I am finally bringing you the full instructions to ceruse. These instructions are the most comprehensive DIY instructions you’ll find to ceruse your piece. With these instructions you’ll be able to easily ceruse any piece. It’s been so long since I showed you how my bench turned out, here’s another look.
Over the years, I’ve seen pieces that were cerused and loved the look, but I assumed only woodworking professionals could achieve the look. All that ended the day I saw a post on my favorite blog, Little Green Notebook. There Jenny Komenda showed how she’d cerused a beautiful secretary. You can get those instructions HERE.
I have complete faith in Jenny (in fact I’m pretty sure we’d be best friends if we ever met) so I’m sure the struggles I encountered were due to my failings rather than any failing in Jenny’s instructions. To help me through my struggles, I turned to other sources for help like HERE and HERE.
- An oak piece.
- Gel furniture stripper
- Crappy brush to brush on stripper
- 2″ Plastic scraper (though at time I wished for a larger one, especially during the lime waxing step).
- Rubber gloves & protective eye gear
- Brass bristled brush (at least 10″ long)
- Denatured alcohol (at least a one quart)
- Aniline dye stain water-soluble – you’ll need to order this online since you generally can’t find this product in the big hardware stores. I used Nigrosine Black and got it HERE but I was torn between Nigrosine and Indigo Blue. Go HERE for all the colors
- Plastic container for mixing stain
- Brush or stain pad for applying stain
- Shellac (I used this ONE)
- Nice brush designed for applying varnish/shellac
- Lime wax
- Steel wool (2) 12-packs of Grade #000 & 0000
- Cheese cloth
- Tack cloth
- Soft bristled hand broom/brush or leaf blower/shop vac with blower attachment
- Clear paste wax
- Clean cloth or drill with car buffing attachment
Let’s take a look at where the bench started
It’s critical you use oak wood to do this technique because its grain is so uniquely pronounced. Other wood grains just aren’t pronounced enough.
Step 1: Strip it down
You’re going to have to strip off the old varnish and stain. I bought a stripper that needed to set for 15 minutes to work. That was a terrible move and is probably why I wasn’t able to follow Jenny’s directions. I’d suggest you use plain old gel stripper.
Working in small 2-feet x 2-feet sections, brush on the stripper and then scrub the piece with the brass-bristled brush to get the old varnish/stain out of the grain. This will also raise the grain of your piece.
If you find that the grain isn’t pronounced enough after this step, you can take the brass-bristled brush and brush in the direction of the grain to expose it further. This is what I had to do because I couldn’t really scrub my stripper. #HA! It’s important that you use a brass-bristled brush at this point in order to avoid discoloring your exposed, raw, stripped down wood.
When I got home, I discovered that I’d bought a pack of 3 small brass-bristled brushes. They were wrapped together and looked like one brush. Ugh. I left the wrapping on and used the brushes together. It ended up working fine but I’d urge you to carefully select your brass brush at the store to make sure it’s ONE medium/large-sized brush rather than 3 tiny ones.
Here’s what my piece looked like after it was stripped and brushed. The grain wasn’t as pronounced as Jenny’s was but I could definitely see the grain was more open than before.
Step 2: Stain it
It’s important that you use aniline dye for this step (I’m not entirely sure why that is but several different sites said the same thing). The aniline dye says you can use different bases to mix the dye with. I used denatured alcohol. In the end, I used the whole 4 oz container of dye and the whole quart of denatured alcohol to get the stain dark enough. I barely had enough to cover my bench.
After you’ve mixed your dye, you can either brush it on or apply it using a stain pad. I used a cheap, chip brush and I struggled to get an even and fully saturated coat. In retrospect, I should have either used a nicer brush or a stain pad.
Here are a couple of tips: (1) I had to keep stirring my stain because the powder would settle to the bottom — none of the guides I was following mentioned this so I suspect I mixed the dye incorrectly; (2) if you’ve stained furniture before you’re probably used to brushing on the stain and then wiping it off — don’t do that here; and (3) try applying the stain in one continuous stroke — others say that you’re not supposed to see brush strokes with this dye but I did — again maybe I mixed it wrong.
Here’s what it looked like after one coat.
I ended up having to do 2-3 coats to get it really dark. As you can see, it wasn’t entirely uniform.
Step 3: Shellac is not wack…
This was the easiest step. Shockingly. I used a nice brush and just brushed the shellac on in the direction of the grain. I applied two coats on the areas that will get the most use — the seat and back. But everywhere else I just did one coat.
Once the shellac is dry — this can happen in a few hours — rub it down with steel wool grade #0000. The steel wool dust will get into the grain. This will give you a sense of what the final results will look like. When you’re done, you’ll want to use either the shop vac, a soft bristled brush or a tack cloth to remove the dust between coats and also before starting Step 4.
