Full Chisel Blog

July 31, 2008

Modern Finishes (& Glues) are Crap!

Filed under: Finishing,Hide Glue,Restoration,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 10:15 pm

Modern finishes are crap for a variety of reasons, most importantly they are rigid inflexible films that will de-laminate when the wood moves.  They cloud the surface with a petroleum distillate based plastic coating that does nothing to enhance the look nor provide real lasting protection.




I have used modern finishes during those moments when I was required to do so, but when I have a choice, which now is all the time, I choose traditional finishes as I do traditional woodworking and I restore antiques so I have to use traditional finishes.  Using modern finishes and glues will greatly reduce the value of antiques and modern finishes and glues only have 50 to 60 years of history, shellac goes way back and hide glue to paleo times.



They have failed to synthesize shellac or hide glue and the modern varnishes, lacquers (not to be confused with real lacquer, Rhus vernicifera) and modern glues are weak attempts to improve upon the past.  The problem is there was no need for improvement.  The only need was to make those things cheaper, which they did after WWII.  With the introduction of poly vinyl chloride, poly urethane and other nasty hydrocarbons, were cheaper to make than going out and collecting shellac or making glue from hides.



Well cheaper is usually never better, and with the increase of a barrel of oil (not linseed, walnut or whale) going up we shall see.  And there are dangers in the manufacture of PVC and other complex petrochemicals, to the workers who make it and people who live near these chemical manufactories.



The problem with the plastic film finishes is that they are not flexible and can not move.  And of course wood moves, so a finish that does not move with the wood will de-laminate and flake off.  They are particularly susceptible to moisture and can trap it underneath the surface and cause mold, fungus and other damage.



The problem with plastic glues is the very same thing they don’t move, but do creep, clog up tools with swarf, interfere with stains and finishes, ruin your clothing, are a pain to clean up, are impossible to re-glue or reverse and are generally nasty.



Now of course I am a traditional woodworker, so traditional finishes and traditional glues are a natural and restoring antiques require the use of proper tools, materials and techniques, so as not to cause any damage, change history or screw things up.



Is anything more shiny than a French Polished surface?  I think not.  Is there a finer first treatment for wood than linseed oil?   Well maybe Walnut Oil.  Is there a finer varnish than a good Copal Oil Varnish, nay I say.  Although I am courting Turpentine Varnish and hope to make up some Mastic and Burgundy Pitch Varnish in the near future, as soon as I get the Tinsmith to make up a couple of tin varnish cans.



There are hundreds and hundreds of old recipes for traditional furniture finishes, paints, varnishes, stains, dyes, fumes and treatments for wood that should provide a sufficient number of options to keep one busy for years.  These old methods need to be preserved instead of ‘replaced’ by cheap crap. 



The new finishes are ‘dead’, they have no life, they do nothing to ‘pop’ the grain of the wood, they just lay there in a dull haze (with a slight blue tint) and obscure the true nature of the wood.  And of course not being able to move will flake off when the wood moves, because wood moves.



How does this relate to modern woodworking?  Well the wood is still the same.  It still behaves as it did 100 or 200 or 400 or 800 or 64,000 years ago, it is still wood.  And there are finishes that are hundreds and hundreds of years old that are still in good condition.  The introduction of modern finishes and glues is recent and that is when all of the trouble started.



We are an arrogant breed, we think that we can do things better, and of course there are things that I am happy have gotten better, water quality and antiseptics at the top of my list.  But when it comes to woodworking, it reached its zenith in the mid nineteenth century, continued somewhat through the Industrial Revolution then continued to diminish until the mid 20th century and the introduction of petrochemical alternatives.





I am sorry for beating around the bush on this issue, straddling the fence and vacillating between indecision and not being able to make up my mind or being wishy-washy, I think this is important.






  1. Hi Stephen,

    Another thought provoking and informative post! Thanks!

    When it comes to glues, I must admit I have used nothing but the PVA glue and I am quite happy with it. I have never had an opportunity to use hide glue and I would like to try it sometime.

    With finishes however, I have never been happy with anything I have done so far. Now I mostly use tung oil and varnish blends. Do you know of any reference sources for finishes? How does one (a weekend woodworker) go about learning this craft and sidestep the pseudo progress?


    Comment by Praki Prakash — August 1, 2008 @ 2:58 am

  2. You have to admit, Stephen, that hide glue does have a drawback – its susceptibility to water. If you were building a boat, would you use hide glue to stick it together?
    Are you as fond of liquid hide glue as you are of hot hide glue?


