Flat Finish for Walnut

Non-finishing furniture maker gets advice on a simple flat finish for a walnut bookcase. August 9, 2005

I am building bookcases with sold walnut and veneers for a client, and I have a problem. My client wanted walnut grain matched, and when the job was done he wanted to have finish put on it, which was not in the contract.

I used approximately 300 board feet of walnut for 120 board feet used. Now he wants a totally flat finish to bring out the grain. He wants depth to the walnut with no sheen, and I am stuck with this. I am not a finisher, and I will try anything. Does anyone have any advice?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor T:
I would suggest trying a three part mixture of tung oil, boiled linseed oil, and satin polyurethane wiped on with a rag.

From contributor O:
Before you touch the existing work, make up a couple of samples. Include a couple that you know won't be accepted and a couple that are sure winners - maybe totally different looks. Remember, you know more about this than the client.

No matter which sample the client picks, let them know that it is the hardest to achieve, but that it is certainly the best choice. Tell them it costs a premium. If you're going to stick it out and do what they want in order to get paid, at least make them feel your either conceding something or that they owe you something extra. You'll work it out either way, or move on to better projects.
Make sure that you don't rush into any finishes you haven't tested.

From contributor B:
I would proceed as follows:

1. Mention that while this set of steps is not in the contract, and that had it been, you would have obtained professional help, and that you will develop some samples of what it is that you can do to help. If they like the samples, you'd be happy to do the job for minimal cost. This prevents you from losing future work, while demonstrating that you're willing to help out clients, and recognize that this is beyond what's in a contract.

2. I'd make samples as follows: Apply a coat of paste wax - this isn't totally flat, but it isnít very expensive and itís legitimate, and it brings out grain. Also, it makes the client share in the process by having to apply new coats every 4 - 8 months.

3. Apply a coat of orange (or amber) shellac. If you buy it by the can, make sure to dilute it 50-50 with denatured alcohol. This is will add a richer color to the walnut. It isn't a flat finish, but once it dries apply a coat of paste wax using 4-0 steel wool. If you cover the surface with the steel wool, you'll flatten out the finish. This is another cheap, easy, and legitimate way of helping client meet their needs.

4. As last resort I'd try the BLO mix. While it will do the job, it will take days/weeks to dry and it's not easily repairable.

These samples should be able to satisfy the customer, and prevent you from losing a client and your shirt.

From contributor D:
I like the orange shellac idea the best. Almost always walnut desperately needs orange to light it up. Without it walnut looks dull and lifeless. With it, it knocks your socks off. Get yourself some Zinnzer Seal Coat which basically has a nice amber color. This shellac comes de-waxed (which is important if you need to spray say flat lacquer over it) and spray out a sample as has already been suggested.

The wax rubbed out with steel wool will dull it down as that apparently is what the client wanted. If this doesn't cut it, shoot over the shellac (without the wax of course) with flat lacquer.

The way that I would do this is with a weak orange dye followed by flat lacquer, but since you're trying to learn finishing in a day, the shellac wax method might get you by.

From contributor R:
I agree with Contributor B's advice. I will add just a little more if you get in trouble with the Shellac. You donít have to use alcohol. You can use lacquer thinner, but I would suggest that you donít use the wash or clean up kind. Use the expensive kind. It will flash quicker.

The orange color is unique to shellac, but you can get very close to it with Analine dye - orange of course. You can find this in non-grain raising liquid form from your finishing supplier. It might say non-grain raising stain on the bottle. You can thin this with lacquer thinner and shoot it with a spray gun. It will dry in seconds. You can top coat this any way you want.