Focus on Finishes - Expanding the Palette
August 14, 2011 | 6:36 pm CDT
CWB May 2000



This round table is made of Honduras mahogany with a bleached madrone burl top. "It's a real stump-the-crowd piece," woodworker Arthur Reitmeyer says. "Everybody looks at it and says, GÇÿWhat's that? Is that bird's-eye? Is it stone?" Photo by Larry Rippel.
Expanding the Palette

Arthur Reitmeyer uses several chemical processes to increase his wood color choices.

By Greg Landgraf


When Arthur Reitmeyer is building a piece of furniture, he usually can find the color he needs occurring naturally in some species of wood. When that's not possible, however, he relies on chemical processes other than stains or dyes to increase his options and create interesting looks.

The chemical technique Reitmeyer uses most frequently is bleaching. He uses wood bleach, which is like household bleach but far more concentrated.

In addition to lightening the color of the wood, bleaching adds texture. "It's a real stump-the-crowd piece," Reitmeyer says, referring to a small round table built in Honduras mahogany with a bleached madrone burl top. "Everybody looks at it and says, GÇÿWhat's that? Is that bird's-eye? Is it stone?"

Reitmeyer bleaches a piece of veneer three to four times, stopping the action at the end by brushing the veneer with a wash of water and vinegar to neutralize the bleach and then blotting out the moisture.

He says that some veneers, particularly those with a lot of curl, tend to wrinkle. Reitmeyer uses a mix of glycerin, glue and water as a flattening agent to minimize the effect.

Reitmeyer can use several techniques to darken the color of wood. One of the first methods he learned was to take lye in granule form, dilute it highly in water and brush it on the piece. "The thing about lye is that it's really hard to control," Reitmeyer says. "You put it on and it starts changing colors before you can do anything to catch up with it." As a result, he now prefers other techniques.

A better one, he says, is using a dilute solution of potassium dichromate in water. The chemical is a strong oxidant that darkens wood, but Reitmeyer says it's easier to control than a lye-and-water solution.

The chemical is brushed onto a surface, which makes the technique most useful for panels or boards. On completed furniture, Reitmeyer says, he worries that the chemical could build up in corners.

For those completed pieces, Reitmeyer uses fuming, a process of exposing the wood to ammonia vapors. The ammonia reacts with the tannins in the wood to darken the piece. It also makes curls and grain variations more pronounced.

The process is fairly straightforward, Reitmeyer says. "It's just a matter of establishing an enclosed space where you can subject a piece of furniture to a large amount of ammonia gas. The rest of it is all within the wood."

Reitmeyer's setup for fuming isn't fancy: a sheet of plastic draped over two sawhorses. He puts the piece into the tent, adds ammonia in a shallow dish and closes off the tent by holding the plastic down on all sides with wood scraps. Smaller pieces can be fumed in even simpler setups, such as an overturned garbage can, as long as the enclosure is fairly air-tight to allow the ammonia fumes to build up and large enough so that the piece doesn't touch any of the sides.

In the fuming process, Reitmeyer uses a 30 percent ammonia solution purchased from a blueprint machine house. By contrast, household ammonia is usually a two to five percent solution. It would work for fuming, Reitmeyer says, but it would take much longer.

Response to ammonia varies dramatically among species. Mahogany, for example, gets a purplish cast, while red oak becomes a sickly green. White oak works especially well. "You get this warm brown color that looks like gothic church furniture," Reitmeyer says. As a result, fuming is associated with arts and crafts furniture, which historically used white oak extensively.

Reitmeyer says he prefers the fuming technique to stains or dyes, which he feels homogenize the wood surface and cause it to lose some of its inherent qualities. "The thing about fuming is, it's easy, it's relatively safe, and if you do test pieces, it's relatively foolproof," he says.

Safety, however, cannot be overemphasized when working with any of these techniques. "You want to be very cautious with them," Reitmeyer says. "All these processes involve nasty, nasty chemicals." A respirator, safety goggles, safety gloves, and excellent ventilation are all requirements to use these methods, he says. The chemicals used are strong enough to affect wood; they are certainly strong enough to cause irritation to humans.

Despite its advantages, fuming isn't Reitmeyer's first choice for finishing. "I use it sparingly as a means to alter the color of a piece when I know that I'm close, but need to take it just a bit further," he says. "For example, if the wood doesn't quite match a color that I want to get for a piece, whether to match the interior or just for effect."