After I applied the shellac, I seriously considered stopping there because it looked gorgeous. One of my neighbors who saw the bench said “It looks like something from Pottery Barn.” Mr. Man tried to convince me she meant it as a compliment but I’m not so sure since she fancies herself more of a “Restoration Hardware” type person. In any event, I didn’t stop there.
Step 4: Apply the Lime Wax
Up to this point, everything was going along swimmingly (for the most part). And then…I started to lime wax.
After my first pass, I seriously doubted myself and this technique. As you can see below, the results were underwhelming.
After some trial and error, I landed on the best technique to lime wax. It’s a three-part technique that uses the 2″ plastic scraper, and steel wool (Grade #000).
Tip: When working where two sides meet on the inside (like on my bench where the arm rest and seat meet) I’d suggest you tape off the side you’re not working on. This means you’ll have to wait until the first limed section is dry before you switch areas. If you don’t do this, you’ll get a large wax build up. I discovered this after I worked on the left side of my bench. Thankfully, I can hide that part with a pillow.
First, it’s important to work in small sections. I found working in 18″x 18″ sections worked best. Load the 2″ scraper with lime wax and push it into the piece going along the grain. Then wait 2-3 minutes. You may be tempted to wait longer since the instructions suggest you can wait up to 10 minutes but I found that the wax would dry too much if I waited that long. Once the wax dries it becomes harder to remove the wax that isn’t in the grain.
Here’s what it looked like after I did this first part.
Second, using the steel wool rub along the grain to remove the excess. Your goal is to remove only the wax that is not in the grain. The good thing about using steel wool is you can minimize the effect if you find it’s too intense. Depending on how big your piece is, you will use several steel wool pads. In fact, I went through a 12-pack bag.
Here’s how it looked after the first pass with the steel wool.
Finally, once you get most of the lime off, get a new steel wool pad for the final pass. (I’d then use the 2nd pad to do the first pass on the next section.) Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the bench after I finished this step. Basically, you’re just rubbing it down until you get the look you’re after. Imagine my final result with a little less shine.
Step 5: Wax on, wax off…
This step is not technically necessary but I really like the extra shine the waxing added.
By all accounts, this is the easiest step. And they’re right…assuming you do it right…I’ll start by telling you what I did wrong so you don’t repeat my mistakes. In my defense, the wax I used had terrible instructions.
I initially rubbed wax over the whole bench and then waited a few hours for it to “dry.” When I went back, the wax had hardened and it was cloudy, and no amount of “buffing” seemed to get it off. Below is a picture of how the bench looked a few hours after I’d waxed it.
I then did a google search trying to figure out how to fix it. The first website I found told me that all hope was lost and that I would have to strip the whole piece down and start over. I was devastated. I sincerely believed I’d ruined the piece. I mean how could a website on the first page of a Google search be wrong?!
I waited a few hours and once I’d gotten a grip, I did another Google search. This time I found a website on page 2 that gave me hope. And then I found a Youtube video that showed me the proper technique for applying wax. Armed with this new information, I tackled waxing the bench again.
If you find yourself in my predicament, just remember that it’s just wax and the fix is to apply more wax. This may seem counter intuitive but trust me it works.
The right way to apply wax is pretty straight forward. Just keep in mind two things: thin layers of wax are best and wax likes to be worked over.
First, you’ll want to make sure your piece is completely clean. I used the leaf blower attachment on our shop vac to blow all the dust and debris off of it. You could just brush it off with a soft bristled brush.
Next, you’re going to take a steel wool pad (Grade #0000) and load it with the paste wax. Don’t load too much on the pad. Then apply the wax to your piece going with the grain. Immediately take a folded up piece of cheese cloth and rub the wax in, going in all different directions. Then wait 5 minutes. I’d suggest working in small sections (e.g. 12″x12″ ) until you get a feel for the process.
When 5 minutes is up, you then buff the surface using a clean cloth or a car buffing attachment on a drill.
Tip: initially after applying the wax you’ll notice your piece has a shiny sheen but as the wax “dries” it will become hazy. The haze is the extra wax. You don’t want to wait too long to remove the haze/wax because then the haze will harden. If this happens, just apply another thin layer of wax and repeat.
I ended up using the drill attachment because the amount of rubbing I needed to do to get the piece shiny was going to require more arm strength and patience than I had. May be because I had so many layers of wax on the bench. Whatever the reason, I found buffing with the drill attachment incredibly efficient and effective — plus it was fun. I had set aside several house to re-wax the bench but it ended up only taking an hour. If you’re going to ceruse a large piece, I highly recommend using the buffer drill attachment.
And with that you’re done!
Here’s how my bench looked moments after I finished waxing it.
And here she is again in place and gussied up. If you’re curious how it looks day-to-day, imagine it covered with backpacks and jackets and the baskets partially pulled out because someone was looking for something, with a collection of shoes just outside the baskets because for some reason it takes too much effort/time/will to actually get them those few more inches into the basket.