How Was Woodwork Usually Finished in the 30S

Woodwork has always been a quintessential craft, and its techniques have evolved over the years to reflect the prevailing trends of each era. In the 1930s, woodworking experienced a surge in popularity, with an emphasis on intricate craftsmanship and attention to detail.

One crucial aspect of woodwork during this time was the finishing process, which added both beauty and durability to pieces. This article delves into the various wood finishing techniques that were prevalent in the 1930s, exploring their application, aesthetics, and impact on contemporary woodworking.

During the 1930s, woodworking saw a substantial shift towards traditional finishes that showcased the beauty and natural grain of wood. Traditional wood finishes such as shellac, varnish, French polishing, painted finishes, and wax were commonly used to enhance woodwork. Each finish had its unique qualities and application methods that contributed to its popularity during this era. Understanding these traditional techniques provides insight into both historical craftsmanship and their relevance in current woodworking practices.

One of the most widely used wood finishes during this period was shellac. It was favored for its versatility and ability to bring out the depth of colors in wood. The article will explore shellac’s significance as a preferred finish in the Thirties while discussing its application process and notable furniture pieces finished with shellac during this time.

Overall, by examining these historical woodworking techniques from the 1930s, we gain a deeper understanding of how craftsmanship has evolved over time while appreciating timeless beauty. This exploration opens up possibilities for contemporary artisans to draw inspiration from these techniques when crafting their own unique pieces. From shellac to painted finishes or wax coatings, each technique brings history alive through artistry on wood surfaces.

Traditional Wood Finishes

During the 1930s, traditional wood finishes played a crucial role in enhancing the beauty and durability of woodworking projects. Woodworkers during this era had various techniques and materials at their disposal to achieve the desired results. In this section, we will explore the common wood finishes used in the 1930s, discuss their application methods, and delve into their aesthetics and durability.

One popular traditional wood finish during the 1930s was shellac. Shellac gained popularity for its versatility and ability to create a smooth, glossy finish on wood surfaces. Craftsmen appreciated shellac for its easy application process, which involved dissolving flakes of shellac resin in alcohol and applying it to the wood using a brush or cloth. This method allowed for even coverage and quick drying time.

Apart from shellac, varnish was another commonly used wood finish in the 1930s. Varnish provided an added layer of protection to wooden surfaces while enhancing their natural beauty. There were different types of varnishes available, each with its characteristics such as glossiness or matte appearance.

Craftsmen would carefully select the type of varnish that suited their desired outcome and apply it using either a brush or spray gun. The multi-step process involved sanding between coats to achieve a smooth and flawless finish.

French polishing also enjoyed immense popularity during this era due to its luxurious touch on woodwork. This meticulous technique involved applying numerous thin layers of shellac using a pad made from cotton or wool soaked in alcohol and abrasive powder. Each coat was carefully buffed by hand until achieving a high-gloss finish with exceptional depth and richness. French polished woodwork exuded elegance and sophistication, making it highly sought after for fine furniture pieces during that time.


During the 1930s, shellac emerged as a preferred wood finish due to its versatility and popularity among woodworkers. Shellac is a natural resin extracted from the lac beetle, native to India and Southeast Asia. It was highly valued for its ease of application, beautiful finish, and remarkable durability. This versatile wood finish played a significant role in enhancing the appearance of furniture and other wooden objects during this era.

One of the reasons shellac gained widespread popularity in the 1930s was its ease of application. Woodworkers could easily apply shellac using a brush or pad, allowing them to effortlessly cover large areas or intricate details with equal precision. Additionally, shellac layers could be built up gradually to achieve the desired depth and sheen, making it easy for craftsmen to control the final appearance of their work. This made shellac an ideal choice for both amateurs and professionals alike.

Furthermore, shellac had numerous qualities that made it an attractive wood finish in the 1930s. It offered excellent adhesion to various types of wood surfaces while enhancing their natural beauty with a warm amber hue.

Shellac also provided protection against moisture, heat, and moderate wear and tear, making it suitable for a wide range of applications including furniture, cabinetry, musical instruments, and interior trim. Its ability to dry quickly allowed woodworkers to complete projects efficiently and move on to subsequent stages without delay.

