DIY Finishing

A clean, literal way to finish wood - soap varnishing

The Nordic countries never cease to impress me with their simple way of approaching things, their inclination towards the natural. This time they surprised me with a traditional way of varnishing wood. It's called 'varnishing' with soap. Although it seems hard to believe that there is such a way of protecting wood, it is quite common in Denmark, where in the 70s you often saw furniture and even wooden floors varnished in this way. It seems so implausible that you wonder if it's a joke. You look at the soap you wash your hands with every day and think it's impossible for it to protect your furniture. What do you mean, it doesn't go at the first touch, the first wipe with the dust cloth? Apparently not and I'm trying to convince you of that below.

with soap
photo source:

As I said, finishing with soap solutions is common in northern European countries. You get a low gloss or totally no gloss finish which is perfect for that part of the world. It is used to coat light-coloured wood - maple, frasin, oak white - because it does not change the colour of the wood and does not yellow over time. The resulting finish has a soft, pleasing wood grain. In strength it is similar to wax finishing, needing periodic refreshing. It is recommended to apply directly on wood or over the same type of finish (re-applying the film after some time).

with soap
comfy photo source:

Don't think about going into the bathroom, getting the soap and starting to scrub the wooden furniture with it, because it's not that simple. The soap you use should be natural, with no added fragrances, detergents or other chemicals. Basically, it's the soap you can find in natural or organic food stores, which is obtained through a simple saponification reaction. I don't know how many remember, but there was a time when many people made their own soap at home. My grandmother would gather all the leftover fat from the pig, lard that wasn't used and with the coming of summer started to spoil, the leftover oil or lard from roasting, add caustic soda solution and make soap. I can just see her stirring it in the pot on the fire pit in the backyard by the wood fire. She checked by methods she knew not to make it too "soggy" or too greasy, because it was no good either way. Too sody meant too aggressive, too greasy didn't wash well. But it always came out perfectly, and her laundry sparkled clean.

But back to lacquering. So we're talking natural soap, made from vegetable oils (that's how these soaps are made now) and an alkaline solution. The soap should be white, clean and flaky. Soaps in the classic, calup form can also be used, but only after they have been grated, just like a piece of cheese. These flakes dissolve in hot water to produce something between a thicker cream and a soft wax. It's basically the varnish with which the wood is finished.

with soap
photo source:

The way water and soap flakes are mixed can result in 2 types of solutions. Mixing a larger amount of water with 2-3 tablespoons of soap flakes produces a solution that, when applied to wood, gives a dull appearance. For example, boil 4 parts (by volume) of water and mix with 1 part of soap flakes. Shake the mixture vigorously until the flakes are completely dissolved, then leave to settle. In the meantime the soap gathers on top, hardening like a wax.

with soap
photo source: popular

Use after 24 hours. Apply with a cloth and wipe off excess with a clean rag. Allow to harden for one hour, then sand with 320 abrasive and apply another coat. You can apply as many coats as you like. For protection, without any coat showing, 2 coats are sufficient. After the 4th coat the "lake" starts to be visible.

with soap
photo source:

Another method of obtaining the varnish is to mix equal amounts of soap flakes and boiling water (also volumetrically). Add the soap, initially to half the amount of water, and stir vigorously. Gradually add the other amount of water, as with mayonnaise. You will obtain a creamy solution that in a few hours will look like white mayonnaise.

with soap
mayonnaise photo source:

Leave in a jar until the next day to settle. The application in this case is similarapplication of shellac. Take a spoonful of "mayonnaise" and put it in a cloth that is tightened with the lake inside.

with soap
preparation for application photo source:

Rub the wood with this pad to deposit a small amount of varnish on the wood. Each layer is left to dry for an hour and then sanded. As the number of coats increases, the varnish begins to show a half-gloss.

with soap
application with mayonnaise solution photo source:

As I said, it is a method that requires refreshing at intervals just like wax finishing. And also like wax, it does not withstand hot liquids, abrasives, solvents. But it is a varnish that protects, does not change the colour of the wood and, most importantly, is safe and harmless. Plus, once you've done the job, you have no problem cleaning your hands or other objects and materials. In fact, they might even be cleaner than when you started. 🙂

with soap
Soap lacquered furniture photo source:

About the author

Mihaela Radu

Mihaela Radu is a chemical engineer but has a great passion for wood. She has been working in the field for more than 20 years, wood finishing being what defined her during this period. She gained experience working in a research institute, in her own company, as well as in a multinational. She wants to continuously share her experience with those who have the same passion - and more.


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    • So that's the story of the kitchen furniture body in the article. The client wanted the wood to look as natural as possible and to keep the colour. Initially they wanted to choose between wax and oil, but both changed the colour of the wood. Varnish was out of the question because the customer wanted a natural finish. So they suggested the soap option and he accepted. The furniture in the photo came out and the customer was satisfied. It happened in England. So, you never know. 🙂

  • and you don't have any cheek when you plagiarize tit-for-tat articles with pictures from people's blogs who have actually tried what you say here in your little blog?

  • Nice and enjoyable article to read , whether it is translated from somewhere or not ! Thanks also for the many other useful and well explained articles on the subject ! Congratulations ! Soap finishing is something I never heard before , I learned something new and interesting today 🙂 ! Thank you Mrs Mihaela Radu !

      • Hello, please help me with an advice .... I want to clean a wooden chest (grandmother's), can you guide me how and with what?? Thank you!

        • Hello.
          If you only want to clean the crate, without stripping it (to remove the layers of varnish), here are some tips here.
          If you want to get to the wood you need to remove the varnish/wax/oil/paint layers. You can use thinner, but it takes more work, or stripper. There are stripping solutions in DIY stores. Apply with a brush, leave it on for a while (as long as it says on the instructions) and remove the soaked layer with a squeegee (a notch). After that surface is wiped with thinner and sanded with an abrasive sponge.
          The removal of old lacquer starters can also be done by sandblastbut you need to find a company that does this because it is a process for which you need special installations.
          Good luck!

  • I was thinking about household soap - they used to make a batch or two at my house every winter's end, and as a result I had enough soap to supply the whole street in a fortnight. Except that if you use absolutely any grease left in the house, you run the risk of the soap turning a colour (yellowish, brownish, that sort of thing, depending on the colour of the grease used), and I'm thinking that a soap like that would also colour the wood. Which probably wouldn't be a problem on a beech, that being a light coloured wood of its kind.

  • The method is not only from Scandinavian countries, but was also used in Ardeal and Banat.
    I've caught something like this before. My grandfather used to periodically soap old pieces of furniture made of light-coloured hardwood and especially wooden carpentry tools in his workshop.
    There is also the soap scrub option and it is an alternative.


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