buying?

 

Many people ask me “How do I know what to look for when buying furniture?”  “How can I tell if a piece is well made?”  First, you need to ask yourself,” What am I looking for in this piece?”  What quality am I willing to settle for?  Do I need this piece to last for more than just a few years?  What is the difference between hardwoods and softwoods? veneers? These are all valid questions and need to be answered. 

Solid American hardwoods are deciduous trees that bear a fruit or nut and tend to go dormant in the winter.  Some examples are Oaks, Cherry, Maples,Hickory, Ash, Elm and Walnut. Solid hardwoods, as building and furnishing materials, go against the grain of our mass-produced, throw-away society. Solid hardwood furniture can withstand more stress loads than other materials, screws and other fasteners grip tightly in their grain, nicks and scratches are easily repaired and refinished, and their lasting value is proven. Solid hardwood furniture can last for generations when well cared for.

 Although every hardwood board will predictably share the characteristics of its species each board displays a grain pattern which is uniquely its own, having been formed by the environment of the individual tree from which it came. Hardwoods usually have few or no knots and distinct colors. This gives each piece of furniture its own unique look and, when chosen well, a beauty worth the time and effort.

Softwoods are conifer trees that bear a cone for seeds and have needles rather than leaves.  Softwoods include Spruce, Pine, Fir, Cedar, Redwood, and Hemlock and keep their needles through the winter months.  Softwoods have a greater sap flow throughout the tree and the wood tends to be softer and more flexible.  The grain patterns vary, but all tend to have wider grain, varied coloration and many knots.

   Long prized for their rustic characteristics, softwoods are used in many types of furniture construction. There are a few drawbacks to using softwoods in furniture building, but the lower costs sometimes outweigh the negatives. Care must be taken to avoid cracking and splitting especially in knots and the soft wood does not hold up well to heavy stress loads. Due to greater sap content in the wood, the sap may tend to “bleed” in areas where the board has been wounded such as where a screw might be attached.

What is a veneer?  A veneer is a thin covering over another surface.  In today’s furniture this other surface is most often particle board or MDF (medium density fiber) board.  The great thing about this material is it is very flat, since it is essentially sawdust and glue molded in a machine press. 

   The coverings can be anything from a paper thin printed film to as much as a 1/8th inch wood veneer. Unfortunately, these types of materials are not very forgiving when it comes to moisture and temperature. Moisture and heat can get under the veneer and cause the MDF/particle board to swell, causing the surface to no longer be flat. If the veneer is damaged by a deep scratch or gouge, the best remedy is to re-veneer or replace the damaged part. There are also problems with fastening boards together as these materials are not as strong as solid hardwoods and screws pull out easily.

Veneer furniture is not all bad, and can have many uses in quality furniture building.  Many older veneered tables are made with a thicker veneer of an expensive wood like ¼ Sawn Oak over something less expensive like Red Oak.  This process was done to keep expenses down and still get the same look.  Since the veneer is done over a hardwood, there are fewer problems with moisture and temperature and screws are securely held in place.  Plywood is another type of veneer product and is made by laminating several layers of wood together.

   This type of product keeps its shape well and is not subject to expansion and contraction like solid wood is.  Many builders use plywood on the inside panels of solid furniture to keep expansion from breaking out the joints.

            If you are looking for solid wood furniture, you need to look at the back or the bottom of the piece.  Most veneer or particle board furniture makers leave any edge-banding off these areas to save cost.  This allows you to see what is “inside”.

Many times you can also tell about a piece based on how perfect the grain looks or how the grain pattern seems to repeat often.  This is usually done with a printed film over the MDF surface.  Furniture makers are getting much better at hiding how they use MDF/particle board and can often fool most people.  Furniture stores advertise “Solids and veneers”, or “all wood construction”, or “oak or cherry finish” to give the illusion of solid wood.  Manufacturers of upholstered furniture such as sofas, loveseats and chairs can hide a multitude of construction issues by covering it with fabric and padding.  In these situations, you must rely on the integrity of the manufacturer and the store itself to tell you the truth.

When choosing furniture for the short term softwoods are the better option.  Veneered furniture can be nice if done well and on quality surfaces. However, when choosing furniture for a lifetime, or maybe more, it pays to choose wisely.  Solid hardwood furniture is genuine, natural, classic, and real.  Solid hardwood furniture will be pieces you can use and enjoy, then pass on to future generations with confidence.

 

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First blog post

First blog post

Welcome to Olde Oak Tree’s first blog post.  I appreciate you taking the time to read what I write here and hope it will make a difference for you and in your life.  In the coming months I will be posting some tips on finding, choosing, and maintaining all types of home furnishings.  I will try to give practical information about wood species, stain types and techniques, fabric types and their wear ratings, and pros and cons to furniture building techniques. 

I will give you the best information I have available. Many of the builders I work with are 2nd and 3rd generation furniture makers and will give me ample help with my posts.  In addition, I have been in the furniture business over 25 years selling, delivering, servicing, and have done a little woodworking in that time as well.  I don’t know everything and would be appreciative of any input you would like to give too.  Please feel free to message me any time with questions or comments and I will be happy to get answers for you.  I look forward to blogging with you!

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