Heirloom Quality Quartersawn White Oak Limbert Table #240 W/ Authentic Ammonia Fumed Finish




You can't spell Instructable without "table"...

I chose this project for several reasons. First, I really love Limbert tables. Second, I really needed to take my woodworking up to the next level - heirloom quality furniture. I also really wanted to explore the mythic ammonia fumed finish of authentic turn of the century furniture. Lastly, I thought it wouldn't suck if I could make more than one and sell the extra(s), so it had to be above my normal standards for using around the house.

I once watched an episode of Antique Roadshow where someone brought in an old Stickley dining room table and proudly claimed to have refinished it. The antique expert sighed, shook their head and said that by refinishing the piece, they had completely destroyed the value of it. Lesson learned the hard way...

In order to use an ammonia fumed finish, I needed to use white oak (red oak from big box stores doesn't work). This is because the particular tannins in white oak react favorably to the ammonia fumes a la Stickley. In order to have epic medullary ray fleck (or flake) in the finished piece, hence increasing its value (to myself and others), it.also needs to be quartersawn white oak for the ray fleck to show, the holy grail of Arts & Crafts woodworkers. The good news is that I use quartersawn white oak for just about every piece I do. It's around $7 per board foot, which is on the expensive side of things, but you definitely get what you pay for.

Most of my woodworking projects come from some need for a piece in the house. Ironically, I embarked on this project mostly just for the experience. I wanted to see if I could grow up and do woodworking like the experts do on TV and in magazines. While my previous woodworking projects have turned out nice, they are in some ways just hacks of the real thing. In all fairness though, we did need a side table/buffet for our small dining room so this design will fit that need.

Charles Limbert (1854-1923) brought some wonderful curves and grace to what was primarily a very rectangular Stickley catalog, while still remaining true to the form. Arts & Crafts furniture is primarily a celebration of the beauty of structure. Instead of hiding structure behind some fancy facade, the strength and simple beauty of the wood and the joints are what gives it an understated elegance.

If you're a fan of Stickley furniture, it's easy to stroll through antique shops that specialize in Arts & Crafts furniture that I can't afford and get a real feel for the authentic pieces. Most of the now 100 year old pieces that I've found have a pretty similar deep, rich, dark brown finish - a product of aging that's fun to try and reproduce. If you look at the Stickley catalog today, they have numerous finished from an almost Scandinavian lightness to that dark brown, all with fancy names like colors of fingernail polishes. There are numerous "recipes" in the woodworking forums that attempt to emulate these finishes, some of which are very popular, namely Jeff Jewitt's offerings.

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Step 1: Making Parts With Templates - the Key to Perfection and Repeatability

The secret to the success of a project like this is to make perfect templates. This allows for perfect execution and perfect repeatability (as needed). Once you make the prototype that proves the templates are accurate, you can crank out clones as needed. I thought the size and price point of a table like this would make it a sweet spot to do a production run as needed and be able to sell for a decent profit if I needed to subsidize my growing woodworking hobby/addiction.

Since this design is now 100 years old, it's easy to find plans, illustrations, etc. There's even a library of SketchUp furniture you can use for reference, thanks to guys like Robert Lang (Popular Woodworking) and others.

Tip: Not to distract you from making the templates at this time, but now is a great time to glue up all of the solid oak panels you'll need later. Make the panels generously oversized so you don't have problems with layout. Alternate growth rings to reduce cupping. You can work on the templates while they're drying. Also, if you don't have a ton of clamps (there are six panels in all), you'll be doing the glue ups in stages, which takes even more time. Nothing worse then a work stoppage while you watch glue dry.

Tip: When laying out the boards for the glue up, now is when you establish the good, "show" side of each panel. Label them In/Out as needed. One very important, yet subtle thing that sets really good woodworkers apart is their attention to grain selection. You want the finished panel to look like it's all one piece of wood, so match color, grain orientation, etc. as much as possible.

So I very carefully laid out the two templates, one for the four sides and one for the shelf. As you can see, they're not very pretty, but they are extremely accurate. Keep in mind that any flaw in the template will get transferred directly to the piece when routing the profile. I also make any notes on the templates as needed as your "library" of templates grows.

