Finishing Quartersawn White Oak

This week’s question comes from Jeff. He writes:

I am almost complete on my commission of a quartersawn oak barrister cabinet. I am now ready to apply the finish and am looking for a way to make the ray flecks really “pop”. The customer is looking for a medium color in the white oak. If you were building this cabinet, how would you go about making the ray flecks really stand out?

And here was my reply:
“There is no doubt in my mind that the best way to make the ray flecks “pop” is to do a classic ammonia-fumed finish. First order of business is to attain some aqua ammonia. I got mine from a local pool/spa supply but many people have luck going to a blueprint supply house. You need to build some sort of airtight (or near airtight) tent outside. Do not be tempted to do this indoors. I usually drape plastic sheeting over the project and make something that resembles a tent. If you can build some sort of makeshift frame that would be even better. But build the tent in such a way that you have one access point that you can occasionally open and close. Now before going any further, we need to discuss safety. Aqua ammonia is dangerous stuff. Without the proper precautions things can go badly real fast. So you will absolutely need a respirator with an ammonia-filtering cartridge, sealed eye goggles, and gloves. Its a good idea to cover all exposed skin as well. Pour the ammonia into a shallow pan or two and place these inside your tent. You also want to put a test piece of scrap wood in the tent as well. This is your color indicator. Seal everything up and wait about an hour or so. Pull out your test board and see if the color is where you want it. The color change happens gradually and depending on how well sealed your tent is, you could hit your desired color as fast as an hour. So check the board every hour or so (with your protective gear still one). But the idea is to catch it at just the right color and remove the ammonia. Then open up the tent (with your protective gear still on), and let the wood air out. You are probably best off leaving it outside overnight. The color will appear a bit grayish. Don’t worry, it will look beautiful once we add some finish. Here is my finish schedule: one coat of amber or orange dewaxed shellac (2lb cut) to seal the surface. Sand lightly with 320. Then apply a dark brown glaze and wipe off the excess. This will put a nice dark color into all of the open pores. Let dry overnight. The next day, apply another coat of the shellac to seal in the color. Then for some extra protection, I like to add a few coats of a wipe-on varnish. When its all done, the finish should look something like this: Q-Sawn Hall Table

Now if you are even slightly uneasy about working with the ammonia, consider some of the other finishes that are designed to mimic the fumed look. Here is a great example: Jeff Jewitt’s Mission Oak Finish

Category: Finishing

Comments

  1. Tim May 16, 2007

    The Jeff Jewitt finish is the way I am most familiar with when dealing with quarter sawn wood, looks very nice in my opinion. I like the look of the hall table as well. What exactly is the ammonia doing to the wood? Almost looks like it has a bleaching effect of the grain of the quarter saw that would normally be dark.

  2.  

    As I understand it, the ammonia fumes react with the tannic acid in the wood. And the tannic acid levels are very low in the area of the medullary ray flecks. This means they stay a milky white color while the rest of the piece darkens. This is why I prefer this type of finish over the “fuming substitutes”. Most other finishes simply layer color on top of the wood, which will darken up the flecks. Fuming changes the color within the wood, and has little/no effect on the flecks at all.

  3. Tim May 17, 2007

    Interesting! Does this only work with quarter saw or could you do this with anigre and get similar effects?

  4.  

    Its really something specific to woods that have high levels of tannic acid. If I remember correctly, someone over at the WWA forum did an experiment testing various woods and the effect of fuming. Many of the woods changed. But usually not if a favorable way. :)
    So I would stick with white oak.

  5. Joe December 11, 2007

    Mark, What would be the lowest temperature one could fume white oak in? The temps have been from 30-40 F. Any idea what effect the cold has on the color?

  6.  

    Hey Joe. To be honest, Im not sure how much temperature affects the color change. The ammonia gas, which should be present at just about any temperature, reacts with the acid in the wood. I imagine temperature could slow things down a bit, but I would think it would still work. The only way to find out is to test it. Just place a small piece of scrap in a cooler outside with a small dish of ammonia and check it once in a while.
    Let me know what you find out.

  7. I am getting ready to finish some quarter sawn white oak plate racks for my dining room. We have other red oak in the room, and we like to keep everything mostly the same color. It’s 50% Minwax Sedonna red mixed with 50% English Chestnut penetrating stain. The result is a warm brownish-red that is perfect for our house.

