Mission Oak Finish
by Jeff Jewitt

The traditional method of finishing oak in the mission or Craftsman style involved exposing the furniture to very strong ammonia fumes in an airtight chamber. Ammonia fuming was preferred by Stickley and other manufacturers because it colored the glassy ray fleck cells as well as the softer wood, establishing an even tone throughout the wood. An alternative method which yields excellent results is based on the steps below. It differs from fuming in that it will highlight the ray fleck on quarter-sawn wood. It is the way that the modern Stickley factory produces the finishes you see in stores.


Proper surface preparation is of utmost importance in finishing oak. Sand the wood to 150 grit and pre-raise the grain with distilled water. Sand with 180 grit when dry and remove all the dust from the pores. You can use a brush or vacuum, but I find blasting it with compressed air the best. The pores must be clean and free of all sawdust before proceeding so check the surfaces carefully.

Step One - Staining

You can leave the wood unstained if you wish, but I like to apply a dye to establish the predominate undertone of the piece. This can range anywhere from a light tan colored dye to a dark reddish brown. Manufacturers sell pre-mixed dyes with names like dark mission oak or light fumed oak which will work fine but don't be afraid to "tweak" the colors with red, black or green to customize the color to exactly what you want. Like above, it's important to experiment on scraps and carry the finish all the way to the end. This is the only way to tell if the color of the dye is right. Apply the dye by flooding all surfaces and blot up the excess. Let it dry 8 hours before scuff sanding with 320 grit sandpaper followed by a light rubbing with maroon synthetic steel wool. Be careful around sharp edges so you don't cut through the dye, but if you do- simply re-apply more dye to that area and it will blend right in. This is one of the nice things about dye-staining, touch-ups are invisible.

Step Two - Oiling

Oil the wood after the dye is dry by applying a small amount of linseed oil with a rag. Let it dry several hours. Dispose of the rag properly as explained above. Lightly scuff sand the surface with maroon synthetic steel wool. NOTE: This step is optional. It imparts a little more depth to the finish.

Step Three - Sealing

Apply two coats of a 2-lb. cut shellac. You can use any colored shellac you wish, either garnet, amber or light. Scuff sand between coats with 320 grit paper. Vacuum all the dust from the pores before the next step.

Step Four - Glazing

The importance of this step cannot be stressed enough. One of the qualities that make oak attractive is its large pores. By emphasizing these pores with a dark glaze, the true Mission effect is achieved. Stickley did this with black wax, but I prefer to use an oil-based glaze. Take one cup of Van Dyke brown glaze and mix in 1/2 cup black glaze. This is a very dark glaze so you may find dilution of the glaze with mineral spirits is necessary. Apply the glaze with a stiff bristle brush, working it across the grain to make sure it gets into the pores. Wipe the excess off with a dry rag. If the color is too dark, or it dries quickly, apply some mineral spirits to the rag to help remove the glaze. Let the glaze dry according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Step Five - Sealing

I believe that oak looks best with as little finish as possible, so I apply only one coat of shellac to seal the glaze in. If more durability is required a thinned coat of varnish or lacquer can be applied over the shellac. I don't recommend applying varnish directly over the dried glaze, it tends to pull up too much of the glaze. Spraying the finish over the glaze is best, since this will minimize any removal of the glaze.

Step Six - Waxing

Apply a paste wax to the furniture after the final coat is dry. Use a dark wax on the dark finishes and apply with 0000 steel wool. Buff the wax as soon as it hazes over to leave a soft sheen.


Dye powders, glazing stain, colors and shellac are available from:
Homestead Finishing Products
1935 W 96th St Unit Q
Cleveland OH 44102
1-800-286-0941 - Toll Free Fax Orders
Note: This company is owned by the author of the article.

Woodworker's Supply
1108 No. Glenn Rd.
Casper, WY 82601

Woodworker's Store
4365 Willow Dr.
Medina, MN 55340

Dry Dye powders available from:

Woodcraft Supply
210 Wood County Industrial Park
PO Box 1686
Parkersburg, WV 26102

Note: This process (and other finishing techniques) can be viewed in video form. Hand-Applied Finishes: Coloring Wood and Topcoats (The companion video to the book) is available from Badger Pond's bookstore.

Editors note: The author's book, Hand-Applied Finishes is available from Badger Pond's bookstore. This technique as well as others are fully covered in this well-written, heavily illustrated book.