Smoke-painted Furniture

Blanket chest with smoke paint over a while base.

Blanket chest with smoke paint over a white base. 

Soot was one of the earliest materials used by humans to decorate their surroudings. In the late 18th century and well into the 19th century smoke painting was a decorative technique used on furniture. It was cheap and the smoke could be manipulated into a variety of patterns, from waves of haze to leopard-like spots. If you are looking for a different and easy-to-use decorative technique give it a try.

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On this blanket chest the smoke has been smudged and softened before a clear finish was applied. Smoke painting the drawer front inside the chest is an unusual feature.

Small dome-top chest, ca. 1830.

Small dome-top chest, ca. 1830.

White and yellow were the most common background colors used. This dome-top chest with a bright yellow background has the addition of a snappy red trim.

Chest crom Snow Hill, early 19th century.

Chest from Snow Hill, late 18th or early 19th century.

The Snow Hill chest is the oldest piece I found and it looks as though a graining tool was used to manipulate the smoke.

 

This upright chest from New England is dated early to mid-19th century. The painter used the smoke in a controlled manner to achieve a very regular pattern. I would guess that the “smoke trails” were smudged to soften the edges and increase the coverage of smoke.

Although not as common as the white and yellow backgrounds there are pieces with other background colors and they are especially valued by collectors of smoke-painted furniture.

 

A nice blue with a simple pattern and a racy red veering toward leopard spots.

Chests and boxes were not the only furniture given the smoke paint treatment. In the piece below only the table top of a drop-leaf table was smoke-painted.

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If you want to try smoke painting make several sample boards first to practice the technique and determine the kind of pattern you prefer. Smoke painting is not a difficult process but it does involve using an open flame so there are several precautions. These are same precautions you would used when working with any flammable material.

It is best to work outside with another adult, avoid windy conditions and paper-covered surfaces. Have a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher nearby. The tools you will need are a candle and a palette knife or other flat tool. The palette knife is held at the tip of the candle flame to create a sooty smoke.

Apply a basecoat of milk paint to the surface. Use enough coats to get the depth of color you prefer. While the basecoat is still damp light the candle and use the palette knife to get a sooty flame. Hold the still-damp painted surface above the sooty smoke and move it around to create your pattern (this is where the second adult come in). If desired, once the smoke is on the surface use your fingers, a brush or other tool to smudge the soot. After smoking (the furniture, not you) let the piece dry. Apply shellac or other clear finish you normally use.

The gallery below has a several more examples of smoke-painted boxes, chests and a small wall box.

Suzanne Ellison

 

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17 Responses to Smoke-painted Furniture

  1. I dislike seeing wood painted – whatever wood, it always looks better than a painted finish. Its just my opinion yet was also that of my Father and Grandfather so our point of view extends as far back as the mid nineteenth century. Each to their own.

    I know that many people regard naked wood as a sign of second class taste. Perhaps this stems from the prudery of the Victorian period where even furniture legs were “dressed” with a covering of fabric. We are also told that every attempt was made to hide the joints holding wood together. To me the grain and structure of the timber and the beauty of the joinery is so much more interesting.

    • Love this post Susan!!!

      Let’s face it…the concept of paint being some form of…protective sacrificial layer…has become more a modern marketing concept of the paint industry…than it is of actual reality in modern application, especially with (all??) contemporary paints. I see more advertising hype and shear nonsense with these modern finishes (if not an utter con game) than we find in traditional finishes. A good oiling or other traditional treatment does indeed, have a protective function on wood and a good traditional oil very much does protect the underlying wood cells, as does many of the traditional finishing methods. Yet, for the most part, I think we forget the art and esthetic function historically was often the focus of finishes as a decorative modality…just as much a function of sacrificial layer and protection. I often remind students and client that a traditional finish will age and develop a patina like no other, and does not trap interstitial moisture and degrade wood as most latex and other plastic finishes of the modern age. Few (if any) are at all easy to refinisher or repair, compared to traditional modalities.