Many iconic furniture pieces from the 1930s showcased the beauty of shellac as a wood finish. Notable examples include Art Deco-style cabinets with sleek lines and glossy finishes that emphasized the elegance imparted by shellac. The popular use of blonde or light-colored woods such as maple perfectly complemented the warm tones achieved with shellac finishes, creating visually stunning pieces that embodied the spirit of that era’s design aesthetic.


During the 1930s, varnish played a crucial role in enhancing the beauty and strength of woodwork. Varnish is a clear, protective finish made by combining resin, oil, and solvent. It was commonly used on furniture, cabinetry, and wood trim to provide a protective layer while enhancing the natural beauty of the wood grain.

In the 1930s, there were different types of varnishes available to woodworkers. One popular type was spar varnish, which was specifically designed for outdoor use due to its high resistance to water and UV rays. Another commonly used varnish was polyurethane varnish, known for its durability and fast-drying properties.

The application process of varnish typically involved several steps to achieve optimal results. First, the wood surface had to be properly prepared by sanding it smooth and removing any existing finishes or imperfections. Next, a coat of thinned varnish would be applied using a brush or spray gun in long, even strokes. After allowing this coat to dry completely, subsequent coats would be added until achieving the desired level of protection and sheen.

What To Use For Heavy Duty Dismantling Of Woodwork

One notable advantage of using varnish as a wood finish is its ability to enhance both the beauty and strength of the woodwork. The clear coating brought out the richness of the natural color and grain pattern of different woods commonly used in that era such as oak or mahogany. Additionally, varnish created a tough barrier that protected the wood from moisture damage, scratches, and wear over time.

Famous furniture pieces from the 1930s exemplify how varnish was used to enhance their appeal. For instance, Art Deco furniture featured sleek lines with highly polished mahogany surfaces that were often finished with multiple layers of glossy varnish. The result was an elegant piece that showcased both craftsmanship and durability.

French Polishing

During the 1930s, French polishing emerged as a highly popular and sought-after wood finishing technique. Known for its elegant and luxurious appearance, French polishing was often used to enhance the beauty of fine furniture and interiors. This meticulous process involved layer upon layer of shellac, meticulously applied by hand, resulting in a deep, lustrous finish that brought out the natural grain and color of the wood.

The art of French polishing requires a skilled craftsman who painstakingly applies shellac using a pad made from wadding wrapped in cotton cloth. The pad is dipped into a mixture of shellac flakes dissolved in alcohol and then gently rubbed onto the wood surface using circular motions. Each coat must be allowed to dry thoroughly before applying subsequent layers, often requiring numerous coats to achieve the desired depth and richness of the finish.

One of the defining characteristics of French polishing is its ability to create a flawless mirror-like surface with incredible depth and clarity. The thin layers of shellac can be built up to provide exceptional smoothness and a glass-like sheen that enhances both the visual appeal and tactile experience of woodwork. This technique was especially favored for high-end furniture pieces, pianos, and architectural detailings, as it exuded an air of opulence and sophistication.

Fine Examples

  1. Art Deco Console Table: In the 1930s, Art Deco design reigned supreme, with its emphasis on sleek lines, geometric shapes, and luxurious materials. Many fine examples of Art Deco furniture were finished with French polish, such as an exquisite console table crafted from rich mahogany veneer. The French-polished finish brought out the luster and warmth of the wood while adding an extra touch of elegance to this iconic piece.
  2. Grandfather Clock: Another notable example is a grandeur grandfather clock featuring intricate marquetry and carved details. French polishing was used to highlight the complexity of the woodwork, creating a beautiful contrast between light and dark tones. This technique allowed for greater depth and dimension, making the clock a true showpiece in any interior of the time.
  3. Ballroom Dance Floor: French polishing was not limited to furniture alone. In upscale hotels and ballrooms, wooden dance floors were often finished with this technique. The deep shine achieved through French polishing added an element of glamour to the space, creating a luxurious ambiance that perfectly complemented the elegant attire and lively dancing of the era.

Painted Woodwork

During the 1930s, painted woodwork became a popular choice for adding color and character to interiors. This trend was influenced by the rise of Art Deco and Modernism, which brought bolder and more vibrant colors into interior design. The techniques of painting woodwork varied, from simple solid colors to more intricate decorative designs.

