Renewing an antique wood clock case is easier than you think. In this blog, I will take you through three simple steps to revitalize the finish on this fine American 30-hour shelf clock. Let’s begin with 2 assumptions.
- The word “simple” implies that you have done at least some work on clock cases/furniture pieces in the past.
- It is also assumed that the clock that is being renewed is intact and requires no structural repairs.
This Daniel Pratt Jr. reverse Ogee shelf clock was made in Reading, Massachusetts, around 1838. It has a splat-top between two pedestal type capitals. The mahogany veneered case with half reverse Ogee moldings is dirty but is in otherwise excellent condition. Moldings flank the veneered 2-panel door and a painted wooden Roman numeral dial with a mirrored lower tablet are its standout features. I doubt the mirrored tablet is original.
The case is dark and dirty with years of built-up oil and grime. It was dull and lifeless and has probably never seen a good cleaning. So, let’s get started. You will need a few things.
- 2-3 microfiber cloths
- A small quantity of traditional shellac
- Container for the shellac
- Terry cloth or cotton for French polish pad
- 400 grit sandpaper and 0000 steel wool
- Clean-up rags
Step 1 – cleaning the case
A thorough cleaning is the most important step. There is no point in applying wax or any other finishing coat until the case is free of years of dirt and grime.
Grease-cutting dish soap is certainly one option but my go-to cleaner is Murphys Soap. Use it either full strength or diluted with water depending on how deep and stubborn the dirt is on the finish. Use a light coloured microfiber cloth to visualize how much grime comes off. “Elbow grease” is necessary at this stage meaning you may have to work hard to get it clean but be patient, the results will unfold.
In the case of this clock case much of what came off were years of built-up dirt and oils and certainly, some of the original shellac finish. Some areas were down to bare veneer but this is to be expected.
Once the surface is thoroughly cleaned, it is wiped down with a clean damp rag. Allow the case to dry overnight to determine what if anything was missed. The next day if areas still require cleaning repeat the process then, let it dry thoroughly.
Finally, rub the case down with 0000 steel wool followed with a damp cloth and prepare for the next step.
Step 2 – first application of shellac
A modern polyurethane finish is not a substitute for traditional shellac. Shellac is the finish that would have been used at the time the clock was made. Shellac has been around since the early 19th century. What is it? Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It is processed and sold as dry flakes and dissolved in alcohol to make liquid shellac, and used as a wood finish.
If at all possible avoid canned shellac, it does not produce the same results and has a limited shelf life. If you have no access to shellac flakes check the expiry date on the liquid shellac can.
I use a 1 lb cut which is an 8 to 1 mixture, that is, 1oz of flake to 8 oz of denatured alcohol. It dries very quickly and many coasts can be applied in a relatively short period of time. Shellac comes in a number of shades but amber shellac, which I prefer, employs a warm glow to the finish. I use a French polish to apply the shellac. A ball fashioned out of terry clock is the most effective method of applying shellac. French polishing consists of building up layers of shellac. Moisten the pad in shellac, wipe off the excess and apply in long strokes.
French polishing is a finishing technique that results in a high gloss surface, with a deep colour.
Step 3 – steel wool between coats
400 grit sandpaper can be used for rougher sections prior to the first application of shellac. Use a damp cloth to clean off the residue from sanding and let dry. Otherwise, 0000 steel wool is all that is required to rub out the imperfections on the case after the first application of shellac. Repeat the process two times and allow for several hours drying time between coats.
Three coats is sufficient. More coats will produce a darker finish if that is what you are going for. If the finish is a too glossy and unnatural dull it down with 0000 steel wool until you have the effect you want.
Finally an application of a quality furniture paste wax will complete the effect. Minwax Paste Finishing Wax is the one I prefer.