A Singer and Shellac Finish

By Bernie Bottens | Posted: 11/29/2012 9:52AM

 

Bernie Bottens woodworkingnetwork wood finishing My buddy Chuck called me the other day and asked me to help out with a project. His wife, Kate, had lost her mother earlier in the year. When her mom’s estate was divided up, Kate got her mom’s Singer treadle sewing machine. It all works but its finish is in pretty bad shape.

The top, in particular, is not looking good. Obviously, there has been water damage to that surface. It’s not surprising. Most people who had a nice sewing machine cabinet around the house usually used it as a piece of furniture when it was not being used for its intended purpose. It often made a great place to put the flower arrangement. Flowers require water. Water and early 20th century finishes didn’t get along well.

click image to zoom Frank, a.k.a. The Duke of DuraVar, and one of my antique gurus tells me that shellac was the usual finish applied to Singer sewing machines back in the teens of the previous century. Shellac and water don’t make a good combination. However, shellac does make a beautiful finish.

I will probably take a few weeks to go through the process of sharing my experiences of stripping and refinishing this cabinet. I hope that you find this helpful to you.

I spent about an hour removing all the screws that held the case to the cast iron base and to take apart the different components in the cabinet. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many slotted wood screws! But this type of fastener was the norm for at least the first half of the 20th century. Mr. Phillips’ invention didn’t come into common usage until the second half of the century.

Chuck had hoped that all we would need to do was to refinish the top. But when I took the cabinet apart, I discovered that almost 100 years of use had taken its toll on this cabinet. I found that there are a number of glue joints that have failed. There are more than a fewmiscellaneousnails that were driven to hold the drawer units together. Those will be removed, the joints re-glued, and the nail holes will be filled. After that, we get down to business stripping the old finish.

I had conversation with my buddy Dave about how to strip this project. Dave’s resume includes years in the furniture refinishing trade. He and I went back and forth as to what the right chemical stripper might be. I was proposing lacquer thinner. At the time I was unaware of Frank’s tip that shellac was the finish of choice. The interesting thing that came out of both guys was that they have or had their own special blends that they used to stip. Dave used equal parts of methanol, toluene, and acetone. Frank’s recipe is two parts toluene, one part methanol, and one part acetone. How’s that for interesting? These two don’t even know each other. Yet, they have come up with essentially the same stripper recipe!

Some of you are going to ask why I just don’t go out and get a gallon of stripper and get with it. That’s an honest question and I don’t know if I have a great answer. I do know that shellac is easily dissolvable with alcohol. If I use a product with a good dose of methanol in it, I should do just fine. Also, strippers are thick because paraffin is added to it. Wax and finishing don’t go well together. So after using stripper, one has to take the time to be sure all that wax is removed from the wood before proceeding. A bath in lacquer thinner is prescribed. Lacquer thinner, a chemical stew, contains toluene, alcohol, and, in some cases, acetone.

F.YI., that paraffin is there to keep the active ingredient in the stripper from evaporating. Due to its high evaporation rate, the paraffin acts as a blanket to keep it on the surface so that it can do what it’s supposed to do…besides flying off into the atmosphere.

I’m sure that this is going to be an interesting project so please stay tuned over the next weeks. I plan to go through the process with you and tell you the tips I have learned from “The Duke” and Dave on how to refinish this cabinet. I need to have it done in time for Christmas so I’m off now to the garage. I’ll catch up with you in a week.

Until next time…spray on!


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About the Author

Bernie Bottens

Bernie Bottens (WoodworkingNetwork.com/blogs)writes and teaches on the subject of wood and wood finishing in industrial woodworking. He and his wife, Carol, live in Vancouver, WA. Bernie has been teaching wood finishing to shop owners, shop foremen, spray technicians and finishers all over Oregon, southwest Washington, and northern California for the past 9 years. Prior to that, he owned his own cabinet shop. His shop credentials include apprenticing and becoming a journeyman exhibit builder. Before that he taught in the public schools for 20 years. Bernie is the owner of Kapellmeister Enterprises, Inc. and Kap Coatings Consulting. Reach him at kapenterprises@msn.com.

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