    If you use the ammonia vapor treatment, do you also use the stain? Is that something you would do before or after the ammonia treatment?

    My idea is to create a piece that has the same color as the other oak, but with the contrasting grain marks that are so characteristic for quarter sawn oak.

  8.  

    Hey Don. To tell you the truth, you run the risk of have an oddball piece of furniture if you try something different on this one. And Im not sure the results would really justify taking the risk. When you apply stain after fuming, the stain tends to obscure the grain a bit anyway.

    In the past, I have done a light fuming, followed by a coat of glaze. The glaze fills and darkens the pores and evens out the surface color, without really darkening the ray flecks. So I do add color AFTER fuming. Although I am sure you could fume after if you prefer.

    But again, on this piece, Im not sure its worth the risk since you are doing a color match.

    Good luck.

  9. kevin April 7, 2010

    so are you saying that i stain it after i put it in the fume tent?? or are you saying i mix the amonia with my stain?? or do i stain it then do the fume thing??

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer April 7, 2010

      If you are going to add any extra color at all, I would do it after fuming. That way you can decide just how much color to add based on the results of the fuming. And I definitely wouldn’t recommend mixing the ammonia with your stain.

  10. Ross August 27, 2010

    Hey Marc

    I Think you are a total woodworking G. I have two questions about this process I hope you may have an answer to. I am having a devil of a time finding ammonia stronger than 10%. Can I use the weaker solution and just leave the piece in the chamber longer? Also the piece I am working on has a quarter sawn white oak vaneer. Is there enough tanic acid in the vaneer for this process to work?

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer August 27, 2010

      Hey Ross. I had to special order the ammonia through a pool supply store. That might be a good start if you really want the strong stuff. And I have heard of people using regular household ammonia, but not necessarily in a tenting situation. They actually brush the solution directly onto the wood. Experiment on scraps before you do this and make sure you have really good ventilation and a respirator. Should work fine on the veneer.

  11. Dave September 28, 2010

    I’m considering putting in a quatersawn white oak wood floor. Can I use the technique Jeff Jewitt uses to stain the floor?

    How is the durability of this? If not ideal, could I cover it with a final coat of Bona Traffic or something that stands up well to traffic?

    Any guidance is greatly appreciated as I don’t want to make a mistake with the floor.

  12. Josh October 26, 2010

    Marc,

    While we’re talking finishes, I’d be interested in seeing a post on cost-saving materials that can be substituted in at key points in a project, but that can be finished in such a way that they’ll look consistent with the more expensive materials. Case-in-point: I’m in the planning stages for a quartersawn white oak bookcase, but I’m wondering where I can get away with less expensive materials (even white oak plywood is expensive and hard to come by in my area). I’ll use quality white oak hardwood on faceframes and drawer fronts, but can I switch to riftsawn in some places without making things too ugly? Is there a similar, cheaper wood that I can employ in some spots?

    Looking for solutions that (1) won’t be immediately apparent to non-woodworkers and (2) won’t cause woodworkers to resent my thriftiness. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    •  

      Good idea for a topic. Rift sawn and even flat sawn wood will work for the non-critical areas. Face-frames, table tops, door panels, drawer fronts, etc….are really the most important parts that you would want to highlight with quarter sawn stock. For everything else you can most likely get away with the cheaper cuts.

      As for wood species substitutes, that is something that will vary from project to project. For white oak, you could always experiment with red oak. Especially if you are using dye or stain to enhance the piece, the red oak could blend in rather well.

      • Brad April 16, 2011

        If mixing quartersawn WO with rift- or flatsawn WO in the non-critical areas, don’t you need to be concerned with different rates of wood movement if these parts are joined?

        I’m building an arts-and-crafts style stand for flatscreen TV, 18″ deep, with sides, top, bottom, doors, drawerfronts, and some vertical dividers of qtrsawn white oak. It also has a horizontal divider 4″ below the top (drawers go in between the two), and all that shows of this divider is the front edge 3/4″ thick. I considered using cheaper cuts of WO for this, but it has stub tenons on each end that fit into mortises in the sides. I’ve read where rift- or flatsawn WO can expand as mucn as 1/4″ more than qtrsawn over a distance of 12 – 14″ or so, so I was afraid to mix the two where they would be glue-joined.

        Thanks.

  13. Tim December 16, 2010

    Hi Marc,
    Should the container be completely sealed? Would there be a build up of gases that could unexpectedly open violently? The last thing I would want is a blast of ammonia everywhere even though it would be outside.

