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Ceruse Finishes: History & DIY (Part I)

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It’s easier to track the history of ceruse as a centuries-old lead cosmetic than as a furniture finish, but it’s safe to assume that the latter followed the former after it was discovered that ceruse was highly toxic.

Wait, what – people used to use toxic makeup as a furniture finish? What’s ceruse again?

Ceruse as a Cosmetic

Back in late 1500s England, the aristocracy from Queen Elizabeth on down loved to paint their faces white – you’ve probably seen it recreated in the movies, and even historical paintings of Good Queen Bess often depict her looking white as a sheet.

That’s no affectation. In the 16th century, there was no such thing as being too white in England. It was a fashion trend of the times and they used a white lead paste – ceruse – to achieve the look.

Unfortunately, ceruse is very toxic. Much like a fashionable tan comes with a risk today, so did looking ghost-white in the Elizabethan court. Symptoms included, but were not limited to, hair loss, sickness and death.

So, as you can imagine, after a while ceruse fell out of fashion as a cosmetic. But, then some woodworkers came along, and …

Ceruse as a Finish

Ceruse was still thought to be very beautiful, even if it was deadly, and it didn’t take long for innovative craftsmen to come up with another use for it – as a wood finish.

Sometimes called “limed oak” in Queen Elizabeth’s neck of the woods, a ceruse finish was achieved back then by staining the wood and then rubbing the white lead compound into the grain pores to make them stand out from the stain. The result is graining accentuated in white, which looks great in woods like oak that have strong grain patterns.

People no longer use actual ceruse when treating wood in this way, but the technique hasn’t changed much and we’ll teach you how to ceruse (or "lime wood") in Part II of this series tomorrow.

The "Nocturne" slipper chair by Somerton Dwelling features cerused oak open-grain veneers and durable 100% polyester cushions. 

Interlude's incredible "Mara" patchwork buffet features ceruse panels in alternating colors and grain patterns. 

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