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Curing the Red Oak Blues ... A 500-Year-Old Technique Makes a Comeback

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that a good amount of homes in the Napa Valley contain some form of red oak. Most of it can be found in kitchen and bathroom cabinets and on floors. Some homeowners like it and some do not. If you’re one of the latter, you’ve probably spent time wondering what to do about it. In the case of your cabinets, for instance, they may be the right size, in the right place, and you can’t justify replacing them. You could paint them but some would never dream of painting wood and I tend to agree – unless it’s red oak. In that case, paint away.

If you find yourself in this predicament, the Spirits of Saturn, otherwise known as “Venetian ceruse”, may be the cure. If these terms are not foremost in your vocabulary, just think of a blend of vinegar and white lead. Ceruse was a concoction that sixteenth century’s high society, including Queen Elizabeth I, wore on their faces to give an of overly-flawless and white appearance. Since Venice was the fashion capital of the world at that time, it exported the highest quality of ceruse. Of course, since lead is toxic, and probably contributed to the Queen’s demise, “high-quality lead” might be an oxymoron of a sort. But with some adjustment, ceruse can still rescue your cabinets. And, those who are ordinarily opposed to painting wood might even agree.

Five hundred years ago, craftsmen repurposed ceruse and applied it to wood surfaces which led to the discovery of a new, decorative floor and furniture finish. When rubbed into wood, the substance muted the original color and magnified the grain. The result was called “cerused wood” and, today, do-it-yourselfers can recreate the look, minus the health hazard, with a cerusing wax – a blend of clear wax and white liming paste.

Cerused wood is similar to, but different than, whitewashed or bleached wood. While all three lighten and brighten wood and accentuate the grain, the cerusing technique is the simplest and least messy option. Whitewashing requires diluting paint in water before application, and bleaching entails neutralizing the applied finish with vinegar and water.

Cerusing can be used on any wood but works best on red or white oak, elm and ash because of their open grains. Of all the decorative finishes you may have tried in the past, this is the easiest one to apply. You just wipe down your cabinets with a lint-free rag and Simple Green to clean and remove grease. You then follow with water to remove any Simple Green residue. There’s no need to strip, sand or prime. In fact, doing so may interfere with the look you’re ultimately going for. When dry, you simply brush on a coat of cerusing wax and buff away the excess with a new lint-free cloth. That’s it. The deep ridges of the grain will hold some of the white coloring. This technique works on bare, stained, or painted wood. Bare wood will produce the most dramatic effect because its unfilled pores are more receptive to the wax.

You can find many how-to videos on this subject but I recommend “Cerusing with Amy Howard”, a YouTube video dated September 14, 2017. Howard instructs, answers questions, and keeps it simple while giving a demonstration. She sells the exact cerusing wax needed for this type of project on her website She also sells a liming wax which is slightly different. Her video explains which to use depending on the outcome you want. Amy Howard products are also one-hundred percent natural.

Cerusing is a great way to cut and eliminate the orange undertone in red oak. But, if you want to change the color altogether, Amy Howard’s One-Step Paint is an easy answer. It’s a chalk-based paint that can be applied directly onto shellacked, lacquered or painted wood as well as metal, brick and even Formica. You can then leave the painted finish as is or top it with her toxic-free lacquer, liming wax or cerusing wax.

If you’re thinking this technique is too country-cute, think again. French interior designer, Jean-Michel Frank, was known for his minimalist style. You may be familiar with one of his designs, the Parsons table, a modernist rectangular table top with rectangular legs. Jean-Michel Frank’s clean, straight-lined, Art Deco furnishings were distinguished by his use of sumptuous materials and finishes – including cerused-oak.

When it comes to transforming oak kitchen and bath cabinets, two looks immediately come to my mind, especially if the countertops can be replaced as well: (1) black, painted oak using One-Step Paint (because it’s the easiest paint to use), cerused, topped with white quartz, and decorated with champagne or brass hardware. Or, (2) cerused oak, applied directly to clean, unpainted cabinets, topped with grey-black soapstone and decorated with black or polished chrome hardware.

If you think ceruse could be the cure for your red oak blues, you might practice on a small piece like a bathroom vanity or a flea market find. Then, graduate to kitchen cabinets and even your floor. The transformation will be stunning if you choose the right color palette and work patiently.

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