Tip: For cutting the insides of the template - While the template stock is still square (before you cut the angled sides off), put it up against the fence on the table saw and raise the blade up into the template material while the blade is spinning. This will make those inside verticals straight and square. You can also cut the center slot on the sides by flipping the still square blank to ensure it's centered.

There are various ways to attach a template to the work. Some people use double-sided tape or carpet tape, some use dabs of hot glue. Whenever possible, I prefer to use screws strategically located where they won't show in the final piece so there's no worrying about things going horribly awry at the router table. For example, the screws you see in the top of the template are going into the inside face of the side piece, so you'd have to stick your head into the table to even have a chance of seeing the holes.

The router bit of choice here is a flush trim bit (not to be confused with a pattern following bit - they're exactly the same only completely different). It has a bearing on the end that follows the profile of the template with a long enough blade to handle the 3/4" thick wood. I bought the most powerful router on the market so it uses 1/2" shank bits, so the whole setup is very sturdy and safe. A lot of the smaller routers use 1/4" shank bits, which is fine, just don't overload them by removing too much wood in single pass.

All of the solid wood parts are rough cut with table saw, band saw, jig saw, etc. to get them to within 1/8" of the template profile if it's a routed edge. This way, you're not removing too much wood with the router and it will just sweeten up the profile, reducing sanding, tear-out issues, etc. later on.

When routing, as a general rule, go clockwise on the insides of parts and counterclockwise when doing the outside of the parts. I remember this because there's the word "OUT" in cOUnTerclockwise. With that being said, there are times when climb cutting (going the opposite direction away from the blade rotation) is required. This can be for roughing out, reducing tear out near corners and edges or when dealing with wood grain direction changes, etc. Ask your doctor if climb cutting is right for you.

I should probably mention that all the parts for this table are made from 4/4 (four quarter) solid quartersawn white oak. This means that they're 3/4" of an inch thick (confusing, I know). This comes from the fact that the wood starts out rough from the mill at 1" thick, then both faces get planed smooth down 1/8" each, making the finished board 1" - 1/8" - 1/8" = 3/4". This is a very standard thickness and is available at both quality lumber yards and big box stores.

Tip: Once you're done with the project, your templates are still very valuable - either for your use to others.

Step 2: Some Actual Woodworking...

The trickiest part of this build is the miter cut on the angled legs. A tapering jig/sled is the perfect tool for this operation if you have one. If not, this may be a perfect opportunity to make one. Over the years, I've used the cheap store bought aluminum ones, made one-offs for a specific project, and then finally made a decent (safe) one with parts from the woodworking store (see image of plans from Popular Woodworking Magazine).

With the table saw blade tilted at 43°, cut the miters for the sides of the legs. This will allow the outsides of the legs to pinch together tightly during glue up, leaving any potential gap on the inside where it won't be visible. Make sure you know which face (In/Out) should be up or down with respect to the cut you're making since this step permanently establishes the good side out.

The top and bottom of each side panel get cut off at 87°. This will create the graceful 3° angle to the sides. This slight angle completely eliminates the boxy look of straight sides and gives the design some lift. At this point, you won't be able to resist leaning the four sides together to see what you've accomplished.

Tip: Always save angled cut offs. They make be super useful as clamping cauls (angled clamping blocks) later on in the process.

Make the half lap joint on the table top stretchers while the stock is still long. Test fit them so they're snug, but don't fall apart or have to be pounded together. You can do this with a dado blade on the table saw, hand saw and chisel, whatever you have available. Then, when you're happy with the fit, cut them to length and make the decorative ends.

The dadoes on each side of the stretchers are easy to do with a dado stack blade on the tablesaw. It also can be cut with multiple passes using the regular blade, or it can be done with a router (use sacrificial pieces of scrap on each side to eliminate tear-out).

Sand all parts to 220 grit while the parts are still able to be laid flat. Some people sand to 320, but I think this makes the surface less accepting of the finish when it's applied in a liquid format.

The next step is to glue up the sides. Ratcheting band clamps are good for holding together tapered sides. Practice the glue up before you actually smear glue on the tapered edges to ensure success. Use a rubber mallet or a dead blow hammer to get the corners to behave. Wipe off any squeeze-out as soon as all four corners are aligned. I use Titebond II glue for all interior furniture.

