Amish Furniture Education






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Amish finishing shops: Finishing the Wood
Stains, Dye stains, Sealers and Painted

This page will focus on the different types of Amish furniture stains, sealers and the process of finishing the product at the Amish finishing shop. Although each Amish finishing shop varies in their style of finishing, the basics are the same. This information will help take the confusion out of what stain choice is best for a specific Amish furniture piece and how to protect the finishes Amish furniture craftsmen apply.

• Protecting Amish Finishes: Conversion Varnish
• Sheens
• Lacquer and Varnish (Polyurethane)
• Stains
• Specialty Finishes
• Hand Rubbed Oils
• “Stain matching”


Protecting the finish: Conversion Varnish

Fact: Conversion varnish cures from the “bottom up” and the solvent must work its way out of the film so the finish molecules can cross-link.

Finishes can be broken into two basic groups: Penetrating and Film. Penetrating finishes “soak” into the wood and do not “cure”; therefore, they give very little protection and no layers can be built up.

Film finishes “build up” on the surface of the wood. Each layer can be built upon the next layer which separates the wood from the outside elements such as water, water vapor and everyday use. Film finishes also help “seal” the Amish furniture from the constant exchange of moisture which causes wood to split.

Most Amish furniture finishing shops use Conversion Varnish to “topcoat” the wood after it’s stained. This is a clear finish that is considered “reactive” and comes in different sheens. This product has a chemical reaction when mixed for use, and has a shelf, or “pot” life. Think of it as mixing concrete with water. When the chemical reaction starts, you only have a limited amount of time to place the product before it gets hard.

Each varnish manufacturer recommends a specific amount of time the Amish furniture craftsmen can add more layers of finish to the furniture and still get each of the layers to chemically bond together. On the pro side of the spectrum, this allows the Amish furniture craftsman to build multiple layers and get maximum protection for the piece of Amish furniture. On the cons side, once the chemical reaction is complete, it is difficult to repair damage.

Conversion varnish is used by top end furniture makers for the excellent sealing and wear quality it provides to the consumer. Conversion varnish, in chemical resistance tests conducted by the manufacturer, had superior marks against the following materials tested:

Chemical resistance tests:

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

Item
Lacquer
Conversion Varnish
Nail Polish Remover
0
10
Perfume
0
10
Hair Spray
0
10
Shoe Polish
3
7
Coke (soda pop)
7
10
Ketchup
7
10
Hot Coffee
5
10
Alcohol
5
10
Hot Water
5
10

• We know of one Amish furniture craftsman that is “testing” his dining table all the time. He reports sitting hot pans directly on the conversion varnish finish with little or no effect of burning or damaging the surface. However, using hot pads or placemats is recommended.


Sheens

The sheen is the amount of gloss or shine the film finish gives off. Many are familiar with the terms “gloss”, “semi gloss” or “matte” finish. The most popular sheen is semi-gloss.



Varnish and Lacquer (Polyurethane)

Varnish is produced by “cooking” a curing oil with resin. Drying additives are brought into the solution to help speed up the curing process. Varnish is very durable and is available at your local hardware store. Most often it is called Polyurethane and is brushed on the project to build layers.

Amish furniture craftsmen prefer not to use Polyurethane because of the long dry time. It takes over an hour just to get enough “cure” to keep dust from sticking to it and it takes over 24 hours to add the second coat. Conversion varnish can add the second coat in 5 minutes or less.

Lacquer is widely used as a film finish in lower quality furniture and cabinets. Lacquer is a resin held is suspension by a thinner or solvent and when sprayed the thinner evaporates causing the finish to cure.

Lacquer is very easy to apply with a spray gun due to the very quick dry time and multiple coats can be applied in a very small time frame as well. Lacquer is also easy to repair because it has no chemical reaction to cross-link and cure. This allows any damage to be easily repaired by sanding down the damaged area and applying new coats.

Look at the chart above showing the strength and durability of lacquer compared to conversion varnish. Although lacquer has a place in some Amish furniture pieces, it does not meet the strength requirements for most Amish furniture.


Stains

Fact:

Many Amish furniture shops have established “Certified Stains”. These specific colors were a product of the difficulty in matching stains from shop to shop. The Amish Furniture craftsmen now have a chemical mixture from the manufacturer so they can match your exact color.

There are different ways to categorize stains. First is the type of colorant used, a pigment or dye. Second is what type of binder is used; oil, varnish, lacquer or water based.

We will focus on the two types of stains that dominate most Amish furniture shops today.

Pigments: A pigment is a very fine ground solid, colored particle. Pigments are “heavier” than the binder used and often settle to the bottom of the can. Pigment colors actually color the wood by getting into the very tiny cracks, scratches and depressions.

Dye stains: The coloring in walnut husks, coffee and food coloring is dye stain. Dye is molecular, which means it is very, very small compared to pigments. Dye is different because the molecules are so small they actually saturate part of the wood fibers and bond on their own.

Dye stains have an advantage to pigments as they no not cause “blotching” on woods such as cherry or maple. This saves the Amish craftsmen work because of less steps to perform by adding a sealer to prevent blotching. Each layer of dye stain covers the wood much like coloring an Easter egg. Each layer is very opaque and by adding more layers of dye it darkens the wood evenly.

Dye stain is an excellent way to color wood such as brown maple, hickory, or cherry because it will balance out different variations in the woods natural color.

Both dye stains and pigment stains should be film finished with conversion varnish to protect the finished piece of Amish furniture.


Hand Rubbed Oils:

There are many different types of rubbing oils. From the “home-made” variety to the commercially purchased. Rubbing oils give the wood a special, natural looking touch and feel to the wood. Rubbing oils do not have the film finish applied to the wood.

This allows the wood to be exposed to damage, but gives the wood a natural “feel” that far outweighs the exposure to damage. If you can control the atmosphere your piece will be used we recommend trying a hand rubbed oil finish.

Hand rubbed finishes can be easily repaired, just sand the area and apply more oil. It is simple do it yourself project.


Stain Matching:

This process has been getting easier each year with new testing technology. The client often sends in a piece wood to be matched. The chemical company will analyze the stain and make a sample for the Amish Craftsmen to test.


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