I first learned of a pure soap flake finish from a Danish fellow who I was sharing studio space with as an artist in residence at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, in Maine. He said it was a traditional finish used by the Danes for everything from dining chairs and tables to case goods. He went on to describe how once a year the home-maker would warm a pot of water on the stove and scrub all of the furniture down with this mixture. The process would remove the dirt, grease and grime that had built up over the course of the year. The result was furniture as clean and white as the day it first entered the home.
Froth with a Spoon
Once the dried soap flakes are combined with water, it’s time for mixing. A spoon, chucked in a drill, works wonders. Mix until the soap flakes are completely dissolved.
Wet, Even Coats
Froth can be applied all over the piece and left for a few minutes to soak in. Then use a clean cloth to remove any excess froth and build up from the finished piece. Once the piece is dry you can apply another coat.
Clean and Safe
I was skeptical at first, but when he finished applying it to a cabinet I was convinced it was something I needed to try for myself. In this age of “green solutions”, this is as environmentally friendly a finish as one will ever find. It consists of nothing more than pure soap flakes and water. This means I don’t need to wear a respirator, gloves, glasses, or apply it in a spray booth because it has zero VOCs.
The only North American source to purchase the soap flakes that I know of is msodistributing.com. The process of mixing is simple. There are no hard and fast rules for the right mixture, but in my case I filled the bottom of a mixing bowl with 1/4″–1/2″ of water, and threw in a moderate handful of soap flakes. I then whisked it for about five minutes with a spoon chucked in a drill. The consistency for initial applications was a thick froth, similar to home-made whipping cream.
Once it is mixed, I use a clean white cotton rag and apply the soap by scooping up froth and rubbing it into the wood. I apply the froth to the work thoroughly and coat the parts more then once per application. At this point I let the finish soak in for a few minutes. I then use a new cotton rag and wipe down the frame, removing any excess suds that built up in corners or soaked into the wood. It takes an hour or so for the work to fully dry. I then give the piece a light sanding. After the first two coats, I use 220 grit, then begin working to 600 grit with subsequent coats. Tastes may vary, but I have found a minimum of four coats is required, though I have applied as many as 10 before. The great part is it can all be done in a single day if drying conditions are good. The following day I buff the work with a non-abrasive white buffing pad (similar to the scotch-Brite pads) and the finish is complete.
Not a Bar-top Finish
Soap finish will not take abuse like varnish or epoxy, but that is not its intention. It is an “in-the-grain” finish, and although it has a noticeable sheen, it is a very minimal finish. It does not make the work sparkle and shine. Instead, it reveals a very muted beauty for those that love the touch and look of natural wood. It is the smoothest finish I have ever touched, and has a very alluring quality to it. It is prone to patina quicker than other finishes; for some, this is desirable. The beautiful part about it is whether it’s dirt on an armrest from someone’s hands or a spilt glass of red wine, a cloth with warm water and a bit of scrubbing will remove the stains.
Soap finish has become my finish of choice, no question. It is a beautiful minimalist finish that is more enjoyable to work with than any other finishing product I have encountered. It’s quicker to apply then most hand-applied finishes, and leaves a very raw, yet finished appearance. There is however one major downside to the soap finish. It only works well on lighter toned woods – white oak, ash, maple, beech, and species of comparable tones. It is a very muted look that does not yellow the tone of the wood, which is a common downside to using standard wood finishes with these species.