The best option, Reitmeyer says, is to use wood that occurs naturally in the needed color. "There are woods that run the gamut of colors," he says. "When you get into any other process, it adds cost, and it's another process you have to deal with that's going to affect the piece. If you know a sure thing that's easier, of course you want to go that route."


The clients wanted this bedroom chest to match their stained mahogany bedroom furniture. By comparing samples, Reitmeyer and the customers found that bee's-wing andiroba matched the existing furniture without needing stain. The contrasting wood is unstained mahogany. Photo by Larry Rippel.
One of his current projects is an example of that. A customer asked him to build a blanket chest to match mahogany bedroom furniture that had been stained dark brown. Instead of attempting to match the staining, he brought wood samples to the client to compare to the existing furniture. During that process, they found that bee's-wing andiroba matched the color perfectly. The blanket chest also features unstained mahogany as a contrasting wood.

While he has built larger pieces in the past, Reitmeyer now builds mostly freestanding residential furniture like the blanket chest. The smaller pieces, ranging in price from about $1,000 to $8,000, are a better scale for his one-person shop.

Reitmeyer doesn't want to take on employees to help with larger jobs, and since his shop is next to his suburban Pittsburgh house, adding staff would require re-zoning. Instead, he sends larger jobs to other area woodworkers with the facilities and desire to handle them. "I think the client respects that you're trying to give them the best information and not trying to take advantage of a situation," he says. "I'd rather be a customer's advocate and give them the best solution."

He prefers building smaller pieces because they allow for more personal touches than large units. "You're buying less material and doing more with it," Reitmeyer says. "It's more fulfilling to add tapers, bevels and coves - fun things that are your own whimsical ideas."

Smaller pieces also are more conducive to the on-the-fly designing that Reitmeyer occasionally engages in. "You get a concept in your head and go at it with little more than that," he explains. "You end up finding things you wouldn't necessarily expect. It keeps you fresh."

Though not all of the pieces Reitmeyer builds using this method work out, many of the "experiments" do turn out to be salesworthy. When they're finished, he often has to go back and take measurements so he can make drawings and replicate the piece later.

Reitmeyer resists declaring a style for his work. He counts arts and crafts, nouveau, Chippendale and Sheraton among his interests, though the latter two more from a technical standpoint. He does, however, see design connections between pieces he builds. For example, he says facets or coves chase over almost every piece, in some form or another.

He makes those coves on a Delta Unisaw 10-inch tilting arbor saw by rotating the piece into the saw blade. With each pass, he raises the blade slightly, which deepens the curve.

Other equipment in the shop includes a Delta DJ-20 jointer, Jet 15-inch planer and Delta bandsaw. He built the shop three years ago; before that, he rented studio space.

Reitmeyer began woodworking as a second-year student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He was a sculpture major but took woodworking as an elective, encouraged by a professor who was open to the idea of viewing furniture as functional sculpture.

As a student, Reitmeyer says he aligned himself with local art organizations, which formed a significant part of his early client base. "When a gallery needed something built, they'd call me," he says. "It's not something to really brag about, but I've probably built half the pedestals in Pittsburgh.

"It's not a lot of money, but it's a really good connection," he adds. "You get to meet a lot of good people." Those galleries and museums made referrals to their benefactors, which helped Reitmeyer make the move into high-quality residential furniture. In addition, connections with the galleries gave him an inside track to be able to display his work there.

"Eventually you get to the point where you can tell people, no, I'm not going to build that. I'd rather build this and try to build my own designs, which has been my goal," he says. "Recently, over the past year and a half or so, I've been able to turn that corner, where I'm building exclusively my own designs."

Reitmeyer now builds about 24 to 30 pieces per year. Most of his customers are in Pittsburgh or its North Hills suburbs. Lead times vary; they run a minimum of four to six weeks, but are pushing out due to heavy workload.

Reitmeyer says he tries to build a bit of flexibility into his schedule. One reason is to be able to handle rush jobs, such as a mirror frame he built and shipped to Chicago for a client who wanted to give it to a couple at their wedding three weeks away.

The other reason is to be able to care for his three-year-old daughter. "I tend to be the stay-at-home dad whenever she's not at day care. So if she's sick and needs to go to the doctor, dad takes care of her and works in the evenings and weekends," Reitmeyer says. "I accommodate within my schedule - I'm real cautious about keeping a real tight schedule for that reason."


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