Why is it that when we buy something new, we want it shiny, smooth and flawless, but when we look for something old, it must be dinged, worn and distressed? Of course much of this has to do with our personal tastes and cultural predispositions. Consciously recognizing our attitudes towards the physical characteristics of artifacts, for whatever reason, can help us make better choices about how we design and finish our woodworking projects.
Ecophenotypic effect is the result of environmental wear on an object over time. If the object in question spent its life in the desert it might look considerably different than if it was in a coastal setting. All this is hypothetical of course, but we spend a lot of money on antiques because we love the patina (an admittedly overused word), so our sentiment towards this type of surface quality may be worth further investigation. We can't control the eventual environment of our work, but can choose the materials and techniques that will ultimately affect its future appearance. The point is to be aware of these concepts, so that you can incorporate them in your design arsenal.
Probably the most obvious thing that affects the surface quality of a piece is wood choice. Different wood species can be described as coarse grained, smooth grained, figured, plain, light, dark, etc. The beauty of wood is that each piece is so unique yet so familiar. Carefully chosen, a particular species can make a bold proclamation or a subtle statement. Take red oak for example. Red oak with its coarse grain, wide open pores and rugged figure may connote strength, durability and timelessness. Is it the right choice for a piece that reflects the personality of a client and their home? Think of Mission furniture with its stocky legs, wide panels and iron hardware. But oak might not be appropriate for a small jewelry box for a young granddaughter.
Other woods tell different stories. Is the piece Queen Anne or Federal? Then mahogany or walnut might be called for. If the project has some regional significance, maybe you should look for a fitting local wood species. Choose your wood carefully and with discernment. Pay attention to the small details like grain direction and color when placing wood. You probably do this already, but you might not have realized to what extent you were. Be intentional about wood and your work will reflect it.
We use surface preparation to achieve the apt texture, feel and attitude we want our creations to convey. So, why does every piece of mass-produced, factory furniture look so slick, smooth and shiny? Is it current style or taste, or is it just expedient for the manufacturer to homogenize everything? Factory made furniture generally lacks human warmth, character and most importantly, emotion. Perhaps it's because the human hand is so far removed from the process, or maybe it's because the designer is typically not the builder. Remember, form follows economy and not necessarily function in large economies of scale. Individual craftsman, on the other hand, ideally don't have these constraints.
Where a factory must dumb down surface preparations procedures to little more than sanding, we have options. Planes, scrapers and even gouges and files leave their unique fingerprints on wood. Therefore, something more interesting develops than sanding alone can provide. Think about what makes you happy about a favorite antique. Is it the hand planed drawer sides like a new discovery each time you open it, or is it the tool marks in the carved moulding. Try to recreate these feelings in your own work.
Here's an experiment. Take any board and hand plane it smooth. Next, divide it into thirds. Scrape a section with a card scraper, sand with 220 grit the next part and leave the last third planed. Bring the board over to a place with decent back lighting, and examine the three different surface qualities. Now you can decide which of these different preparations would be most appropriate to your design. Try this experiment with other species as some woods plane and scrape better than others.
Planes and scrapers aren't the only ways to leave your fingerprints on a surface. Experiment with gouges, rasps, files and rotary tools. Add some tooth to a panel, knob or bracket. Be subtle and understated at first, then when you become more confident, you can let yourself go.
Here's the part no one wants to talk about, but it's absolutely critical to the overall composition and statement of your piece. You've spent hours on design and construction, so a carefully thought out and executed finish is essential. If you break down finishing choices into three categories, it'll help you organize your thoughts. Think about finishing in terms of color, film thickness and sheen.
There's no law that says you have to color or stain your work. Although almost everything you do or don't do, will eventually affect the color of your piece. Remember ecophenotypic effect? If you choose to color, you already know you have infinite options in terms of products, homemade concoctions and procedures. Staining, glazing and toning come to mind. I don't have the space to go over them here, but it is important to know the differences between dyes, pigments and chemical colors. You need to understand the nature of these materials and procedures, and how they will interact with your wood choice.
Once you've made your decision about coloring, it's time to think about topcoats. Again there are too many choices to consider. Some choices are obvious like high quality spar varnishes for boats and polys for gym floors. But what should you use for an art object or for a display cabinet? Is the piece designed to weather and show wear? Is this particular finish going to prevent that? Surface quality is an aesthetic decision and durability is a practical decision. You need to balance the two. In general, the thicker the final film the more protection the piece has but the less tactile and more removed it seems emotionally. The converse is also true. The thin top coats like oils and waxes may appeal to our since of warmth and happiness, but don't stand a chance against small children.
The final compromise about film thickness and topcoat choice may be sheen. Sheen is the amount of light a finish reflects. Glossy finishes reflect more light and flat finishes reflect less. The decision once again has many elements. What is historically appropriate? What are the tastes of the recipient? Where will the piece ultimately live and how will it be used? You can worry yourself to death about these things, but meditating on them and making sound judgment will separate your work from what's commonly available in the mass market. For further reading on finishing, I highly recommend Bob Flexner's Understanding Wood Finishing, Revised (203621).
We make a thousand unconscious decisions every moment. Most of these choices have little consequence to the richness and fullness of our lives. Our choices are limited to a great extent by what industry and culture provide. These things don't always have great variety in terms of surface quality. It is surface quality that helps enrich the meaningful objects in our lives like the things we make. Surface quality is one aspect of our craft that we can control. Surface quality somehow conveys our emotions, feelings and thoughts long after we're gone and the coffee table that grandpa made still serves the family. Joy!