One technique commonly used in the 1930s was stencil painting. Stencils were created with various designs, such as geometric patterns or floral motifs, and applied to doors, trim, and other wooden surfaces. This method allowed for precise and consistent designs that added a touch of elegance and sophistication to interiors.

Another popular painting technique during this era was lacquering. Lacquer paint was applied in multiple thin coats to create a smooth finish that enhanced the natural grains of the wood while providing a glossy sheen. This technique was often used on furniture pieces such as cabinets, tables, and chairs.

The color schemes adopted during the 1930s emphasized bold combinations and contrasts. Black-and-white color schemes were particularly popular, giving interiors a sleek and modern feel. Other favored color combinations included pastel hues paired with rich jewel tones for a vibrant yet sophisticated look.

The iconic examples of painted woodwork from the 1930s can still be seen today in many historic homes and buildings that have preserved their original features. These painted finishes not only added color to interiors but also served as a reflection of the artistic movements of the time.

Painting TechniqueColor SchemesFamous Examples
Stencil PaintingGeometric patterns, floral motifsTiffany & Co.’s Fifth Avenue Salon, New York
LacqueringBlack and white, jewel tones with pastelsRadio City Music Hall, New York

The painted woodwork of the 1930s continues to inspire contemporary interior design. The bold use of color and intricate designs have made a comeback in modern homes and commercial spaces. By appreciating the timeless beauty of these painting techniques from the 1930s, we can bring a touch of vintage charm and character to our own interiors.

Wax Finishes

During the 1930s, wax finishes were a popular choice for achieving a natural and warm glow on woodwork. This section will discuss the use of wax as a wood finish during this period, including the application process and the benefits it provided.

Use of Wax Finishes in the 1930s

Wax finishes were highly regarded in the 1930s for their ability to enhance the beauty and luster of wood. They were particularly favored for furniture pieces, cabinetry, and other wooden surfaces that required protection while showcasing the natural qualities of the material. Unlike some other finishes that create a barrier between the wood and its environment, wax allowed the grain and texture of the wood to be admired without compromising its durability.

Application Process and Benefits

To achieve a wax finish on woodwork in the 1930s, craftsmen would typically apply a layer of clear or tinted wax using a soft cloth or brush. The wax was spread evenly over the surface and left to dry before being buffed with a clean cloth to create a smooth and glossy finish.

One of the main advantages of using wax finishes was their ease of application. Compared to more labor-intensive techniques like French polishing or varnishing, applying wax was relatively simple. Additionally, wax finishes provided an excellent protective barrier against moisture, dust, and scratches while allowing for easy maintenance. Minor blemishes could often be repaired by simply applying another coat of wax.

Furthermore, one notable benefit offered by wax finishes was their ability to deepen and enrich the color of different wood species. By enhancing both light and dark tones in wood grain patterns, waxes helped highlight unique characteristics and give wooden surfaces greater depth and complexity.

Drawings Of Woodworking Tools

Famous Examples

Many furniture pieces from the 1930s showcased exquisite craftsmanship combined with beautiful wax finishes. Some notable examples include Art Deco cabinets, tables, and chairs that displayed the rich combination of polished wood and sleek lines. In addition, mid-century modern furniture pieces often featured wax finishes, emphasizing the natural characteristics of teak and other wood species.

Notable designers and craftsmen such as Jacques Adnet and Donald Deskey used wax finishes to achieve a luxurious sheen on their furniture designs. Their work in the 1930s helped popularize wax finishes as a mark of elegance and sophistication in woodwork.

Overall, wax finishes played a significant role in achieving a natural glow on wood surfaces during the 1930s. The simplicity of application, protective qualities, and ability to enhance the beauty of different wood species made them a popular choice among craftsmen and homeowners alike. Today, these finishes continue to be appreciated for their timeless charm and contribution to the legacy of woodworking in the 1930s.

Notable Woodworkers and Their Approach to Finishing in the 1930s

During the 1930s, numerous woodworkers contributed to the rich legacy of woodworking finishes. These skilled artisans left their mark on the industry with their unique approaches and distinctive styles. From iconic furniture pieces to innovative application techniques, these notable woodworkers shaped the way woodwork was finished during this era.