      Treated surfaces have most often a decorative function historically on most wood items, as this wonderful post reflects. One more in the thousands of methods for decorating (and protecting) wood with pigments. I have been fascinated with the use of fire and/or combustion of some form for decorating, preserving, and protecting wood. Be it the vast 焼き杉 (Yakisugi charring methods) to watching my Mother and Grandmother use Tempera and Milk paints with different sooting methods and employment of charcoals types as pigments.

      A great post that reflects the myriad of historical examples of just one of these!

      • saucyindexer says:

        And anything non-toxic is OK by me.

      • Sorry for the misspelling of your name Suzanne…:(

        And I agree Saucy!!! the toxic mess we are sold and to often forced to be around in modern finishes (even those claiming to be “Natural”) is beyond my understanding…I find the moder Paint Industry (at large) to be on par with the Pest Control and Chemical Industry for that lack of transparency and truth in advertising culture. They present as much more interested in pushing products and the bottom line profit margin, than they are in good practices and applicable material utilization…

    • John Sanford says:

      It wasn’t prudery that relegated ‘naked’ wood to “second class taste.” It was STATUS. Paint was more expensive than wood. With both the reduction in the cost of paint and the introduction of cheap wood product materials, the status equation has changed somewhat.

  2. jleaycraft says:

    An alternative way of getting soot, is to place a small tea strainer over the flame source. In this regard, a “real” candle works better in generating soot as opposed to a tea candle. This was also observed by the writer of an article posted on the WK tool website on copying makers marks on wooden planes.

  3. Smoke Painting is as old as man where the urge to decorate was constantly present.. One of the reasons the interiors of pre-chimney Norwegian houses (perhaps lets just say Scandinavian houses) when all there was was an open hearth with the smoke left to find its way through the roof hole leaving “smoked” dark interiors. To overcome this darkness was the annual whitewashing of the interior space…and often the washing of decorative ceiling cloth hangings that were hung over areas in a room to catch and hold old and dirtied whitewash from falling on occupants. Then would come the decorative charcoal painting of surfaces newly whitewashed…and the hanging of freshly laundered protective ceiling cloths; often richly woven with colored patterns themselves. Many paintings late into the 19th century show Scandinavian interiors still being decorated this way. It payed to be so “poor” your humble one room stuga living space is now considered an historic treasures by those of us who settle for white walled apartments where we hang family photographs and watch ever expanding sized high definition TV to make up for what we have lost..

  4. Eric R says:

    That is really cool, and the first time I’ve ever seen it.
    It sure creates an interesting effect.
    Thank you.

  5. inorthwoods says:

    Chris, Next time your in Maine at a Lie-Nielsen Toolworks event make some time to stop at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland Maine and see the ‘Tall Clock’ that is smoke painted its in their permanent collection here is a link to view on line : http://www.farnsworthmuseum.org/blog-entry/concealment-and-revelation-masonic-symbolism-and-maine-painted-tall-case-clock

    Joe

  6. John Sanford says:

    LOVE THIS. I am definitely going to give this a shot.

  7. nrhiller says:

    This is fascinating–as are most of the posts you share, Suzanne. Thank you.

  8. I would add, after reading (and being reminded by) some of the comments that pigmenting wood with any method is very culturally specific. In some time periods and cultures it was a status symbol to use certain pigment types, even punishable by death to employ certain colors without permission from the ruling class. In other cultures, pigmented wood is often considered distracting from the wood’s natural weathered beauty in many applications (aka Japan.) While in others like the Nile Valley Cultures it seems almost every thing was embellished with pigment and decoration be it stone or wood. This region of the Middle East hails some of the oldest pigmented objects currently know with tempera paints still bright after 7000 years.

    I have to agree with John Sanford speaking of early American Culture, that status was greatly part of the decision to use pigments, and prudence had little to do with it other than in some religious sects. Few could afford, and/or did not have the skill sets to make there own paints and pigments. If they could afford it and/or had the skill…wood often (very often!!) got a slathering of something…if they could add some pigment to it…they very often did…even if it was just some soot spots and oil. This early American normative culture toward bare wood is part of the reason, as just one example, we still can find well preserved vintage Appalachian hewn log cabins buried under layers of plasters, cobbing, paper, and traditional paints at the back of homes in this region…Some in wonderful condition because of it.

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