Always Seeing Red

I’ve owned two Volkswagen Karmann Ghias. The first one was a 1970 with chunky taillights, a good deal of Bondo, rotting rubber, a faded paint job and an incredible dual-port engine.

My second Karmann Ghia (the one I have now) is a 1968. It’s a California car. Rust-free and (thanks to the readers of my “Workbenches” book) completely restored.

With my first Karmann Ghia, I couldn’t drive anywhere without someone stopping me and asking me about the car. Even a nun once asked me if I had dual carbs (I didn’t). With my current 1968 Karmann Ghia, I’ve probably had one person make a comment in the last two years.

What’s the difference? The paint color. My first Ghia was a Porshe red with an all-black interior. My current Ghia is a historically accurate two-tone job: Lotus white on the bottom and black on the top.

There is something about the color red that makes us crazy. When I was in graduate school I took every film class I could get into and still graduate as a journalist. And I took complementary classes in color theory (“Hmm, theoretically that leaf is green.”)

I don’t think color theory is bunk. Warm colors (yellow, red and orange) are stimulating. Cool colors (blues and greens) are calming.

This is important to remember when finishing furniture. People don’t want their furniture to calm them. How much blue aniline dye do you think gets sold every year? People want their furniture to stimulate them.

Woodworker Warren May explained it to me better than anyone else. He makes a lot of furniture out of black cherry, a native hardwood here in Kentucky. Every year he makes a number of Kentucky-style pieces on spec and puts them in his showroom in Berea, Ky., where he also sells a twanging fleet of dulcimers.

May’s showroom is awash in windows and natural light. But he knows that when he first builds a spec piece in cherry it’s not likely to sell. However, once the piece has spent a few months in his showroom soaking up UV rays, the cherry catches fire and someone gets a love connection with a sideboard or a serpentine table. He’s watched this happen year after year.

From the day May explained it, I wanted to find a way to accelerate the aging of cherry to create the effect as soon as possible. After looking into it, the magazine’s staff found that we weren’t alone. There was a lot of advice out there on how to age cherry, from a bath of lye to potassium dichromate to dying shellac.

I favor approaches that use the fewest number of chemicals that can turn my eye sockets into places to keep my pencils, so the first two options were out. The dyed shellac worked, and I’ve used that on a number of occasions.

But the best approach we found was to apply a coat of boiled linseed oil and let the project sit in the sun for a day. (Small projects can be treated in a tanning bed. We tried this and got some strange looks.) The cherry quickly reacts to the oxygen and ultraviolet light to darken. Then you can add a topcoat finish and be done with it.

Of course, I’m kinda weird because I like green-colored furniture. Some of my favorite Arts & Crafts pieces from the Byrdcliffe colony and Gustav Stickley are green. What gives? Well the theory is that we evolved in the jungle and so we can see more shades of green than any other. (Anyone who wants to test this theory is welcome to come to the beer garden at Mecklenburg Gardens in Cincinnati and dispute me. The 100-year-old vine-wrapped patio will convince you I’m right.)

This shouldn’t surprise you too much. I’m the guy who sold the red, attention-getting car for something that allows me to be an anonymous, green-loving simian.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to Always Seeing Red

  1. Jerry says:

    The ride looks sweet…….I helped….


  2. jeff stafford says:

    Hey Chis,
    I saw this on Wired and put 2+2 together on why KCr2 works as a chemical dye.(also why its reeeaaally carcinogenic. We had a couple of Indiana National Guard exposed to CaCr2 in Iraq, when it was used for water purification. Needless to say they are now suing for damages and are seeking cancer treatment.



  3. Kelly Anderson says:

    WOW! That is one pretty car. I like the older ones better, before the bumpers got big and square. Good job on the restoration. How much of the work did you do yourself?


  4. Christopher Schwarz says:


    I did most of the mechanical. Replacing wires. Fixing seals. Replacing the fuel pump. Blah blah. Mechanical stuff is easy on an air-cooled car. There’s basically a rubber band….

    The body work I leave to artists.

    Now I just need to write a birdhouse book so I can finish the interior…



  5. Scott Kip says:

    Glad you mention the darkening effect of sunlight on cherry. I wish I had heard about it sooner.
    One of my first commissions out of school was a very simple coffee table in curly cherry. The woman I made it for was moving into a bigger apartment and she asked if I minded storing the table for a month after it was finished. My shop at the time was on the 8th floor of a building in a south west corner- it was all windows. It was a beautiful space and filled with light from the afternoon until sunset. I was living there too so I ended up sitting at the coffee table and leaving a sketchbook there. Imagine my reaction when I moved the book a few days later to discover a pale rectangle in the finish on the curly cherry top of one of my first jobs ever. I had no idea what to do. I masked off the top with heavy paper leaving just the pale shape exposed and crossed my fingers that it would even out. In my entire four years in a woodworking BFA program no one had ever mentioned that cherry darkens in the sun- to a point. I guess the burning and dodging was over kill. It evened out nicely and now anything I make in cherry gets a sun bath.



  6. Mitchell says:

    Impressive – no Ghia-Gash. I assume you refuse to park it behind anyone.




  7. J. Watriss says:

    My favorite finish for cherry…

    -scrub down with a linseed oil/pumice paste. This burnishes the wood and seals the grain.
    -Wash off the residue with a rag with plain BLO.
    -dye with honey amber transtint
    -hand rub top coat of fresh garnet shellac.

    The wood will still darken over time. But the initial color is still very warm, and rich.

    If you’re good with french polishing, a really miraculous thing happens. As the surface smooths over, I guess it also allows more light through… past the surface, and into the heart of the wood, helped along by the oil.


  8. Jon Spelbring says:

    Love the car, Chris. I never owned one, but always liked the way they looked.

    Just a passing thought – has anyone tried setting up a UV light to accelerate the redification(?) of cherry? Might be a good use for those 70s remnant black light poster lights.


  9. Greg says:

    Don’t forget that cherry will darken naturally over time. Chemical treatments might look good now, but what about in 10 or 20 years? Try as we may, there is no real substitute for actual aging.


  10. Larry Gray says:


    Schwarz, you’re killing me with these blogs of yours! As if all the shop shinys from Lie-Nielsen and Lee Valley weren’t bad enough, now you unleash … this. And just when I thought I’d finally kicked my VeeDub habit, once and for all.


    If the proceeds from the workbench book covered the resto, then like Jerry I’m pleased to have helped. I’ll gladly do the same for the interior with your new hand plane book (birdhouses? what?) as soon as you get the site store sorted.

    Lovely car. Mine was a ’66.


    p.s. And yes, it was red.


  11. Viktor Mader says:

    Mr. Christopher Schwarz,

    I can’t find your email on this page, I’ve a question about your dining room table, but comments aren’t allowed there, sorry I post here.

    please, could You contact me via email backchannel?

    thanks a lot!




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