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A Necessary Chemistry Lesson Regarding Non-Toxic Furniture Finishes

by Fred Taylor (08/20/12).

This beat-up 1940s mahogany Pembroke table has not been refinished and has not been touched up. Can you sell it as a “non-toxic” recycled antique?

A good background education is an important tool in many areas of life, even in antique furniture. I consider my educational opportunities to have been properly presented to me and it was my job to take from it what I could. On the other hand, the education presented to my children was less than what I would have hoped and now I am seeing signs of my worst fears; not so much in my children directly as in the children of that era, especially in the harder sciences.

I recently read an article written by someone about my children’s age who must have learned her chemistry from Dr. Seuss rather than from a real chemistry professor or even a furniture professional. It seems that maybe too much time was spent on “feel good” subjects during her education and not quite enough on the real world. The article had to do with creating and maintaining a non-toxic home environment. That is a very worthwhile pursuit, especially when geared to the very real problem of toxic substances available almost anywhere today in many of the things we buy. But the writer was a little far afield in her efforts.

She had become obsessed with acquiring non-toxic furniture and bemoaned the high cost of “certified” non-toxic upholstery and custom-made furniture of non-toxic materials. She even lamented the fact that she could acquire furniture made from sustainable or environmentally managed forests but they still would use a toxic finish on the environmentally pure wood.

Here is a flash from the past for the writer of the article: all commercial finishes are non-toxic by law. The last toxic finish in use in America was enamel paint that used lead in the pigments. That is now outlawed. The caveat is that they are non-toxic when they are cured. Almost any finish in its raw state will make you sick, as will sufficient quantities of laundry detergent, orange peels and soda pop, if ingested.

The two basic types of furniture finishes are reactive finishes and evaporative finishes. When combined, the components of reactive finishes—like urethane and enamel paint—interact with each other as they dry and form a completely new chemical compound that cannot be dissolved into its component parts. And when the reaction is over and the compound is cured, it is stable. It is inert and no longer gives off any fumes or residue. Even with lead paint, the only way for it to harm you was for you to actually eat the dried paint or breathe the dust when the dried paint was sanded. The evaporative finish, like lacquer and shellac, is formed when the solvent evaporates and the dissolved components coalesce into a film that is equally stable. In the event of shellac, which can be dissolved with denatured alcohol, the main ingredient is surprisingly organic—the wings of the lac beetle, not one of nature’s worst toxic hazards. In other words, once a modern furniture finish is cured, it not toxic.

The writer then continued to exhibit the lack of background on the subject of furniture when she stated that she had acquired a taste for older reproduction furniture whose finishes were non-toxic! She went on to state that since there was boom in furniture reproductions after the Second World War, there is a lot of furniture available at very moderate prices. I guess she forgot to find out that the reproduction of American furniture actually began with the Colonial Revival and Centennial periods of the late 19th century and World War II was just, in the current vernacular, an “inconvenient truth,” a blip on the screen in the overall picture.

I wonder if she actually knew that the finish used on her highly prized 1940s reproduction drum table was in fact almost the very same nitrocellulose lacquer used in furniture today? Except the finishes used on furniture today are more environmentally friendly in the raw state.

The writer then went on lay out her acquisition plan for non-toxic reproductions. She said to be wary of older pieces that have been touched up or refinished by the dealer and the sure way to tell was by the “smell test.” You should be able to smell a new refinish job or a touch up job immediately in a dealer’s showroom. She even suggested letting the dealer know that you prefer unrestored or non-touched up pieces that are non-toxic rather than have the dealer refinish or touch up a piece. She said she can put up with a few dings and scratches to preserve the non-toxicity of the furniture. I wonder what the time line is for when a refinish becomes non-toxic as opposed to an original finish. And touch ups? How toxic can they be when used on minor scratches?

On the other hand, maybe this New Age author has opened up a new avenue for dealers to bring younger people into the antiques arena by being able to tout the use of antiques as the ultimate modern-day recycling method that requires no trees be cut down, no additional chemicals put to use and, by now, the finishes are surely “non-toxic.” This is a new opportunity for niche “Green Marketing.”

And if dealers can appeal to that segment of the population, then think how much money they can save on touch-up materials and repair professionals. Looks like it’s back to “shabby chic.”

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or

Visit Fred’s website at His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail

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One Response to “A Necessary Chemistry Lesson Regarding Non-Toxic Furniture Finishes”

  1. Jane Ellen McDow says:

    Mr. Taylor, another article with a lot of information. Thank you!

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