Monday, April 26, 2010

What color is treen? All About Treen, Part 1

What color is treen? What is attic surface? What turns wood dark, or light? How can I tell a refinish from an old surface? What really is old surface? Yikes!
 Look at all the colors of the woods above. Which one is a dry original surface? Which one is cleaned down? Which one was refinished? Which ones are whitened with old washing? For answers, see the end of this post.

Lets first ask, how does wood color naturally? Well, wood ages like we all do, by the action of air and heat on the surface. It is called oxidizing. If you've ever seen the inside of an old attic, the underside of the roof, and beams, that's all you need to know. The heat and the exposure to air will color the wood by the extreme action of the elements on the wood. Wood is a natural product, made of carbon and water, just like you and me. Leave us out in the sun,and what happens? We tan, we get age spots and freckles, and wrinkles, and well you get the idea. However, if we are carefully protected from heat and exposure to air, we will not get tan.

Here is a pic of some parts to the inside of 18th C grandfather clocks. But it is a perfect example of how being protected can prevent aging. Look at the left hand frame, and the lighter colored circle. That is where a round gear was attached for 200 years, so that part of the frame did not darken nearly as much as the rest of the frame.  Perfect example. And while we're here, look at the top edge of the bases of the frame. Now there's only one time that these protected, hidden parts of the clocks would be touched, when they were worked on. And you can clearly see on the top edges of the bases where the clockmaker would grab the base and lift the frame up and out of the clock to work on it. These clock parts make good examples, as you know they were never finished or refinished or touched in any way, as they would never show. Only time and air and heat and some dust falling through the cracks in the hood would affect the native NE hardwoods.

 Another action that affects color is dirt, dust etc. what we often call patina. Here is a fine early spice container, and look at the tops of the turnings. This is what we want to see, as think of a dusty old attic. The dust would fall on the top edges, so you want those top edges to be dark, from the patina of the ages. Look at the top of the foot, see, very dark. Look however at the knob, not so dark. Think fingers, and a dust cloth, as this piece did get some wear, maybe when it was taken out of the attic and made ready to sell.

Look at the knob on this gorgeous covered spice container. Look at the top surface of the foot, where the dirt and light will fall, and look how much darker it is than the top of the lid where a dust cloth will keep the surface lighter. And look at the ridge where the top joins the base, a nice place where fingers to apply a little polish. Remember, our fingers have a bit of natural oil, and we apply to whatever we touch.

Look at the great turnings on this bowl, and look at the nice wear on the base, just where you'd want to see it. You might ask, why so much color difference here? Here you are looking at an 18th C mahogany bowl with tremendous darkness from dirt and patina, see how very dark the depth of the turnings are. On the base, the constant wear and abrasion from use on a table would not only wear off the patina, its worn right down into the bare wood.

Here is that spice container again, and look how light in color the base is. It sat on that base for years with no use and it was protected from the air and heat.

We talked earlier about refinishing. Here is a sweet little salt that was I think cleaned  down. Look at the chisel marks on the inside, where the maker shaped the inside curves, and see how much darker they are. Why would that be? I think the whole piece was very dark, and someone in the past scrubbed or sanded the piece to clean or lighten it up. When you scrub or sand or steel wool, you really just take off the higher points, and unless you're very through, you leave the deeper areas dark and dirty as they were. So in this piece, you see the high points and edges are lighter, and the deeper areas are the original darker color.

 Here is another example of color of treen. This is the back of an early drysink I had. Look at how the untouched unfinished back darkened over time. Look at the lighter areas where it rubbed against the wall for hundreds of years. That is the natural light pine color, and the rest is darkened aged pine, attic surface. Think how hard this would be to fake. Always look carefully at the back and underside of an antique. Very few fakers do much to them. Maybe he'll do a coat of dark stain to make it look older, but no nice wear marks, mouse holes, dust and cobwebs. Look at the variety of wear marks, small and large, deep and shallow, and the wear under the edge where you would grab it to move it. Few fakers would go to this much trouble to make a back look genuine.

Here's another color of treen. This is an old cheese drainer. Look at the gray or ash colored surface of the wood. This could be caused by lye soap, which used ash. It could also be caused by the action of the rennet in cheese and dairy work. This is an honest color of treen, usually seen in kitchen and dairy items. While we're at it, lets look at the worm holes. See how unevenly they are distributed, just like the natural work of the worms. These you see on items stored in damp areas, where the bugs thrive. Thus you find them on antiques from Europe and New England, and rarely on antiques from the Midwest.

Look at the variations of color on these treen plates. On the two plates on the left, and the hanging plate you can see darks and lights distributed over the face of the plate. Light colors on the edges where they were more worn, and darkness inside the rims, where crud would accumulate. Look at the plate on the right. This nice tiger maple plate was refinished at some time, so the color is even all over the plate, no darks and lights from wear, but some shadows on the right from the lighting.

OK, here is the test picture again. Can you see the whitish tone of two of the cutting boards, due to lye soap? Can you see the white lines where lye soap accumulated in the lines of the scrub board? Do you remember our cleaned down small dark bowl? Now look at the even color of medium brown in the tall treen candlestick. Do you think it was refinished a while ago? We know it was quite a while ago, as there is beginning to be darkness on the top edges of the turnings from dust or soot. Look at the beautiful variations of color on the herb grinder, lights and darks, wear on the edges. Look at the variations of natural color on the dark walnut cutting board at the back.

Did you pass the test? Are you now an expert on attic surface? If I missed anything, leave me a comment, or email me at, and I'll answer you back. Check back soon for part 2, about treen plates.

1 comment:

  1. Love your blog, website and most of all...your kitchen! How do I find you on facebook?