    However, if it were sealed it would fume much quicker I think. My project is a burial flag case and I think it will fit into one of those storage totes with a lid. Do you think that would be a good container to use?

    Tim

    •  

      I would seal the tent as good as you can, but there will always be leaks. And I can’t imagine the gas producing enough pressure to actually cause a violent opening of any sort.

      And yes, it will fume MUCH faster if the seal is good, so thinks like coolers and storage totes will work rather well. Although a tote still may leak quite a bit of gas so I’d still keep it outside.

  14. Aaron A January 2, 2011

    Hey everyone!

    I had success using household ammonia a while back. Instead of using plastic sheeting, I found a huge clear plastic bag, like the kind used to cover a shipping pallet. You can build a frame out of some 1x to support the plastic. The smaller the area inside the tent the better, the ammonia will be more concentrated that way. I put my white oak in the tent along with a big bowl of the ammonia then closed it up. I just left it in overnight, but you may want to check it more frequently.

  15. Nancy February 18, 2011

    Monocoat has a fuming product that gives that ammonia look without the dangerous fumes.

  16. Just wondering if anyone knows if you can use the ammonia over and over again, or must it be tossed after a fuming session. I have fumed several pieces with the same half gallon, but my last piece just stopped changing color no matter how long I left it in the tent.

  17. Howard August 11, 2011

    What is the best way to fix barber poling on dark stained rift white oak veneer?

  18. Steve January 26, 2012

    Hi Marc,

    Can you tell us what Brown Glaze product you used. I just ordered some Ammonium Hydroxide from ArtChemicals.com to finish my new Morris chair I’m building, and I’d like to follow your finishing process. The finish you have on that hall table look awesome!

    Thanks!

  19. Larry C February 3, 2012

    Does anyone have experience or a recommendation for finishing quarter sawn RED oak in a Mission style coffee table? I took a class at Woodcraft in Columbus, OH building a mission coffee table in white oak… but when I got there the lumber was RED oak. If I go for a dark brown color (ie. – Mahogany) could I make future projects in white oak match it fairly closely? Should the surface have a top coat like poly, etc. for water rings? (So far, I only have experience applying blonde shellac.)

    {If traditional mission finishing is a bad choice for red oak… the other woods in my living room are: Rosewood speakers, walnut infrared heater, black entertainment center, cherry rowing machine.}

    Thanks

    •  

      Hi Larry. If you are going that dark with the stain, you probably won’t be able to notice much difference between red and white oak. And yes, I would say poly is a nice durable finish for a coffee table. I’m a big fan of Arm-R-Seal as it wipes on easily with a cotton rag.

  20. Alex March 11, 2012

    Hi Mark,

    I read some time ago that by rusting a penny in vinegar (producing a copper acetate I believe), and applying the solution after about a week of oxidation, you could darken the wood by some reaction with the tanins. I’ve tried this about a year ago and it made a scrap piece of cherry almost completely black which I thought was pretty cool but I’ve never used this on anything else since (I just want to mention that my penny had been about three months in the vinegar though). Have you ever heard of this technique and have you ever used it? Could this be used instead of the ammonia treatment? Also, if you know anything more about this technique, could you describe it and give some uses for it?

    Thanks

    Alex

    • Alex March 11, 2012

      Hello again,

      I think I made a mistake, I believe it was an iron nail that I put in the vinegar instead of the penny.

      Thanks again.

      Alex

    •  

      Yeah that’s an old finishers trick from way back. Its a good way to get a dark color without having to use commercial dyes and stains. But I haven’t ever really used it myself. If you are interested in using it, I would suggest trying different solutions with different amounts of metal with different soaking times. See what kind of variations you can come up with and how they look on different woods. Also, consider using something like steel wool for a faster reaction.

  21. Steven March 11, 2012

    Hi Alex,
    I have a jug of vinegar that had a piece of steel wool in it that I was going to use for aging some wood for a rustic finish. I was experimenting with some fuming and thought I would try that solution on my white oak. I found the results extremely undesirable. Even with the thinnest solution it still turned the oak a very nasty black color, not at all suitable for a fine A and C finish. Fuming can be harsh, but it gives a much nicer result. If you don’t want to fume, there are numerous recipes out there that also give a nice result. I used a formula from Jeff Jewitt that has worked well- a base of honey amber aniline followed by a dark walnut gel stain, couple coats of extra pale shellac, three coats of poly.