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — August 1, 2008 @ 6:38 am

  3. Praki,

    You should really start using hide glue right away to insure the pieces you make will last. It is great stuff and I will soon have my book done on Hide Glue. As for finishes that are available I use exterior grade spar varnish (McCloskey’s) in gloss, I seldom use their satin or matt grades. Mixed with oil and rubbed on with a rag is about a good a finish as you can get. I have been working with old varnish recipes, I have an 1824 recipe book, I intend to reprint. Wow I have a lot of work to do.


    I wouldn’t use hide glue on a boat because any boat I might build doesn’t require glue. The fact that hide glue has a modulus of rupture slightly less than epoxy but is not waterproof. Being waterproof is not a normal requirement for furniture. If the joint gets wet enough to effect the glue, the furniture is probably floating away in the flood.

    There are also several things that can be done to hide glue to make it waterproof, so there is no real reason not to use the stuff. And I am a fan of liquid hide glue, it is handy to use so more beginners can easily give it a try and it is readily available.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 1, 2008 @ 7:01 am

  4. I have been trying more and more to get away from the modern glues and materials myself and I couldn’t be happier with the results. I no longer use anything but hide glue on my furniture. I think it is great stuff. The biggest problem I have seen with hide glue is the misinformation about it that has been propogated for so long. This has made new woodworkers very hesitant to use it. In my using it I have found the temperature and ratio of glue to water to not be very important and I am not very scientific about it. As long as it’s warm enough but not burned, you’re good to go. There’s no need to measure the temperature and struggle to keep the pot at precisely 140.12673 degrees. And there’s no need to measue exact quantities of glue and water. If it’s too thin, let some water evaporate out or add a little dry glue. If it’s too thick add a little water. About the only thing I use P VA glue for now is shop appliances that need to be glued and only because it’s faster than heating up the glue pot and I don’t have any liquid hide glue. Besides, these items are disposable anyway.

    As for finishes, I not yet seen any modern finish that can match the pop of a good oil finish or the shine of a well done french polish. Sometimes, there’s just no need to make any improvements. As for waterproofness (is that a word), I prefer to use the proper wood for outdoor items (cypress, cedar, redwood, etc.). These woods don’t need a finish so the finish’s ability to be waterproof is irrelevant. And outdoor items should be designed not to need glue. Any piece that is put together with good solid traditional joinery needs no more than the joinery to hold it together. No glue is really required. Take post and beam construction for example. No glue, all traditional joinery and these buildings have lasted through all mother nature has thrown at them over the last several hundred years. You can’t say that about modern stick frame construction methods.

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — August 1, 2008 @ 9:03 am

  5. I’m with you, Stephen.

    Now I’m wondering: do you think modern stains are inferior? When a stain says it contains petroleum products, is that a bad thing (like, should it be all linseed-based)? And while I’m at it, do you have any recipes for making a nice rosy stain or a white stain? I generally try to avoid stains, but working with antique wood, sometimes it turns nearly black when you apply oil to it, so I have to mix some combination of white and red with the oil to lighten the wood back to its original color. Want to write an article about this?

    Comment by Joe Cottonwood — August 1, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  6. Bob,

    Throw away that PVC glue and get a bottle of liquid hide glue (Patrick Edward’s Old Brown Glue is the best) and use that stuff. It was 97 degrees (F) in my shop today and I glued up some little end-grain repairs in a spinning wheel bobbin and they were dry enough to work after 2 hours. I also glued up a broken butter churn lid and mixed up some alum and water to thin the glue and make it waterproof. Well I put in a bit too much alum on the first batch, when I added the hide glue and begin to mix it with a spatula, it turned into a sticky knot. Thinking it would be thin with the water alum, I was surprised, then laughed, I had tanned the hide glue and it was turning back into leather. (Well I thought it was funny). The second batch was good about 8% alum to the glue.


    Yes modern stains are the same crap but ground finer. I will write an article about this because it is so easy and cheap, and you know I am into cheap. I use dry powdered pigments, available from any pottery or ceramics supply house, I have an excellent local source. The pigments are dirt cheap, oh wait they are dirt. You can mix them with oil, shellac, gum Arabic (water base), spirits, varnish or anything else. And they are by and large safe, although I can buy lead in various forms. There are about 5 colors you need to do all staining.

    Thanks for your comments.