  1. George Nakashima: Embracing the Natural Beauty of Wood George Nakashima, a Japanese-American woodworker, embraced a simple yet elegant approach to finishing in the 1930s. Known for his use of natural edges and organic forms, Nakashima believed in showcasing the inherent beauty of wood rather than hiding it under layers of finish.
    He often used a mixture of oil and beeswax to enhance the grain and luster of his pieces, resulting in a natural and warm finish that highlighted the true essence of the wood.
  2. Wharton Esherick: Experimenting with Texture and Sculptural Forms Wharton Esherick, an American sculptor and woodworking artist, took a more experimental approach to finishing during this period. Esherick was known for using unconventional tools and techniques to achieve unique surface textures on his wooden pieces.
    He would often carve intricate patterns or create sculptural elements within his furniture designs. To finish his works, Esherick would apply multiple coats of oil-based varnish, enhancing both the beauty and durability of his creations.
  3. Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann: Emphasizing Luxury and Sophistication Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, a French designer renowned for his Art Deco furniture creations, brought a touch of luxury and sophistication to woodwork finishing in the 1930s. Ruhlmann’s pieces were characterized by their exquisite veneers and polished lacquer finishes.
    He often employed an elaborate process known as French polishing to achieve a glossy, mirror-like surface on his furniture. This extensive method involved applying numerous thin coats of shellac with a pad, followed by intense buffing and polishing.

These notable woodworkers and their unique approaches to finishing made a significant impact on the woodworking industry during the 1930s. Their commitment to craftsmanship, attention to detail, and innovative techniques continue to inspire and influence contemporary woodworkers today. By appreciating the work of these artisans from the past, we can better understand the timeless beauty and enduring legacy of woodworking finishes from the 1930s.


In conclusion, exploring the woodworking techniques of the 1930s provides a glimpse into the craftsmanship and artistry of that era. Traditional wood finishes played a vital role in enhancing the beauty and durability of woodwork during this time. Whether it was shellac, varnish, French polishing, painted woodwork, or wax finishes, each technique offered its unique aesthetic appeal and characteristics.

The legacy of 1930s woodworking finishes can still be seen in contemporary woodworking today. Many craftsmen continue to appreciate and utilize these techniques to create beautiful pieces that pay homage to the past. These finishes not only add depth and richness to woodwork but also provide a lasting protection for years to come.

It is important for us to recognize and appreciate the timeless beauty of 1930s woodworking finishes. By studying and understanding these techniques, we can preserve their legacy and incorporate them into modern designs.

Whether it is recreating iconic furniture pieces from the era or simply incorporating elements of these finishes into new creations, there is much inspiration to be found in the woodworking practices of the 1930s. So let us embrace this legacy and continue to explore and celebrate the artistry of woodwork finishing from this remarkable period in history.

Frequently Asked Questions

How did ancient people finish wood?

Ancient people used a variety of methods to finish wood, depending on the specific time period and region. One common technique was applying oils or waxes to the wood’s surface. These substances were often derived from natural sources such as animal fat or plant oils.

By rubbing these oils or waxes onto the wood, ancient people achieved both a protective coating and enhanced visual appeal. This process helped preserve and beautify the wood simultaneously.

How did they finish wood in the 1800s?

In the 1800s, finishing wood involved different techniques compared to ancient times, although some methods carried over from previous centuries. Varnish became increasingly popular during this era as it provided a durable and glossy finish. Varnish was typically made by dissolving resin in a solvent, such as turpentine, to create a liquid that could be applied to the wood’s surface.

This allowed for greater control over the application and produced a more consistent finish compared to traditional oil-based methods. Some other common finishing techniques used during this period included shellac and wax coatings.

What was used before varnish?

Before varnish became widely used as a finish for wood, there were several alternatives employed by craftsmen and artisans. One popular option was using shellac, which is derived from insect secretions known as lac resin. Shellac-based finishes offered a glossy appearance and good moisture resistance for wood surfaces. Another alternative was oil-based finishes.

Linseed oil, derived from flaxseed, was often heated with resins or pigments to create an effective coating for protecting and enhancing the look of wooden objects. Furthermore, wax coatings were commonly employed wherein beeswax or other types of wax were applied to achieve a smooth finish while also providing some level of protection against moisture and wear. Overall, before varnish became dominant, these substances played essential roles in finishing wooden items along with various combinations of oils, resins, waxes, and natural dyes available at that time period.

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