Articles

VINEGAR PAINTING

 

Beginning in the early eighteenth century AD and continuing until the late nineteenth century, many of the German emigrants, who settled in Pennsylvania, used a somewhat odd painting technique for furniture and other objects in their homes.  These new American citizens were often incorrectly labeled as Pennsylvania Dutch but should have been called Pennsylvania Deutsch since they were not from Holland but were from Germany or Deutschland.  The German artistic peoples had their own styles of folk art that used natural colors and abstract designs as finishes on the furniture they built.  This they accomplished by using a mixture of mineral pigments and a sour acetic acid based liquid in a technique known as vinegar painting.

There were, most likely, many thousands of furniture items coated with this vinegar paint between one hundred and two hundred fifty years ago by the Germanic peoples who settled in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and other areas in North America.  But the desire by ignorant furniture refinishers to destroy that “old ugly finish” caused many, if not most, of these rare and unique home appointments to be ruined by stripping away the colorful coatings.  Lucky for us, though, a few forward thinking painters and craftsmen resurrected this unique decorating technique and I was then able to learn the basics of this furniture coloring used by my paternal ancestors.

The expertise of vinegar painting requires only a few items – those being vinegar, corn syrup, liquid dishwashing soap, powder pigments, paint primer, various colors of water-base paints and polyurethane varnish.    First, of course, you will need some object to vinegar paint such as a small table or box made of wood.  Metal items can certainly be vinegar coated but it is a little  tricky - so it will be best to begin with wooden objects.  The vinegar portion is nothing more than plain apple-cider vinegar.  The syrup can be clear or dark and most any dishwashing liquid will be acceptable.  You probably all understand the purpose of primer paint to be used on the raw wood surfaces and the color of the water-based or latex paint can be decided after determining the color of the powder used to color the medium.  The powder itself can be somewhat complicated to understand.  The original German Americans used natural earth colors which would also be known as the hues of dirt.  These included various browns and reds and yellows from the soil and they also used other dyes such as blues and greens from crushed minerals and plants.  These various pigments, today, are often known as fresco colors and are sold by such names as ocher and sienna and umber.  They are available in a wide variety of shades in small vials of one or two ounces of the powder for ten or more dollars for the tiny bottle.  Or you can go to an art supply store and acquire a larger bottle of twelve to sixteen ounces of tempera powder for four to six dollars.  The difference here is that the fresco powder comes in numerous muted color tones such as raw umber and burnt umber and raw sienna and burnt ochre - which are all various shades of brown. These subtle color changes might be important to an artist making a fresco wall painting but they are not so significant when applying a finish to a table where tiny shade differences in browns or reds or yellows would probably go unnoticed.  The art supply store tempera will work fine for vinegar painting on furniture and if you want a lighter or darker shade of brown or blue or green, simply add a little of a lighter or darker colored tempera powder, such as white or black, to your mixture.  Now assemble your ingredients and vinegar paint the table.

First you need to sand and coat your table with a good quality primer such as BIN or Zinsser.  After the primer has dried you will probably need to lightly sand it and then coat the piece of furniture with a color choice of nonglossy acrylic latex paint.  Normally this color will be a lighter shade such as white or yellow or pale blue and will be a contrasting color to the usual darker vinegar paint color.  When the latex paint coat has dried, lightly sand the surface and apply a second color coat if needed and wait for it to dry.  When the paint is thoroughly dry it is the time to mix the vinegar paint solution which will usually be a tone of the stylized wood you are trying to imitate (brown for walnut, tan for maple, red-brown for mahogany, etc.).  In a small jar, mix about a teaspoon of powder with about ¼ teaspoon of corn syrup (to bind the mixture together), a ¼ teaspoon of dishwashing liquid (to act as an emulsifier) and enough vinegar to make a paintable liquid.  Blend thoroughly with a small brush.  Before you begin applying the solution to the table, remember that the drying time is fairly quick so you should plan on painting the liquid onto small areas – so now do just that with a brush.  If the vinegar paint seems too thick, add some vinegar.  If it seems too thin, add some extra powder or maybe a small amount of syrup.  Before the liquid you have applied to your work piece begins to dry (normally about five minutes), you need to manipulate it in order to simulate your idea of the finished surface appearance.  If you are looking for a wood burl impression, an easy way to accomplish this is to use a small piece of crumpled plastic wrap and begin dabbing it into the vinegar painted surface.  Constantly twist your hand that is holding the plastic so as to not make the same image over the entire table.  And when your plastic becomes too laden with the color mixture, toss it and start anew with another piece.  If you do not understand burl woods, go on the internet and you should find many photos of various types of burls that can be copied in vinegar paint.  And if you would wish for another fantasy finish, you can into the wet vinegar paint, press (instead of the crumpled plastic) your fingers, a paint brush, a small piece of cloth, a section of cardboard, or any other technique that you might desire.  The German folk painters, a hundred plus years ago, supposedly used corn cobs to make a natural wood-like appearance in the vinegar paint but I have attempted this with no success.  Maybe corn cobs were different back then.  The main thing here is for you to enjoy the process and express your artistic outlet.  There is no right or wrong way to make your vinegar painting designs - just the fun way.  Continue applying the liquid vinegar paint to your subject furniture and continue removing it with your choice of techniques until the entire object is coated and finished.  If you use all your paint before finishing the project, mix some more.  When you are satisfied with your completed project, let it dry for twenty-four hours before applying the varnish.  If you are not satisfied, simply wipe the vinegar painted surface with a cloth saturated in vinegar and start anew.  If you decide now is the time to varnish, apply two or three coats of solvent based varnish.  Do not use a water or latex based varnish since it will remove the vinegar paint you have so carefully applied.  And do not consider not varnishing your project since the vinegar painted surface will be easily damaged or completely destroyed without a hard finish coating.  There – you have finished your vinegar painted furniture project and after the last coat of varnish has dried, you can use the furniture.  If you would like more information, there are books obtainable such as FOLK FINISHES by Teles & Adams or FINISHING MAGIC by Russell.   Like many of our ancestors, the American Deutsch people had to work with the elements available to them.  And accessible was the dirt and minerals that were found throughout our great land.  Today you may not wish to dig the earth and prepare your own natural colors but lucky for us in this modern age, we can easily acquire the necessary paint, syrup, vinegar and colored powders and delight in the joy of artistic vinegar painting.