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Specialty finishes can add to your array of skills

I was introduced to glazes after having some experience with dye and pigment stains, sealer and topcoats, filler and shading lacquers. And I was flabbergasted. I asked, “Why didn’t you show me this sooner?” It was remarkably easy to understand and execute and did so many wonderful things to a finish, multiplying the looks I could achieve by hundreds of variations.

We’ll call some of these finishes “specialty finishes” or “special effects” because their execution goes significantly beyond the simple variations of combinations of color, sheen, pattern, texture and depth that we can achieve with more familiar finishing materials.

The reasons for wanting a specialty finish are many, ranging from a unique look to emulating a historic piece for its gracefully aged, well-maintained and complex patina and presence.

Several names

A “crackled” cobweb finish.

There’s a long list of common names and descriptions for these finishes. Among them are mottle, distressed, spider web, veiled, scorched, opaque, translucent, whitewashed, pickled, blistered, weathered, crackled and striated.

In 1989, I moved to Dallas to take over the Southwest sales territory for a finish manufacturer. I found a thriving art community, where I became involved with an association of picture framers and dealers in framing materials. Most were interested in touch-up and repair products, but some craved techniques and products to create custom finishes.

One of the techniques was called veiling or cobweb. At the time, Mohawk made a “cobweb lacquer,” but only in large batches for manufacturers. Veiling lacquer, as it was also called, could be sprayed with a pressure gun at very low fluid pressure and varying atomizing air pressures to get different effects. The lacquer — a very sticky, viscous liquid — did not break up easily into discrete droplets, but was stringy, like melted mozzarella cheese.

By varying the viscosity of the lacquer, the fluid and air pressure, and the motion of the spray gun, the operator could achieve a sparse and random “drizzle” effect or a “cotton candy-like cloud” of rapidly drying threads. For instance, spraying at higher pressure especially with the addition of a fast-evaporating solvent such as acetone created the effect of dusty cobwebs in a corner of a room.

Some finishers had experimented with colored lacquers or clear lacquer tinted with dyes and pigments, drizzling them off a paint stir stick that produced satisfactory results on a horizontal surfaces. Often they let much of the solvent evaporate from the paint before applying it, thickening it somewhat to improve the “stringiness” of the paint.

Styrofoam trick

The most successful practitioner of this art shared some of his secrets with me. First, he dissolved Styrofoam (from old drink coolers or packaging material) in clear lacquer until it would “string” off a stir stick to form patterns over a base color, often metallic. He started with about two ounces of Styrofoam dissolved in a pint of standard nitrocellulose lacquer. He varied that somewhat depending on how it was to be applied and according to the desired look.

He used lacquer thinner, retarder or acetone to reduce it and modify the flow, atomization and drying. Retarder kept the fluid wet and mobile longer; acetone hastened the setting and drying. He used universal pigments and lacquer compatible dyes to add color and sometimes mica or metallic powders for sparkle and pearl effects.

Once that had dried well, he coated with clear lacquer, glaze or several coats of different color glaze, each applied and patterned in a different way.

He also used the same material, often thinned with acetone, to apply a spatter or fly speck pattern.

A cobweb finish without the “crackle” effect.

We found that we could vary the viscosity, air and fluid pressure, and use different cap and needle sets to achieve many different effects. For instance, a very thick mix was used as a texturing material, either as a translucent mix of Styrofoam and lacquer or with the addition of a bodying agent such as talc, fine saw dust, micro balloons or other inert particulate.

Several manufacturers make products for veiling, but they might be hard to find. I only know of one manufacturer of a veiling gun. Veiling is popular for hot-rod restorations, picture and mirror frames, electric guitars and motorcycles, and in finishing many other decorative objects.

Other methods and materials have been used to do veiling or cobweb accents, from hot glue to contact cement, dripped, sprayed, flicked, pounced, dabbed or otherwise applied. Styrofoam can also be dissolved in D-limonene, a citrus-based solvent found in some paint strippers and cleaning products, and which is considered safer than the normal lacquer solvents.

These techniques and materials are more tools in your box. With imagination and practice, you can learn to quickly add interest and value to a tremendous range of pieces, both practical and artistic.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue.

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