Two-Step Mission Finish

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This article is from Issue 20 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Originally, mission furniture was finished by exposing the piece to strong ammonia fumes. Gustav Stickley, the father of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, preferred fuming because of the way it mellowed white oak, accentuating the wood’s distinctive ray flecks without obscuring the surrounding grain. However, even Stickley admitted that fuming has its drawbacks. The process is dangerous, time-consuming, and inconsistent. Because of the presence of tannic acid within the wood, some boards react differently.  Blending in the patches that aren’t affected by ammonia is a frustrating task even for pro finishers. 

Accomplished West Virginia furniture maker Jim Probst (see his mission coffee table and end tables on the previous pages) achieves the mission look without the dangers, or disappointment associated with ammonia. His solution? Water-soluble dye. Dyes are not only safer to use, they can be applied with a brush or rag, and offer greater color control. Once applied, you can add or remove color from your project with a damp rag. Following the dye treatment, Jim seals the piece with several coats of Waterlox.

Applying a water-based dye is not much different than the oil stains you’re already used to. Here’s Jim’s tried and true technique for getting an authentic mission look without the fumes or fuss.

Mix the dye into hot water to ensure that the powder dissolves completely. Measuring carefully will make it easier to color-match future pieces.

Step 1: Using Water-Based Dye

Mix the dye. The 1 oz. bottle of powdered dye might not look like much, but there’s enough colorant in that small jar to make a half gallon or more of stain. For this project, Jim chose Homestead’s “mission brown” (see the Buying Guide, page 37).

To mix, simply add the powder to distilled, heated water and then stir it until it’s completely dissolved. Jim uses distilled water, as in Photo A, to avoid adding any color contaminants that might come from the tap.

When using a color for the first time, mix just a half-batch. Test the color on a sample board before starting your project. This way, you have extra powder in case you want to make the dye stronger. Alternately, you may choose to add more water for a lighter tone. (See “Dye by Design,” below.)

Use a damp white rag to lighten and blend dyed wood. In a pinch, you can also remove color with household bleach.

Pretreat the wood. A water-based dye will raise the grain of the wood. Before applying the dye, wipe the surface with a cloth dampened in distilled water. Once the surface has dried completely, cut off the raised fibers with 220-grit sandpaper.

Apply the dye. The real trick to applying dye is to work quickly. If the surface starts to dry out, you might end up with streaks or lap marks. Using a brush or rag, flood the surface, as shown in the opening photo. Once the project is uniformly saturated, wipe off the excess with a clean rag, then let the dye sit until it’s fully dry (eight hours or overnight).

Realize that the color of the dried wood is much duller than your final finish. (To get a better idea of how it will look when finished, try wiping on a coat of mineral spirits.) Now’s the time to inspect your work. To add more color, apply more stain, or mix a slightly stronger batch. To lighten color, simply rub the area with a clean damp rag, as in Photo B.

Stains vs. Dye

Dyes are the ultimate grain enhancers. Unlike stains that contain chunks of pigment designed to sit on the surface of the wood (like paint), a powdered dye dissolves into its carrier, enabling it to penetrate into the wood fibers. Dye particles are so small that light can pass through virtually unhindered. This transparency means that dyes can add color without obscuring the figure.

Used as an applicator for wiping varnish, steel wool serves double duty, spreading and smoothing the varnish at the same time.

Step 2: Using Waterlox

A wipe-on finish is easier to apply than lacquer, but keeps with the Stickley spirit. Like the thin finishes used on the original, Waterlox seals and protects Jim’s work without a thick plastic look. A big reason why he prefers wiping varnishes is that when it’s time for a touch-up, wipe-on’s can be reapplied without sanding.

Flood on the first coat.  Here’s Jim’s trick for building three day’s worth of finish in one day. Instead of wiping and walking away, spend an hour coating and recoating your work. The goal is to keep all the surfaces “wet” so that the wood absorbs as much finish as possible before it cures and seals the wood. At the end of the hour, wipe off any remaining puddles, and let dry overnight.

Apply three additional coats with 0000 steel wool. Waterlox does not require between-coat sandings, but as it dries, the finish may rise out of the wood pores. Using 0000 steel wool as his applicator pad, Jim discovered that he can erase these dried lumps and any remaining wood whiskers while applying the next coat, as in Photo C. Rub lightly so that you don’t cut through the thin finish. Wait 20 minutes to dry before wiping off any excess. Give each coat a day to cure before applying the next.

Dye by Design

To get a different look from the same dye, simply adjust the water-to-powder ratio. If you’re not interested in the classic dark mission look, just add water. Diluting the mix will still highlight the grain while offering a lighter, contemporary look. Because dye dulls when dry, you should apply a topcoat before making your final color decision.


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