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Aging by Use of Lye, Larry Mann



First of all this is an opinion, I am no expert in this field - wood, wood finishes or anything else, an expert only on my own opinion.

My concern is the number of people who are trying to imitate finished furniture here in the US which has been imported from Europe by utilizing lye as the antiquing agent. This message is aimed toward the amateur not, necessarily the pro who has taken the time to understand the products he/she uses. I was spurred to write when a couple weeks ago on one of the numerous home shows, this one sponsored by Home Depot no less, I saw the host demonstrating this "new found discovery"., antiquing with lye to replicate some of the old time furniture here and abroad.

First of all a little understanding. This wonderful amber country pine "antique" finish is the result of pine subjected to lye. These imported furniture pieces (to US), which because of the quality of construction and/or numerous coats of paint, are subjected to this very harsh treatment for removal of the paint. and/or lye's quick ability to yellow pine. Let's not be to quick to assume that the Europeans subject their fine antiques to lye on any regular basis or that the makers of period pieces were artisans who used lye regularly as part of the finishing process. Lye, in addition to being a powerful paint remover, reacts with the tannins to cause the amber, honey effect and raises the grain. This process is a quick way to recycle a lot of furniture by quickly making it attractive once more. This pine, whether it be a completed piece or old salvaged timber is then waxed out by various methods and steps. Many people are now refering to this as English or Irish or French country etc. My thought is, it would be more appropriate to say "Modern Era Country". Or furniture with a "country charm".

Another area of concern, is the removal of paint or finish from quality painted antiques to achieve this not so antique finish. Please understand whether in this country or Europe fine early painted furniture is not what is brought to this honey finish.. It is furniture whose paint or finish is of no value.

So the idea we are copying an antique finish when trying to achive this even, non-blotchy, amber- honey quality using lye as the agent, really is not entirely true. (Of course there are exceptions) Although pleasing, the finish is a modern phenomena more to do with destroying paint and recycling wood & furniture than to do with better woodworking practices, fine furniture, finishes, restoring antiques or fine reproductions.

Sometime ago I became cognizant of the harshness of this chemical from reading in Bruce Johnson's book "The Weekend Refinisher". At a discussion about paint removal, Bruce refers to this as "Uncle George's secret weapon".

Bruce Johnson writes:

" the undeniable truth is that lye does dissolve paint, just as it will burn flesh and cause permanent blindness. It is fast and inexpensive , but the risk it poses to your furniture, your family, your pets - not to mention yourself - makes any advantage pale in comparison. .... In addition ... lye also burns out the life of the wood, raises the grain, removes the color from some woods, darkens others, such as oak, walnut, chestnut, and ash and simply ruins cherry and mahogany. To make matters worse, once in the wood, lye doesn't stop burning until you douse it with vinegar ... Now, does that sound like your idea of a good time?"

For the most part, I can not help but agree with him. Certainly, it is still a method for some. A mild solution of lye & water can quickly produce this warm honey amber color and effect. While lye is a short cut for sure to producing this honey pine effect in a very uniform way over pine, my suggestion would be to utilize more constructive woodworking techniques to antique or distress the finish.

Lye is not readily available, for all the appropriate reasons, but is a component of many drain cleaners - because it so readily burns organic matter,including your eyes and skin..

I've not experimented with these mild solutions myself, but for goodness sakes take the time to do so. If you decide to give it a try, don eyeglasses gloves etc etc and read the labels. Please dispose of any left over material. Can you imagine yourself forgetting what is in this jar, or some unsuspecting child getting into it ? Or how about your favorite dog's tail knocking this special solution over. Moving the car out of the way is a good idea too, this stuff spatters easy. My opinion is it is an accident waiting to happen, which is why you can't find it so easily. Lye is very nasty stuff around aluminum and some other household chemicals as well and causes toxic gas when mixed with some. Please check it all out first.

  • If you decide to give it a try:
    • Safety, safety and more safety. Safety glasses, gloves etc.
    • Prepare an area with safety in mind. Whether you intend to use vinegar or not have it around. It immediately neutralizes lye.
    • Use common household lye (if you can find it), mix 1 tbl sp. per qt / water, or mix 1 to 1 drain cleaner with water. Do so carefully. --a mild solution yes, but nothing is mild when you mess with this stuff.
    • Use a rag to apply, (a brush splatters) a rag folded and tied to a wooden ruler/yard stick allows for some distance from the body.
    • Start with a test piece. Checking timing, the solution quantity & strength for the desired results.
    • Apply to the surface. let set till it dries or desired time from your test, neutralize with vinegar to stop the process, wash down with water. Then let dry.
    • Wax out with the Briwax color of your choice, Light Brown is suggested. Don't forget that the Briwax shine is enhanced in luster & durability when used over Briwax Sanding Sealer.

    Check this product out - it may be a safer and easier solution to producing this effect. Click on this link : Briwax Stayn Wax - Liquid Wax



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