    One point I have to make is that when working on the spinning wheel I noticed something and came up with a rather clever phrase that I would like to share: The only good thing about modern finishes is that they are not that good. I was able to easily scrape off that wiped on plastic crap with my fingernail, although I used a putty knife.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 1, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

  7. “. . . usually never . . .”?

    Comment by Phil Lang — August 1, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

  8. Phil,

    Anything I can buy cheaper is usually always better! I was speaking of hide glue in particular as well as shellac and copal and sandarac and amber. I apologize for the generalization.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 1, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

  9. Thanks Stephen. I do plan to get the liquid hide glue, I just don’t have a local supplier of Patrick Edwards stuff. I don’t order online/catalog that often and it pains me to pay shipping just for the glue. I do have a Woodcraft close by that carries the Titebond liquid hide glue. Ever used it? How does it compare?

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — August 1, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  10. Stephen,

    I don’t have any experience with it, but it seems to me that hide glue wouldn’t prematurely lock up a joint before you get it where you want it. Using a pva, if I don’t get that tenon set immediately, I find myself pounding the joints together with all my might. I’m a novice woodworker; however I can’t believe I’m alone in this. Would you use hide glue to laminate a bench top? Regarding the life of modern finishes and glues, I’ve never really thought about where my projects would be in 100 years. In some cases, maybe the modern glue is a good thing. 😀 Maybe building for and audience 100 years from now would be just the motivator I need.

    I’d like to hear more about traditional finishes. I like oils and finishes that I can rag on; they lend well to my small home shop. What do you think of modern paints? They’re pretty flexible. What did they use 100 years ago?


    Comment by Jason — August 1, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

  11. Many many moons past I earned extra $$ as an undergraduate by repairing old furniture. And still wish I had had the forethought to buy up all that Mission stuff that went cheap. But I digress. Any time I came upon plastic finishes and PVA adhesives, the price either went up, or I refused the job. Give me a good 19th C shellac or varnish finish, hide glue and I was set. A little drop or two of benzine (ok, so we played fast and furious with chemicals in the 1970’s, potassium permanganate anyone?)and the glue became brittle. A little steam and it went poof. Finishes could be restored or replaced with some ease, as the customer wanted.

    Now, if it comes to it, I would rather inhale the vapors of shellac than of an acrylic finish. As for hide glue… why do we need a glue that is so much stronger than the wood substrate? If I need to sister a joist, I’ll use construction adhesive and a nailgun. If I want to repair a piece of furniture, give me hide glue. I’ld rather the glue fail than the wood fracture and rip if it comes to that.

    Now to look up some decent 19th C books on finishes and adhesives…


    Comment by Gary Roberts — August 2, 2008 @ 1:19 am

  12. Jason:
    Your problem with the mortise and tenon joints seizing might be caused by you putting the glue on the tenon. The glue is water-based and will cause the tenon to expand. This is a good thing in the general scheme of things, but if it expands before you get the tenon into the mortise then you might have a hard time of it. Just avoid putting glue on the end-grain of the tenon and that will probably help.


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — August 2, 2008 @ 6:28 am

  13. Bob,

    A friend of mine buys a 5 gallon can of Franklin/Titebond glue once a year when they manufacture the glue (they will not well it at other times of the year in 5 gallon cans) and I get a gallon from him, which I use all the time. I would use Patrick’s more often if I could get larger quantities. It is a good glue as is the Fish Glue that Lee Valley sells.


    With hide glue either hot or liquid it is important to cover all joining surfaces with glue in order to ‘wet’ the surface. Hide glue always acts as a lubricant when putting joints together and I have never had a problem with it swelling the joints, and some (qualification) of my joints are very tight. When I am gluing I do it quickly from habit, so there is little chance for the wood to swell up.

    As for finishes, it looks like I need to write something.


    How about hot glue gun glue? That always increased the price as did any modern glue or finish. And we can rest assured that the work we did was in keeping with the original and are faithful to the intentions of the originating craftsman, didn’t obscure the history that the pieces have to teach. I learned about old furniture by repairing it in my shop. When you can see the camber of the blade used to ‘smooth’ the bottoms and backs, the occasional wood blossom, identifies the type of hammer they used or the arrant saw kerf on a dovetail, all contribute to our understanding of the past.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 2, 2008 @ 8:37 am

  14. Modern glues don’t bother me. My major peeve is the nail-gun. Those little wire brads that get fired into furniture by the pound are a huge hassle to remove.
    I once helped a friend of mine (a cabinetmaker) fix a piece of furniture for a customer. They’d bought it at one of those ‘Mennonite furniture’-type places. This was a one-piece buffet and hutch, and the back of it was 6′ wide, 7′ high, and one solid glued panel of 3/4″ red oak. I kid you not. One solid panel. That big. Of RED OAK. Needless to say after only six months it was cracking all over the place, and my friend wanted to remove the back, rip it into 6′ wide strips, tongue and groove the strips, then put it back together. Doesn’t sound too bad, eh?
    I spent two days pulling HUNDREDS of wire brads out of that thing. It was a nightmare. They’re brittle as all get-out so you have to be really careful pulling them or they’ll snap off inside the wood. It was brutal.