Attaching the top is easy with "figure 8" table top fasteners. Using the appropriate sized Forstner bit (11/16"), cut one half of the figure 8 into the top four edges of the "box". Then lay the top upside down on a flat surface and place the "box" with the figure 8's installed and screw the other half into the top with the figure 8 hardware centered to accept any future seasonal wood movement.

Step 3: Finish I: Ammonia Fuming

Once the table is now a single, solid piece of furniture, it's time to tackle the finish. The key step in finishing this project is the ammonia fuming. Although nominally a pretty toxic process, it can be done safely and it closely approximates the authentic ammonia fuming process used by the Stickley company in the early 1900's..

Some interesting (to me) history: Gustav Stickley settled on the ammonia fuming process because he wanted to actually suppress the mother of pearl-like opalescence of the medullary ray flake/fleck that quartersawn white oak is so famous for. Ironically, modern-day woodworkers want to celebrate and bring out the very same phenomenon (called chatoyance - means "cat's eye" in French). One way is to start with a base of ammonia-fumed white oak (which admittedly results in a rather dull finish by itself) and then add additional steps/products to make the grain "pop" through it.

First, you'll need to source the 29% anhydrous ammonia. With the advent of crystal meth, anhydrous ammonia has gotten a really bad rap as it's evidently an ingredient to manufacture the drug. The good news is that honest people can still get it at your local print shop. It's still used in some printing processes. You can get a gallon for about $30. You might have to show an ID or something when you purchase it. Put your newly purchased bottle in a trash bag, seal it up with a twist tie, put it in the back of the car, making sure to prop it up so it can't tip over on the way home. Note, these are not just suggestions.

Once you have the ammonia safely home, you'll need to build a tent. You can either build a tent large enough for various projects you might want to fume in the future or you can build a tent for this specific piece. I chose a small, tight-fitting tent. Take the table's rough dimensions and add six inches of clearance on all sides. You don't want the wood to touch the tent anywhere. Using small dimensioned lumber or scrap (furring strips or 2x2's) build a simple, square-cornered frame. Pre-drill and screw all the corners so that it's strong enough (you definitely don't want this thing to fail during the fuming process). Then, using the cheap plastic painter's tarp and a staple gun, securely cover the five sides of your box. Try to make the sides relatively tight. Once again, you don't want the plastic to be able to touch the table during fuming. Drop the tent over the table to make sure it fits with plenty of clearance on all sides.

WARNING: Anhydrous ammonia is extremely toxic. It's literally like declaring chemical warfare on yourself. Make sure you have goggles, respirator and gloves at the very least.

Setup everything you'll need in a very well-ventilated area. I chose the driveway. Don't underestimate how nasty this stuff smells. It will burn eyes, nose, throat, etc. I even told my neighbors what I was doing so they didn't report me as a meth lab. Set out your jug of ammonia, a small glass pie pan (surface area is important) and your table. Put the tent over the table and at least one scrap piece of white oak as a gauge stick.

Once you've donned your safety gear and you're all setup and ready to go, take a huge breath and hold it. Carefully unscrew the lid to the ammonia and fill the pie pan. Put the cap on the jug and carefully slide the bowl under the tent, not touching the table. Lower the tent into position and take several steps away from the tent. Now you can breathe again.

Since this was my first attempt at the fuming process, I placed a scrap piece of white oak inside the tent to gauge the fuming process without having to mess with the tent or table. Fuming is a long, slow process, so I checked on it about every couple of hours. You can use this to gauge how dark you want your piece. I wanted that dark, classic look, so it was under for three days. At some point, all of the tannins on the surface will have maxed out their reaction and the fuming just penetrates deeper, so there's no point in it cooking any longer.

After the fuming process was finished, my inquisitive nature caused me to cut off a section of the gauge stick. The fuming had penetrated into the wood almost 3/16". Wow!

Step 4: Finish II: Bringing Out the Beauty

The fumed white oak by itself is very flat and dull. In order to jazz it up, several coats are usually added to make the grain "pop". The idea being that the layers work together to give the finish some depth. There are almost as many recipes for an "authentic" finish as there are woodworkers, but most certainly don't start with ammonia fumed oak.

After doing a ton of research, I settled on the following top coats post-fume: amber shellac and gel stain. Having some fumed scrap to do sample finishes on really helped.

