Don Williams' Short List of Finishing References

Mark Maleski

Well-known member
In 2012, Don Williams gave a presentation to the SAPFM Chesapeake Chapter on period finishing. He has since gone on to incorporate many of the topics he presented that day into "his" edition (along with Michele Pietryka-Pagan and Philippe Lafargue) of Roubo's "With All the Precision Possible" and his subsequent video on period finishing.  I confess I was unready for his presentation on that day - I simply hadn't enough experience with furniture making or finishing to take it all in - but it did serve as my introduction to shellac, and I've been brushing it on ever since (pretty much exclusively).  Pleased but unsatisfied with my results, I am now beginning to follow some of the more advanced paths he laid on that day (my pollisoir is ready to be put to work) and that's led me to review my notes from the meeting.  In so doing, I came across the list of books that he had brought along with him on that day and thought it would be of value to the broader SAPFM community.  I snatched a few of these books up before posting, in case this spurs a mad rush.  The Zuk download is a revelation.

2012 email from Don Williams distributed to our chapter follows:


Greetings SAPFM Chesapeake Chapter Thanks again for letting me chat with you Saturday about one of my passions: finishing. I hope it was informative and helpful in helping you overcome your hurdles in finishing. It is not an unknowable mystery, but rather it is a conquerable skill set. If I can be any help to you in this adventure, please let me know. As I was packing up yesterday I was asked to make a list of the literature I had setting on Kari's [Hultman] bench. Here goes:

Bottler and Sabin. German and American Varnish Making (1912). If you want to know more about the history and technology of oil resin varnishes, you have to get this book. Harder to find and more expensive than others, probably upwards of $100, but keep it on your wish list.

Chatfield, H.W. Varnish Constituents (1944). Wonderful survey of the materials and process of WWII-era varnish making. Occasionally a copy shows up for a reasonable price, but more likely it will run $50-75.

Hicks, Edward. Shellac: Its Origins and Uses (1961). Perhaps the finest single volume on the topic, but it is increasing scarce and expensive. If you can find a copy for what you can afford, you should get it.

Huth, Hans. Lacquer of the West (1971). One of my favorite books. No serious student of historic finishes (especially painted finishes) can consider their library fully useful without a copy. Surprisingly this volume has dropped in price in recent years, dropping as low as $10!

Masschelein-Kleiner, L. Ancient Binding Media, Varnishes, and Adhesives. Another terrific survey of the materials and sources for varnish making recipes. Readily available for reasonable prices from within the museum world.

Mussey, Robert, editor. The First American Furniture Finisher=92s Manual (1827). An excellent snap shot of trade practices of the early 19th century. Since this is small and inexpensive, it should be on your shelf.

Newell, A.C. Coloring, Finishing, and Painting Wood (1930). This is probably my favorite early 20th century finisher’s book. You can certainly get a copy inexpensively on-line, I have seen first editions for $1! Aim for early editions rather than later editions.

Pattou and Vaughan. Furniture Finishing, Decorating, and Patching (1930). Like Newell this is a wonderful profile of the trade in the early 20th century. As such it provides interesting insights into both pre-industrial and the beginnings of modern finishing processes. Should be available for less than $5.

Penn, Theodore Zuk. Decorative and Protective Finishes 1750-1850. This was Penn’s Master’s Thesis from Winterthur, and it is an encyclopedic recitation of the materials documented to be used by Colonial finishers and painters. This these is available on-line here: uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=47698912320767. If you do not have access to the JSTOR site, go to the library and download it there. You have no excuse to have this in your hands. Russell, M. Shellac (1956). Often referred to as “The Blue Book” this is a prized volume among shellacophiles, as much for its collectible value as for the excellent scholarly content. Very rare and expensive these days.

Stalker and Parker. A Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing. This reprint of the 1688 manual is a “must have” for anyone interested in furniture making of the pre-industrial era. I am pretty sure it is widely available as an inexpensive ($5-15) paperback. If you cannot find a copy let me know and I will find one for you.

Storm, A. Eighteenth Century Paint Materials and The Painters Craft as Practiced in Louisburg. A terrific on-line resource for understanding wood finishing and painting in the 18th century. Available on line here

These source are but a tiny fraction of my library on finishing. For example, I have almost everything written in English on the subject of shellac, probably second only to the archives at Zinsser. If you would like to visit me and browse through this material just let me know. Also, I wanted to reiterate my invitation for a Chesapeake Chapter finisher’s retreat weekend for May 2013. I will certainly have the vast majority of my finishing library there for that. If there is enough interest I will work with Bert to make this happen. I have attached some photos of my mountain studio, along with a nice article from Popular Woodworking. Finishers of the world, Unite!

I'm off to church; have a glorious day, everybody.
Don Williams