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — August 2, 2008 @ 10:32 am

  15. Hi Stephen,
    I like your blog.
    I also like the oil finish. Althoug I’m french I never tried “French Polish” (but we say shoe maker have the worst shoes themselves right 🙂 )

    Here are some of my thoughts (could talk hours about all these subjects …)

    I agree with you that traditional and natural finishes are really nice. They’re not only efficient, as we’re able to see some really old furniture, but also really better for our health ! Most of the time they’re also cheap. One thing important to me is that also most of the time they can be reversed or completed. I mean, you can always get back to your piece of furniture and put some new oil coat on it. If you had it paint …. Then you should remove the old paint before (I’m not even talking about poly urethan finish ….)

    The stains ! I never had the idea to use them, like that ! You raised my interest for them. Even though I knew, natural powder stains were by far superior to other. For me the real reason is that (no one said it in the comments ) they last for centuries ! All the paints (even in prehistorical age, or great paintings for middle-ages) using these are still there. It resists very well to the light because the colour ain’t chemical or of any kind of chemical reaction, it’s in it !. My neighbour uses them for photography, they’re great.

    Also I’m writing this because I’m higlhy interested in the reprints of your “book of recipes for finishing” and also for the book about “hide glue”.

    Best Regards.

    Comment by Graween — August 7, 2008 @ 9:09 am

  16. Graween,

    Thanks for your comments, yeah I could talk about this stuff for hours too. The advantage of mixing your own stains is you can mix it thinner for end-grain and thicker for side grain so the ends don’t get too dark. I control this by putting linseed oil on first and allowing it to dry, then staining over that it helps the stain from going too dark on end-grain.

    I will let you know about the books.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 7, 2008 @ 9:27 am

  17. I tried Old Brown Glue. My shop is 63-68 degrees and the glue appears darn near useless in those conditions. I heated the glue up in 130 deg water and brushed it on. The open time was not more than 5 minutes. I consulted a bit with Patrick Edwards and he mentioned that hot hide glue would be even worse in these conditions.

    Is titebond better?

    Is Lee Valley’s fish glue similar to hide glue? Does it have the same benefits as hide glue such as being easy to repair? They claim a long open time and told me it would work at 65 deg. But I haven’t tried it yet.

    My dining table has some very weak finish on it (lacquer?) that gets soft and has turned white in some places, and is generally in bad shape. So I have to refinish my dining room table and while I prefer to use just plain shellac when possible, I just don’t see how shellac could hold up to abuse from the family. Sure, it can be repaired, but I’d rather not have to repair the table every 3 months. The traditional solution appears to be to cover up the table with a table pad or table cloth or the like to protect the finish. (I assume that these are the circumstances where the finish will last hundreds of years.) But then what’s the point of having a nice cherry table? Am I missing something here? (When I don’t think I can get away with shellac alone I still use shellac first. Then I top coat with a a high gloss modern finish and rub out to a satin sheen. I think this generally comes out looking pretty good, neither hazy nor blue.)

    Comment by Adrian — March 24, 2009 @ 6:55 am

  18. Adrian,

    At that temperature you don’t have much time to work Old Brown Glue. If the glue and the wood is heated up you get more open time. Titebond/Franklin liquid hide glue will work better at lower conditions. And the fish glue that Lee Valley is also an excellent adhesive.

    At the temperatures you are working at hot hide glue has about 30 seconds open time, so Patrick was right.

    I like a shellac finish and when they need additional protection, I use McCloskeys Marine Spar Varnish, usually applied with a rag. It is much more difficult to use than modern finishes but gives a much better finish. It takes a while to dry, so dust can be a problem.

    I still think modern finishes look dead, I have not seen one I would ever put on anything I make.

    Good Luck and thanks for your comments.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — March 24, 2009 @ 7:11 am

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