A Clean & Simple Furniture Finish

Hans J. Wegner's "Silla de Brazos" chair. 1969

Hans J. Wegner’s “Silla de Brazos” chair. 1969

“Most of (Hans) Wegner’s furniture is delivered untreated – only buffed and treated with soap and water, so that the fine wood is ready to become more beautiful with use. Some furniture is delivered with a clear lacquer finish.”

— “Hans J. Wegner: Hacedor de Sillas (Chairmaker)” by Jens Bernsen (Danish Design Centre, 1998)

I’m in the middle of building a new chair design in ash and am planning on finishing the chair in soap and water – a finish that is common in Denmark.

It’s a simple, easy-to-mess-up finish that I first heard about from Bob Flexner while I edited his column “Flexner on Finishing.” You can read a 2010 column by Flexner on the finish here at Woodshop News. For more details, including photos of the mixing process, check out this blog entry from Caleb James.

I’ve seen this finish on some vintage pieces at a couple stores that carry Danish Modern pieces here in Cincinnati. I visited one of the stores yesterday to get some photos, but they had filled the showroom with giant live-edge tables. Dipped in plastic. Not good.

So the photo above is one of Wegner’s pieces.

Like paint, oil or beeswax, the soap finish appeals to me because it doesn’t require special equipment (spraying lacquer) or years of experience (a shellac polish) to execute. It’s a good place for beginners to start when finishing furniture (or floors). I’ll post photos of the finish next month when the chair is complete.

— Christopher Schwarz

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11 Responses to A Clean & Simple Furniture Finish

  1. rockyferraro says:

    Chris,

    I wonder if when soap was made with rendered animal fat what that did to the wood?

  2. wwwessinger says:

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one using what can be a floor finish on my furniture. I just finished my first run of chairs and finished them using Osmo’s Polyx Oil. Have you tried the soap finish on white oak?

  3. waltamb says:

    Hmmm… soap is either veggie or animal fat and lye so, add to that mix some good old hard elbow grease and why not?

    I would say the more clear and natural the soap the better and less water than more.

    Actually been planning a soak of some green turned bowls in a natural coconut oil liquid soap this fall.

  4. Richard Leon says:

    Alan Peters also refers to this finish in his book as one of his favourite finishes.

  5. Interesting. What does the finish feel like to the hand?

  6. I have grown up surrounded by soap-infused furniture, it is quite common in Denmark. It is simmilar to other waxed finishes, but non-glossy and non-sticky. The appearance can vary between almost raw wood to some hazy pale tone, close to non-glossy water based finished.

  7. abtuser says:

    Awesome chair. Someone else was using soap and used a polissoir to rub it in. Can’t remember off the top of my head…

  8. Being born a dane, I guess I am partial to soap finish, but it really is a great finish. I can agree 100 % with everything you have written in your post and those by Flexner and Caleb too. I made a pine everyday dining table 25 years ago, finishing it in soap and ever since it has seen just about every imaginable use and abuse and now it looks better than ever. Care is just the every day wiping with a damp cloth after dinner or whatever, sometimes with a bit of soap if it seems to need it and that is it. Dirt does not bite in because soap is always underneath it, so it just takes moisture to remove.
    I agree that it is best suited to light-colored woods and to my taste I think it is a natural to the more rustic kinds of furniture. It can take a beating and only looks better the harder it is used, given the occasional wiping.
    We do not have any problems in buying soap flakes, but I have had similarly good results by using natural soft soap of the brown variety

  9. Bob Jones says:

    I recall that Flexner was not super positive about that technique in the article. I hope it turns out well for you. I’ll stick with BLO.

  10. I’m tempted to try this finish on some instruments. I already used just simple white block soap on tuning pegs before (as sort of hard wax) and wondered why it wasn’t used as a finish as it had the same properties if wax. Thanks for the receipt!

  11. Interesting idea. If the humidity gets too high does your furniture froth at the joints?

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