There’s no way around it: finishing a Windsor chair is a painstaking process. It can also be a pretty scary process, because the chair will look terrible until the very last step is complete. You just have to do your best and trust that it will all work out in the end. My finishing process seems pretty typical for modern Windsor chairmakers:
- Stain the wood
- Paint with milk paint
- Sand the first coat with 320-grit
- Another coat of milk paint
- Burnish the second coat with steel wool or Scotch-Brite
- A final coat of milk paint (usually a different color from the first two)
- Burnish the final coat of paint
- Seal the paint with oil
You might use more coats of paint, depending on the effect you’re going for, but the process will be more-or-less the same. I decided to use a black-on-red paint job to match a Windsor chair that I re-finished a couple of years ago. Eventually, I’d like to have a whole set of these things for our dinner table.
The stain that you choose isn’t particularly critical. It’s not supposed to show at all; it’s only there so, in case the paint wears through in a few years, you don’t see the fresh white wood poking through the finish. Peter Galbert uses a homemade brown stain made from walnut husks. I have a bunch of water-soluble dyes that a fellow woodworker gave me a few years back, so that’s what I used. I’m not even sure what brand it is, because it came in hand-labeled jars. You can just use whatever you want, but I would avoid oil-based stains, since they take so long to dry and could cause issues with the milk paint adhering if it isn’t fully cured.
As I said before, the chair will look like crap from the moment you apply the dye until the moment that you seal the paint with oil. Brace yourself:
Stain is unforgiving. It will hunt down your mistakes and highlight them for all to see. It will point at you and laugh. If the stain is meant to be seen, that’s a bad thing, but in this case, it’s actually quite helpful. I thought I had done a good job cleaning up the glue squeeze-out. I was wrong.
The water-based dye does not soak into the glue spots as it does on the wood, so they stand out prominently when the stain is applied. This gives me a chance to clean them up with a bit of sanding before I proceed with the paint. Next time, I’ll try to be more careful with the glue.
When the stain is completely dry, you can proceed with milk paint. Mixing milk paint is an art unto itself. Bottom line: Don’t use the directions that come with the package. Go read this blog post from Elia Bizzarri. My base coat is “Barn Red” from The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company. It’s really darker than I would have preferred for the base coat, but I had some on hand so it’s what I used. “Salem Red” would have been a better choice, but I forgot how dark Barn Red was until after it was dry.
The first coat looks pretty good from a distance, but while I was applying it, I noticed that it seemed unusually grainy. Apparently the sieve that I used wasn’t fine enough and I failed to get all the dregs out of the paint. Bummer. Have a closer look:
The first coat required far more sanding than I was anticipating to get all of that crap off. For the second coat, I used a re-usable mesh coffee filter to strain the paint, and the results were much better.
After letting this coat dry, I burnished the paint with a Scotch-Brite pad and proceeded with the final coat of paint. This time, I used “Arabian Night” from The Real Milk Paint Co. Peter Galbert spoke highly of this company on his blog and in his book, so I decided to give their paint a shot. I found that there was much less of the coarse material in their paint, so it didn’t require filtration like the paint from Old-Fashioned Milk Paint. It’s always nice to cut out a step, so I’ll be using their paint from now on.
With a black-on-red finish, the red milk paint is supposed to show through just a bit – you don’t want too thick of a coat. But it does need to go on evenly. The trick is to put it on a bit thicker than you want, then use the Scotch-Brite to rub it off to the desired level of show-through.
The black paint looks terrible when dry, with some of the chalk rising to the surface and drying with a grayish cast. This is as far as I’ve gotten, so I’m crossing my fingers that a bit of burnishing and a coat of oil will make all right with the world. Wish me luck.