I took a couple of evenings earlier this week to get the continuous-arm high chair finished up. I was pretty dissatisfied with the effect of the black milk paint on my chair from last fall, so I decided to go back to where I began. A couple of years ago, I bought a cheap, falling-apart factory-made Windsor chair from an “antique” store in Mississippi. I took it completely apart and re-shaped every one of the ill-conceived parts into a more pleasing and historically sympathetic form. Upon re-assembly and finishing, the chair immediately became one of my favorites and has graced our dining room table ever since.
On that chair, I used homemade red milk paint as the base coat using red iron oxide as the pigment. That paint turned out lovely. I then tried to concoct some black milk paint using powdered charcoal as pigment. I may as well have painted it with dirty dishwater. The milk paint didn’t have enough substance to provide the opacity required to achieve good coverage. Fortuitously, I found that a bit of finely powdered charcoal mixed with shellac created a lovely black paint, and the finish has held up well and aged beautifully over the past couple of years. Hence, I determined to re-create the same finish on the high chair.
With the red milk paint fully cured over the weekend, I gave it a good rubbing down with a crumpled brown paper bag to achieve a lovely low luster. I find that milk paint performs far better when allowed to cure a few days before rubbing it out. Too soon, and you’ll just wear through the finish. I don’t always have the time or the patience to wait, but three or four days is optimal.
With the milk paint readied, I proceeded to mix up my shellac paint as best as I could remember. The charcoal powder I procured some years earlier from a pyrotechnic supplier. It was dirt cheap – around $25 for 5 lbs worth – and should last me several lifetimes (if I live that long). It is not as finely ground as lampblack, a more common black pigment which can also be obtained from pyrotechnic suppliers. I sifted the charcoal through a reusable brass mesh coffee filter prior to mixing, to remove the coarser bits. A mortar and pestle would be welcome, but I don’t have one.
I found that a ratio of 1-2 tsp. of charcoal per 1 Tbsp. of shellac (orange, 3-lb cut) made a serviceable paint. A bit of experimentation is required to achieve the proper consistency, but if you get it right, it will go on quite smoothly with a synthetic bristle brush. I use a 1-1/2″ brush for the larger surfaces and a cheap artist’s brush for the nooks, crannies, and spindles.
The finish should not be applied too thickly or it will orange-peel, just like straight shellac. But you can apply multiple thin coats in fairly quick succession. I put two coats on in one evening, then allowed it to cure overnight. You do not want to begin rubbing the shellac until it is fully cured. A Scotch-Brite pad and some judicious use of 400-grit sandpaper on some stubborn rough patches yielded a lovely smooth satin sheen.
Finally, I topped off the shellac with a coat of tinted oil. The finish was nothing more than a bit of charcoal powder mixed with boiled linseed oil. To be truthful, I should have skipped the tinting altogether. The charcoal did not seem to add any coverage to the finish – rather, it only served to make the chair messy and annoying to handle until the oil was fully cured. Next time I’ll skip the tinting and just apply pure BLO or a thin wiping varnish.
I can’t say that the finish is perfect. There are some spots that are too thick, and some rough patches that I simply ran out of the will to smooth. But I can say with certainty that it is the best finish I have achieved yet on any of my chairs. The new owner is equally pleased and was rather excited to eat his bowl of cereal while seated upon his new perch this morning.