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Jim Batty

Best Surface Finish for Antique Wood Cabinet Used in a Narrowboat Bathroom?

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We bought this wooden Edwardian washstand for our loo, and I plan to plumb in a small sit-on-top basin and tall mixer tap on the top.

 

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I like the patina on the wood, but I also don’t want it to start looking crappy in the occasionally steamy environment — from using the quadrant shower.

 

I’m not sure how Edwardian cabinets would have been finished originally — it looks like some kind of fine varnish. I put drops of water on various parts of the top, upper sides, etc. and left them there for about 20 minutes — and find they wipe off without a mark.

 

I’m also not sure what type of wood it’s made of. I originally thought oak, but now not sure because the exposed grain edges are very dense and smooth.

 

 

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I reckon I have three options:

 

1) Do nothing to the surface (and see how it goes)

2) Clean the wood as much as I can and give it multiple coats of a good, satin varnish

3) Sand it back a bit and oil it with multiple coats of Danish Oil (which I’ve used elsewhere in the boat).

 

 

Anybody have any experience of Edwardian furniture finishes … or using wooden furniture in bathrooms?

 

 

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As a woodworker I would say any finish is waterproof and will work. Eventually they all break down and need a little attention.  I would open it up and check for unfinished areas in the hidden areas and focus on those first. They will absorb moisture, expand and contract more than the rest of the wood and crack/damage the existing finish. You need ALL the surfaces sealed for the longest life.  Also pay close attention to the joints. That is another possible problem area moisture, especially spilled water could get in the joints.  

 

Since you are going to use it with running water I would recoat with something. Me, I would spray with lacquer, that holds up better than anything but I have spray equipment. I have seen lacquer in spray can but not recently. Might be available online?  Second choice would be a good quality varnish.

 

As for the wood it looks like Mahogany to me.

Edited by Kudzucraft

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Thanks Kudzucraft.

 

I hadn't thought of using a clear lacquer. That seems like a good idea. Will investigate spray cans ... and pay attention to the inside too.

 

Curiously when I looked at the photos (and not the cabinet itself) the wood grain looked like mahogany. But I talked myself out of that because it didn't look 'red' enough. 

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It looks like mahogany to me. The finish could well be french polish. This is not good with water. French polish is shellac disso;ved in alcohol and is put on in many thin layers. Googling suggests that you can use a spririt based varnish over it. I would experiment with suitable varnish on a concealed area before doing the whole cabinet. Polyvine do a good spirit based varnish for use over their scumble finish https://polyvine.com/index.php/en/interior-varnishes-2/oil-based-varnishes/extra-pale-varnish

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41 minutes ago, Richard T said:

The finish could well be french polish. This is not good with water. French polish is shellac disso;ved in alcohol and is put on in many thin layers. 

 

Good catch! I didn't even think about it being Shellac. 

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I agree with Richard T, it certainly looks like South American Mahogany, and will have almost certainly been finished with French Polish, which does not like sustained contact with water.  I have never tried an oil based varnish on French Polish, but think it should be ok. Before attacking the whole cabinet try experimemnting on a section which will not be visible when it is installed. Do not sand it as that could also remove the patina you wish to preserve. Preparing the surface will require any wax polish to be removed, for which I would suggest white spririt DO NOT use methylated spirit as it will remove the French Polish and  damage the finished surface. Wipe the surface dry and to provide a key for the varnish, rub it down with 0000 grade steel wool, or a very fine scotch pad, removing the dust with Tack Cloths. The surface should then be ready for a varnish finish. Do not be tempted to use a cheap DIY varnish, use a good quality one, my preferred choice is Blackfriars, but any good brand will be OK. You may also wish to determine tha level of shine, Personally I like Satin finish which is softer on the eye than gloss, but that is your choice. you will need  to apply at lead two coats of varnish and should lightly rub down between coats with very fine cabinet paper.

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Agree with comments regarding mahogany. Two points to consider. One. On going maintenance which can be difficult with some laquars/shellac requiring in my opinion complete removal to refurbish. Second point. How was it assembled? Modern glues are more tolerant to timbers` natural expansion and contraction than old glues. If mahoganey it`s not going to rot in your lifetime so perhaps regular polishing with wax will suffice.

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Thanks Richard, David and others. This is really useful information. 

 

The piece seems nicely put together. The only screws showing are along the outside edges of a 1cm thick mahogany back panel set between the two sides. So I'm assuming the top surface and shelves are held in place either side with dowels (?). The drawer has dovetailed corners, with the drawer bottom bevelled around the edges to slot into the sides, back and front. I'm going to mount this cabinet to the wall -- probably at 4 points -- so that should also add stability to it (as well as support a small basin).

 

I don't really want to strip back the whole unit and re-finish. (If I did that I'd feel most comfortable using Danish oil over everything.) I'm now tending to think in terms of cleaning the top and shallow sides with white spirit and use a couple of coats of Richard's spirit based varnish to 'seal' the surface most prone to getting wet. My 'drops of water test' didn't mark the finish anywhere I plopped them ... so I'm thinking of letting the rest of it ride as it is ... and keep an eye out for the finish over the winter -- when it's most likely to be steamy for more than 5 or 10 minutes.

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1 hour ago, Jim Batty said:

Thanks Richard, David and others. This is really useful information. 

 

The piece seems nicely put together. The only screws showing are along the outside edges of a 1cm thick mahogany back panel set between the two sides. So I'm assuming the top surface and shelves are held in place either side with dowels (?). The drawer has dovetailed corners, with the drawer bottom bevelled around the edges to slot into the sides, back and front. I'm going to mount this cabinet to the wall -- probably at 4 points -- so that should also add stability to it (as well as support a small basin).

 

I don't really want to strip back the whole unit and re-finish. (If I did that I'd feel most comfortable using Danish oil over everything.) I'm now tending to think in terms of cleaning the top and shallow sides with white spirit and use a couple of coats of Richard's spirit based varnish to 'seal' the surface most prone to getting wet. My 'drops of water test' didn't mark the finish anywhere I plopped them ... so I'm thinking of letting the rest of it ride as it is ... and keep an eye out for the finish over the winter -- when it's most likely to be steamy for more than 5 or 10 minutes.

I will probably get pilloried by some of the "experts" for suggesting this, but there is a way to test whether the finish is French Polish which involves methylated Spirit, but it needs to be done very carefully. Find an area of the table which will not be seen (perhaps the back of one of the back legs) Dip a small artists brush into the methylated spirit and making sure there is very little spirit on the brush, allow one small drop to fall onto the finish, if the finish goes soft and can be wiped off, it is French Polish, if the sppirit has no effect on the finish, it is either a laquer or varnish, which will not need any treatment except wax polishing, unless the surface becomes damaged.  If you decide to wax polish, make sure that you use a proper Beeswax polish whioch is applied with a soft cloth and buffed when dry, please do not use anything with silicone in it as the silicone will penetrate the varnish and make any future re-finishing very difficult. if not impossible.

 

As far a Danish Oil is concerned, I have never been a fan of it, first of all there is no recognised technical specification for Danish Oil, so unless the manufacturer has listed the contents on the label, you do not really know what you are getting. Danish Oil from a recognised manufacturer should have a reasonable formula, and should be OK for sealing wood surfaces that will get a lot of hard work need in of regular treatment , such as timber work surfaces, but it is not really a long lasting finish for furniture.

 

l hope that helps.

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