Not long ago, we were asked by the designer Ilse Crawford to create a bespoke contemporary kitchen for one of her clients in a listed Regency house in Somerset. Nothing particularly unusual presented itself in the design until we began discussing the scullery, at which point we were informed that no finish to the oak was required.
Not finishing timber is highly unusual practice and typically not something you want to do; all timber, even teak, needs some form of protection.
After a discussion directly with the client, it became apparent that what they really wanted was for the timber to look unfinished. They did not want an efficient modern lacquer finish but instead wanted the English oak used by us in the scullery to remain as natural as possible and to age quickly but gracefully.
This is a tricky brief. There are only a few finishes that will provide a protective layer to timber and at the same time keep the natural look of the timber. One of these is soap.
The major benefit of soap is that it doesn’t alter the colour of the timber being finished, unlike oil which can yellow the timber beneath it. There is also no shine to a soap finish. Waxes and oils typically add a sheen to the surface. With soap, this is not the case. The surface remains flat; just how this particular client wanted it.
Above: The scullery furniture, finished in soap.
No Ordinary Soap
Before you rush out and scour the shelves of your local super-market, you need to be aware that the soap you need for this task is a natural soap, not bars. Lux Flakes to those in the right age bracket! This is the only soap that will work.
Soap finish is used a great deal in Scandinavia; in Denmark in particular where the soap finish is considered to be desirable and sophisticated. The soap finish is why many Danish furniture pieces from the 1970’s look natural and unfinished. Soap is also used in Denmark to finish floors.
Above: Lux flakes work best for soap finishes
Soap finished furniture does require maintenance and we would not suggest it for areas of a house that will be getting a hammering unless you are prepared to maintain the finish which can be done as follows:
First, sand lightly with 220 or 320 grit sandpaper; just enough to make the surface feel smooth. (Never use steel wool, particularly on oak as it will react with the tannin and blacken it.)
Once this is done, apply another coat of soap (a mix of soap flakes and warm water) and wipe off the excess with a well wrung-out cloth. Sand again to remove the grain that will have been raised during the first application and repeat.
Let the soap dry and buff lightly with a clean lint free cloth.
Be careful not to wet any end-grain surfaces too heavily; end-grain surfaces suck up moisture at faster rates and this can lead to splitting.