Reviving the Art of Specialist Wood Finishing

The hand application of traditional finishes is a dying art to many cabinet makers.

Throughout our 30 years of designing and making rooms that sit comfortably alongside period architecture, we’ve seen numerous examples of well-made cabinetry let down by their maker’s failure to get the finishing right.

Making and period finishing (or polishing) are completely different disciplines, and in the UK (and more accutely in the US), the art of period finishing has slowly become victim to mechanisation and modern pressure spraying methods.  This is understandable.  As accountants push companies to build in efficiencies to boost profit, something’s got to give.  That something is often hand finishing.


Mixing a finish for a project is an alchameic process. It doesn’t come out of a tin.


While our accounts team form a vital role within Artichoke, we do not let them dictate the methodology of our craft (much in the same way that our French polishers are not given responsibility for managing our work in progress valuation).  While the wider world of fitted joinery has marched enthusiastically into the modern era towards profitable glossy spray applied finishes, we’ve chosen a different route, instead bringing period finishes up to date without compromising their original integrity and character.

While period finishes are more complex to apply than their modern replacements delivered from a spray gun, they do offer more versatility.  Being hand applied they allow for human touch to infiltrate the finished result.  They require mixing by hand, they require an experienced human eye to achieve the right colour balance, they require craftsmen and women to make aesthetic decisions.


Because finishes are applied by hand and not machine, they are not uniform. The process allows for the human eye and it allows for our crafstmen and women to make their own judgement, a huge element of the bespoke process.

Up until now, the difficulty with many hand applied finishes has been that they have not been robust enough to withstand the rigours of modern family life.  At Artichoke we have spent many years perfecting how to develop period finishes which look authentic but perform well for modern families in modern environments.



The ability for a skilled craftsman or woman to make their own judement on the outcome of a piece goes to the very heart of craft.  If you take this away from them, you are stripping out the soul of a piece.  And we don’t do soul-less.


To see some of the stunning work we have completed please click here.

Period Wood Finishes – the Alchemy of Artichoke

Hardwood joinery grows in beauty over time. When designing and making new fitted furniture, Artichoke uses period wood finishes to replicate the depth and character of antiques.

Artichoke are experts in joinery led interiors.  Our team of period wood finishers have the skill to apply texture and patina to wooden detail allowing it to seamlessly blend into a period setting.  Similarly, in newly built houses our joinery has a transformative effect – wooden elements, artfully finished, settle a new house and provide instant depth and character.  Take a glimpse of a recent new build project that demonstrates our skill at period wood finishes here. This is the alchemy of Artichoke.

So, how do we achieve our period wood finishes?

Over decades of experience, we have built up finishing techniques that are second to none. Authentic finishes do not come out of a bottle.  To recreate the feel of antique wood requires a certain alchemy.  Staining wood is like creating a painting. It has taken Artichoke many years of trial and error to formulate authentic period finishing techniques.  This is how we make furniture look 300 years old but which is hardy enough for life in a modern day setting.


What is the point of a wood finish?

The purpose of a finish is to seal the timber to give it luster, depth and warmth.  It is driven by practical needs – unfinished wood is porous to the touch so stains and marks easily.  The application of a finish makes it resilient, the appropriate finish determined by how the joinery will be used and its context.

What’s wrong with mass market wooden finishes?

Nowadays, mass market production involves automated spray machines with nozzles that apply a bland and even coat around wood.  Spray painting wood in this way creates a nasty thin layer  more like a wrap than a finish, with no character or depth. It is quick and cheap but there is no sensitivity or artistry – it’s like a white wash.  At Artichoke, our finishes are entirely different. We impregnate wood rather than lay the finish on top. It seeps into the wood, nourishing it, keeping it supple and giving it colour, luster and character.

Antique furniture ages over time.  Its patina evolves through the years with human touch, exposure to sunlight and different temperatures and conditions.  To replicate the effect this passage of time has on wood, we have to accelerate the aging process.  How?  We imagine what might have happened to the furniture if it really had been in situ for decades – in terms of its colour, texture, dirt and exposure to light.

Artichoke’s depth of knowledge.

The older the piece of furniture, the greater the impact the environment has had on it.  This adds to its unique charm.  New cabinetry can feel out of place in a period building. New cabinetry in a recently built house can lack atmosphere and a sense of belonging.  So the real trick is to create an antique feel without it looking  pastiche.   Our expert finishers know how wood changes over time.  Our master finisher has a background in furniture restoration – developing expert skills in repairing old pieces using newer pieces of wood and making them match and look good. This appreciation of how a piece of furniture ages only comes through many years of handling.  It is an art requiring hours of work and many years of collective skill and experience.

Period wood finishes and colour.

The appearance of wood is effected by it’s exposure to light and temperature and how it’s been handled and cared for.  Different timbers react differently over time – for example when darker timber is exposed to natural light it lightens, while when lighter timber is exposed, it becomes darker. You can’t simply colour wood to replicate the effects of  sun bleach.  You can’t do it by applying lighter stains.  Instead, for an authentic finish, we use a variety of chemicals to wash out natural colours in the timbers and to add colour back in. We then layer finishes over the top – adding polish to replicate what happens over time.

Where furniture gets handled, oil and skin have an impact on the wood’s appearance.  We replicate the aging process by wiping on and wiping off layers of polish and rottenstone pigment mixed in with chalk dust. This requires time and skill and an acute sense of colour – an understanding of how natural materials behave over time and being sensitive to the character of the materials. This is where the artistry comes in – being able to add back decades of fine layers of dust and dirt accumulated in mouldings.


Period wood finishes and wear and tear.

Selecting figure in timber and its stability in relation to its eventual use is vital.  Furniture gets knocks and bangs – we recreate this by various means including bashing the furniture with cotton bags full of nuts and bolts, or using a steel bar to roll down the corner of the furniture.  This emulates the wear and tear a piece of furniture will get in its lifetime.


A time and place for spray finishes.

There are situations that benefit from a modern approach.  For example, unless specified otherwise by our client, we spray paint the interior carcasses of kitchen cupboards and cabinets. We finish these interiors  in a more contemporary way to give durability.  The finish will be harder wearing, better suited to the wear and tear typical in kitchens or back of house.



Time is our favourite tool.

To make furniture that feels settled in its environment requires a building of layers which takes many hours to build up.  We’ve outlined how these processes can’t be replicated by machines.  Rather, a huge input of labour is required.  Hand finishing is therefore an expensive luxury and plays a key part in the creation of our furniture.


As ever, do call us if you’d like to discuss a joinery design project further on +44 (0)1934 745270.  For more information on the range of project management services we offer, from design, installation, and finish, please click here.

A Soap Finish to Oak

Not long ago, we were asked by the designer Ilse Crawford to create a 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 was a tricky brief.  At the time, there were few finishes modern finishes that will provide a protective layer to timber and at the same time keep the natural look of the timber.  So we resorted soap, a finish used in the early 20th century before modern finishes were available.

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.


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Above: Lux flakes work best for soap finishes

Maintenance Required

Soap finished furniture does require regular 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.


Our Modern Soap Finish Equivalent

Fast forward to 2021, and through trial and error over several years, our finishing team has developed an invisible system which protects natural timber completely without being visible and without needing to be maintained.  There is a place for soap. but we would advise that it’s kept for freestanding decorative items, and not for scullerys, kitchens and pantries.



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