  22. Ted Bloomer April 17, 2012

    I have fumed quartersawn red and white oak. The white looks much better. I have stained after fuming and the outcome is brilliant. I have used dark walnut as a stain and the finish is spectacular. I have converted to white oak only. I only do the Stickley styles and once in a while do a little inlay and combo of the early 1900 designs. I peg everything and try to use Corbels when possible. Hope you all enjoy the great oaks as I do.

  23. Frank May 30, 2012

    Mr. TheWoodWhisperer,

    My name is Frank. You don’t know me but I’m your biggest fan. I like Dunkin Donuts and Festool too. We should hang out sometime.

    I was going to channel some Adam Sandler as in “The Housesitter” there but I thought it might turn out too creepy and you wouldn’t pay attention to the rest. Anyway, I’m planning a wedding present for my brother in law, it will be a sliding dovetail bench. It will be nothing fancy, but I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to let the beauty of the wood shine, and just today as I was looking through the racks at my local hardwood dealer and I came across this wonderous stuff called quarter sawn white oak! Duh! Anyway, I just today decided to keep the design simple and use QSWO and fume it. So I jumped onto your website to search the archives for ideas, found this page, read the article, clicked on the links, and found myself taking an unwanted journey through Flickr until it felt too much like stalking, then came back here to type this comment. I had a point I was going to make or a question I was going to ask, but I totally forgot what that was. One thing I am finding interesting is that it seems that while we all try to keep finishing as simple as possible by fuming we are bringing the complicated back into it. Would the end result be desireable if I just fumed my QSWO then slapped some BLO onto it followed by a topcoat of clear varnish or poly or something? Also, what exactly is a glaze? Maybe it’s been too long since I refreshed myself on finishing and terminology, but I can’t for the life of me remember what a glaze is.

  24. Peter July 10, 2012

    I finished fuming a piece of quartersawn white oak and a corner did not react to the fumes it stayed white. I plan on staining the piece how can I get the white area to match the rest of the project?

    •  

      I would probably try a water-based dye and coat the entire piece. Should bring it into a similar color family. Kind of negate the fuming but I don’t know what else you can do.

    • John January 10, 2013

      we have fumed severaql white oak pipe organ cases over the years. The ammonia reacts with the tannins in white oak to darken it. Other woods will fume to varing degrees but nothing (that I’m aware of) as dramatically as white oak. One important thing though, the white sapwood doesn’t contain the tannins so it stays white or light. The only real way around this is to avoid sapwood.

  25. Sam July 26, 2013

    Hello,

    I have a question that I was hoping someone here could help me with. I am looking for a fumed look with some quarter sawn white oak that I am building with, but the wood is reclaimed from an old wine vat. basically it’s been pickled in vinegar. Does anyone have any idea whether this would still work, and what the residue would do/be (other than neutral pH).

    I would also be interested in any info on alternatives to ammonia fuming to get a similar effect.

    thank you.

    •  

      Hey Sam. I honestly don’t know if a live in acidic solution has a dramatic effect on the wood’s ability to fume. You’d have to try it out. But you can certainly get close to the fumed look using dyes and stains.

    • Ross P July 27, 2013

      Hey Sam
      I am not quite sure if you could achieve your desired affect like Mark I think you would really have to test and test again. All I know is that when I tried to fume a white oak table top to match the look of the base I hated the entire process. The highest percentage of ammonia that I could get my hands on was 10% because 30% is just too hard to come by. When I called around to blueprint shops and other places that would have it they were all suspicious that I was a terrorist. I am not kidding the tone of the conversation definitely changed when i asked for 30%. Also the process is super hard to control, especially if you are trying to match an existing piece as I was. After building the tent and about thirty tests, one of which where I received the Idiot of the year award, and opened the tent without my mask on (Yeah that was fun), I decided to use the Jewitt method that Mark posted in the article. Guess what, it worked. The table I was matching was a World War One Royal Air Force mess hall table that was as you guessed from WW1. I was able to match the top to the base exactly. When I say exactly I mean exactly. The effect looks just like fumed oak that has had 100 years to sit around and hang out. So I wrote all of this to say that you really dont need to worry about what the ammonia would do to your pickled wood because Jewett’s method will give you what you want without looking like a suspected terrorist Idiot like I did. Good luck Sam I hope this helps.

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