I used Zinsser's Bulls Eye Amber Shellac. This stuff is alcohol-based so dries very quickly. That makes it surprisingly difficult to work with because you always want to brush it on with a wet edge. It works best with a bristle brush, but they always lose hairs while you're applying the finish, which means you have to take time to dig the hairs out. This leaves fingerprints in the finish and your wet edge is drying while you're fussing with the hairs. Very frustrating. Using nicer brushes is an option, but I hate cleaning brushes. My solution: use CA glue on the base of your bristle brush where it meets the metal band. This keeps a lot more hairs in place. Make sure your shellac is well-mixed as the solids will settle to the bottom of the can, diluting your finish. I did three coats in total. The first coat is diluted 50% with isopropyl alcohol.

Once the shellac is dry, go over the entire piece with 320 sandpaper, knocking the high spots and brush marks off as needed. Then use a tack cloth and compressed air to clean off the table. If you sand through the shellac, it's not a big deal, just brush on more shellac and re-sand. Since the fuming goes deep into the wood grain, you don't have to worry about sanding through that.

I chose General Finishes Antique Walnut gel stain because on the fumed and shellacked scrap, it looked the most authentic. Using a foam brush, I applied the gel stain liberally over an area like the top or a side panel. Before it can dry, using a clean cotton cloth, wipe off the excess. This leaves a noticeable, deep rich tint over the shellac and brings out even more contrast of the grain. Once you're done with the entire table, let it dry for a day in a dust-free environment.

I then gave the whole thing three coats of General Finishes Arm R Seal Wipe-On Satin Polyurethane for protection. Since it will be used as a sideboard in our small dining room for the time being, I wanted to make sure it had a water and stain-resistant finish.

I really learned a lot on this project, so I consider this a prototype. Any additional ones I make will hopefully be nearly perfect and suitable for selling or as very special gifts. I am probably more proud of this table than any other piece of furniture I've ever built and I really matured as a woodworker.

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. If you liked this Instructable, please vote for me at the top of the page in the Tables & Desks Contest.

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    13 Discussions


    2 years ago

    What does the shellac do in addition to the polyurethane, please?

    2 replies

    Reply 1 year ago

    Yes, the shellac works with the fumed oak finish to make the medullary ray flake/fleck turn opalescent. It's supposed to emulate the factory Stickley finish.


    Reply 2 years ago

    As a basecoat, thinned shellac will seal the wood to prevent any oils or other contaminants from floating to the surface of your other finish coats. Sellac will also make the grain really pop and is my go to basecoat for all my natural wood products. The shellac needs to be dewaxed shellac such as Zinzers Seal a Coat. Minwax wipe on poly is the poly I always use over the shellac. Together, the two finishes will give you a deep rich finish with a minimum of work and mess.


    2 years ago

    Great setup! thanks for more inspuration!


    2 years ago

    Beautiful piece. I've used a very similar process to add a very nice blue patina to copper pieces. I wonder if there are people out there who do this process with pieces that have copper imbedded into wood.

    Also I wanted to point out to others that ammonia fumes are not actually considered harmful to health unless you are exposed to fairly high ppm levels. That said, it can be EXTREMELY uncomfortable to be exposed to those fumes well before you reach that "harmful" threshold so you should take all of the precautions that you possibly can when handling it. Another interesting aspect of ammonia is that the fume cloud doesn't dissipate super well so it can travel down the street and make your neighbor's eyes water. Warning your neighbors is a very good thing to do!
    Source: worked on a high purity anhydrous ammonia system.


    2 years ago

    Beautiful piece of work...thanks for sharing your process!

    Cheese Queen

    2 years ago

    For another beautiful authentic finish over fumed oak, try garnet shellac or seedlac, the less refined and more deeply colored progenitors of the big box store stuff. Dissolve in denatured (not isopropyl) alcohol (1 to 3 pounds per gallon, making a 1# cut, 2# cut, etc) and pour through some cheesecloth when fully dissolved to catch any bug parts.

    I usually apply with a lintless rag pad.


    2 years ago

    Fantastic table and process, and an ever better write-up. Well done!


    2 years ago

    Very interesting table design. Great ible.


    2 years ago

    Great little table! voted!


    2 years ago

    Too bad I can't vote twice....this is a well done and well written project. Thanks


    2 years ago

    Beautiful! I love the design :)