Some Notes on Paints and Finishes

 

As today, medieval tastes and traditions in furniture decoration varied over time and between regions. Very few examples of original surfaces survive, as most surviving pieces have been refinished numerous times over hundreds of years. While modern finishes are easy to spot, it is very hard to discern a 400-year-old finish on a 600 year-old artifact. The problem is compounded by the selective survival of artifacts; the pieces that have survived tend to be those that were highly valued and well cared for. This tends to exclude many common household objects and much of what was owned by the middle and lower classes.


The following discussion outlines some of the options to consider when choosing a finish for a period piece.


No Finish


To the modern mind, the idea of unfinished furniture seems, well, something just above barbaric and just below uncivilized. My initial take, fueled in part by traditional furniture historians, was that only rustic, homebuilt furniture would be so neglected, and that all furniture of consequence surely had some sort of finish applied. Over time, however, I've been persuaded that such a state of affairs may not have been relegated to the medieval equivalent of trailer parks.


In Agecroft Hall in Richmond, Virginia, there is an ornately painted bed dating from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Microscopic analysis of this bed indicates that for some time after its manufacture, it was left unfinished, after which it was covered with a transparent rosin-based varnish. While it is not clear whether the bed was in use at that time, or simply sitting in some joiner's workshop or storage shed, it lends some evidence that a fine bed might be left unfinished, at least for a while after its assembly.


Another, somewhat more anecdotal example, can be found at the Weald and Downland Museum in England. In Bayleaf Hall, there are two beautiful triangle stools of turned white oak. They have never been finished, but after many years of use by school groups and tourists in a smoky hall, they are now a beautiful polished reddish-brown. That beautiful patina that stains and polishes try to emulate can be had naturally, if you're ready to put up with smoke-filled rooms and lots of hands-on use. (Okay, maybe it wasn't the hands.)


However, it is still true that in an environment with little temperature or humidity control, as well as numerous pests, untreated wood isn't likely to enjoy a long life. Surface treatments help to seal out moisture and discourage insects. And of course, in a world made largely of wood, color is highly prized.


Oils, Stains, and Varnish


There is, unfortunately, almost nothing written in period that addresses specifically how the surfaces of common furniture were treated. Most references are either to architectural woodwork or to "artistic" pieces such as paintings, frescoes, mosaics, etc. However, it is probably safe to assume that the techniques known to artists might also be known to other trades, such as carpenters and joiners. It is also quite possible that the finishing and decoration of furniture was left to specialized painters if the owner wanted something beyond raw wood.


In looking at period documents, one must be careful in making assumptions based on modern definitions. The term "varnish" seems to have been sometimes used interchangeably with "oil" and "polish," and may have referred simply to obtaining a smooth surface. The oil was commonly linseed oil (pressed from flax seed), though walnut oil and poppyseed oil may also have been used1. Many recipes for preparing both linseed oil and varnish have survived, such as Cennino d'Andrea Cennini's "Il Libro dell'Arte," and the manuscripts of Jehan Le Begue.


There is evidence that carpenters in the14th century treated interior woodwork with oil and varnish, sometimes colored with ochre2. The effect of this would probably be that of a colored stain or varnish. Whether or not this oil and varnish was used on furniture (as opposed to architectural woodwork) is a matter of conjecture. In his 15th century manuscripts, Jehan Le Begue provides a recipe for staining "a green colour, bones, wood, tablets, or pannels of wood, knife-handles, thread, and linen cloth...3". He also provides numerous other recipes for bleaches, stains and dyes of various colors. Several black stains involve the use of iron and vinegar.


Other examples include:


  1. BulletA 15th century Bolognese manuscript provides instructions for dyeing boxwood black by boiling it in oil and sulphur4. Similar recipes are provided for dying bones and other materials.

  2. BulletIn the 1568 German "Book of Trades," the Joiner from Nuremberg is described thus: "makes fine varnished furniture with fancy moldings: chests, wardrobes, dressers, tables, beds, board games, etc. for all purses.5"

  3. BulletIn the 1558 edition of "The secretes of the reverende Maister Alexis of Piemount" there is a recipe for staining wood for use in joinery, using horse manure, alum, gum arabic, and unspecified dyes.

  4. BulletIn his 1594 book "The Jewel House of Art and Nature," Sir Hugh Plat wrote of a technique for staining new wood to match old (using linseed oil and walnut rinds).


Wax


Another traditional finish for furniture is beeswax, usually softened with linseed oil and/or turpentine. While both scholars and woodworkers seem to take this method as a given, I have yet to find any primary sources that refer to this specific practice prior to the 17th century. It is certainly a logical assumption, as the ingredients were commonly available and known to be used in later periods, but the documentary evidence thus far is thin.


Paint


As furniture manufacture became more and more dominated by specialist trades (such as joiners, turners, and coffer-makers), so decoration became the domain of painters and stainers, gilders, and carvers. While the makers of furniture (particularly in areas less regulated by the guild system) might provide some simple decoration (such as chip carving), the complexity of grinding pigments, preparing oils and gessos, and other tasks associated with painting make it likely that quality work was performed by dedicated professionals.


Evidence for painting interior woodwork dates back to at least the 13th century, when Henry III ordered that, "that the posts of his chamber at Ludgershall should be painted the colour of marble, and then years later that the pillars and arches of the hall in Guildford Castle should be marbled.6" Again, we must make an assumption that techniques used in architectural woodwork were also applied to furniture for this to be useful.


Actual painted furniture is harder to document, and surviving pieces retain only small fragments of their original paint and so only hint at how they may have appeared. One of the earliest surviving English pieces, a boarded chest from the mid-14th century, retains the owner's heraldry inside the lid, though the outside decoration has been lost7. Numerous wills and inventories however make it clear that painted furniture was not uncommon, with red and green being popular colors.


Medieval paints generally fall into three categories: tempera (egg-based), oils (usually based on linseed oil, though others were used), and casein (milk-based). Pigments were usually earth-based (minerals and oxides) or vegetable-based. Many recipes survive, such as those in the sources cited above.


Conclusion


For unpainted pieces, I prefer a simple linseed oil finish, sometimes with beeswax. This finish is very simple to apply, provides a small measure of protection, and is easy to fix when it becomes dirty or worn. On most woods it will darken the color somewhat and bring out the grain pattern. The drawback of an oil finish is that it will tend to waterspot and needs to be replenished periodically.


For painting my preference is milk paint (or casein paint). Though I have yet to find any direct medieval references to its use, I prefer it because modern milk paints use natural earth pigments, and so the colors are probably closer to medieval paints than most manufactured oil or tempera paints. Milk paints do not chip like most painted surfaces. Particularly when covered with a coat of linseed oil, it provides a deep, rich color that is very durable.


Notes


  1. 1.Schmidt pg. 322.

  2. 2.Salzman, pg. 159.

  3. 3.Chinnery, pg. 217.

  4. 4.Merrifield, pp. 64, 80.

  5. 5.Merrifield, pg. 592.

  6. 6.Amman, pg. 96.

  7. 7.Salzman, pg. 159.

  8. 8.Chinnery, pg. 137.


Bibliography


Amman, Jost. The Book of Trades. Dover Publications Inc., 1973.


Chinnery, Victor. Oak Furniture, the British Tradition. Antique Collectors' Club, Suffolk, 1979.


Merrifield, Mary P. (editor/translator). Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY,1967.


Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997).