Conversion Varnish: A Finish You Can Live With

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Conversion Varnish: A Finish You Can Live With

On my day off this week I found myself getting ready for some company. As anyone with young children knows, it can be very hard to get housework done while the kids are in “play mode”. One way I get around this is to get the kids involved in the clean-up process, either by making it fun, or by bribery. This time I knew the perfect way to get them involved: give them the project of cleaning our dining room table and chairs.

Tidying Up Together

My wife and I have three boys: one six, one four, and one sixteen months. Our dining set (Shaker Mission leg table with Lodge chairs) gets covered in sticky food and spilled drinks multiple times every day. Markers, glue and glitter messes happen less frequently, but are not uncommon. Messes will happen, and I don’t want to live my life trying to prevent them all. I try to give my kids the tools they need to be resilient in the face of challenges, whether large or small. I need my furniture to be resilient too.

As the boys and I were working together on cleaning the table and chairs, I found myself so grateful for the durability of the finish. It's easy to maintain, as things clean off easily without leaving any stains. The finish holds up to liquids without getting water rings or splotches. It keeps its shine without any polishes. It's possible to scratch it, but only if you’re moving really rough or sharp objects across it. Plates and bowls, silverware and glasses are all fine to use directly on the surface of the table. Because of its finish, our furniture holds up to the way we use it.

It also holds up to the way we clean it. On a day-to-day basis we wipe the table down with a damp cloth, often using the dishwater and a rag or scrubby from the kitchen as we clean up after a meal. Usually, we’re moving quickly and don’t look closely enough to get everything off. As for the chairs, they don’t get daily attention except for the most egregious spills. So every now and then, especially if company is coming, we do a more thorough cleaning.

Here’s how the cleaning process went the other day: My two older boys (baby was napping) took turns spraying things down with a bottle of diluted Murphy’s Oil Soap. This is their favorite thing to do. Even though I told them repeatedly that they didn’t need to spray too much, they did anyway; it's not often that they have permission to spray stuff in the house, so when they do, they really take advantage. Whichever boy was not spraying was using a kitchen scrubber to scrub off the gunk that had accumulated on the table and chairs. Elbow grease, as I told them, was what it really needed. Then I wiped everything down with a towel to get off the excess liquid and make sure everything was really clean. It really did get clean, too… and shiny. It looked beautiful and gave me a feeling of satisfaction and also encouragement that things really would be nice for our guests. The kids were happy too; in fact, they were on such a roll with the spraying and scrubbing that they decided to help me mop the wooden floors.

High-quality materials, high-quality workmanship

So why isn’t all furniture this easy to clean and resistant to spills, etc.? Just like there are high- and low- quality materials and constructions techniques that lead to differing qualities of furniture, there are also different qualities of finish. Amish furniture tends to be finished with a high-end product called conversion varnish, also know as pre-catalyzed varnish. When it dries, conversion varnish creates a finish that is much harder and far less permeable to liquids and solvents than other alternatives like waxes, lacquer, shellac, or oils. Like anything, there are pros and cons. The cons are that it’s a tricky thing to apply well, requiring professional equipment and plenty of experience to really make it look good. Another con is that the same things that make it resistant to scratching also tend to make it harder to repair in the event of a scratch. Here at Plain and Simple, our finisher can use other finishes upon request, but by far, the finish that we use most often and that we encourage people to look for in their furniture is conversion varnish. This is what I’ve got at my home, and I’m glad that I do: it’s a finish that a family can actually live with.