Asphaltum as a Wood Stain

The end result.

Brown stained furniture is way out of fashion right now, cast aside by the blond wood and brass aesthetic tyranny of the Silver Lake Shaman. As a hopeless contrarian, I’ve spent the past few years attempting to replicate the shades of brown favored by American Arts and Crafts furniture designers of the early 20th century. But last week, I did a brown stain experiment that just might get the attention of the Silver Lake Shamans.

One of the oft mentioned ingredients in these old-timer brown stains is asphaltum. Asphaltum, also known as bitumen, is a semi-solid semi-liquid form of petroleum. Confusingly, it’s also called “tar,” but tar is actually a byproduct of coal and petroleum distillation that can also be obtained from wood and peat. To stain wood I needed asphaltum not tar.

You can buy asphaltum in one of two ways, as an art supply or in five gallon buckets of roofing cement. But get ready for confusion. A tube of “asphaltum” oil paint I picked up did not actually contain any asphaltum and was expensive. It was just “asphaltum” colored. Art supplies that actually contain asphaltum were not to be found at my local art supply store. You can get asphaltum in the form of non-fibered roofing cement but, for some mysterious reason, I can only find fibered roofing cement Los Angeles and those fibers mean that it won’t work as a wood stain.

But a light bulb went off last week when I realized that asphaltum can be wild harvested at one of Los Angeles’ oddest tourist attractions, the La Brea Tar Pits. If you haven’t been there, this park consists of a paleontology museum dedicated to ancient creatures that got stuck in the tar as well as a fenced off and stinky pond with a tarry waterline and occasional methane bubbles. The large expanse of grass surrounding the pit was sparsely populated on the weekday we visited. In the distance I could see the ongoing demolition of the LA County Museum of Art. As I said goodbye to the high 60s modernist art museum cafeteria my mom used to take me to, I scanned the park for asphaltum plumes.

Thankfully, park employees facilitate hipster artisinal asphaltum collection thanks to cones marked “tar pits” to keep people from spreading their picnic blankets over the foul smelling, sticky stuff.

I discovered one particularly prodigious asphaltum seep and gathered a small amount for my stain experiment. When I got back to the workshop I mixed the asphaltum with some paint thinner and rubbed it on a piece of white oak. It worked beautifully. White oak has a very open grain and the tar both accentuated that grain and gave an overall brown hue to the wood. I wore a respirator to apply the finish but once dried I couldn’t detect any fumes. If I was using asphaltum on a piece of furniture I would top coat the wood with a wipe on varnish or shellac.

The Tar Pits in 1910.

But will I actually ever use asphaltum? The gel stain I use as part of a multi-step process to simulate Stickley type finishes is pretty similar to asphaltum, safer (maybe?) and gives reliable and repeatable results. But perhaps it’s worth using wild harvested asphaltum just for the bragging rights. Watch out for the drop of my new La Brea Tar Pit furniture collection!

A tarry digression

I put on a jacket for this expedition that I hadn’t worn since the beginning of the pandemic. I fished around in the pocket only to find a wrist band for the museum and remembered that we had gone to the Tar Pits in January of 2019 with some friends and their teenage son. This triggered a hauntological memory. On March 24, 1985  a friend needed to get some socks so we set off for the Ross Dress for Less on 3rd street near the La Brea Tar Pits. I have no idea why I was along for the ride. Just minutes before we got there the store exploded due to the methane deposits in the ground in this part of LA. By the time we got to 3rd street it was blocked off but, in the distance, you could see flames shooting out of the sidewalk. It was just the sort of apocalyptic scene that’s fodder for countless LA disaster movies. While there were no deaths, several people suffered serious burns. The real blame for this incident was due to the area’s legacy as an oil field but this was swept under the rug.

On our way back from the park, I was shocked by the state of the city during these quarantine times. Kelly and I haven’t left the house much in a year. Wilshire Blvd. seemed abandoned, with lots of closed businesses and hardly any people. It was unseasonably warm and it hasn’t rained much in a month. The pandemic and George Floyd protests of the past year could have been an opportunity for the city to make dramatic changes, to seize hotels to house the homeless, to deal with the hot mess that is the LAPD, to make it easier and safer for our elders and children to get around. Sadly, it seems we’re still stuck in the tar like those doomed prehistoric animals.

Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. What an ingenious idea! As a natural wood lover I do like the shade it turned out.
    It is hard for me to imagine Wilshire Blvd. ever being quiet. I used to have a dentist on that Blvd., and it was never easy to get there. The drive was worse than the visit!

    • I brought rubber gloves, a yogurt container and a stick. I put that in a bag as, yes, the stuff is awful.

  2. Thank you for your informative entertaining blog/site.
    I was looking for calendula recipe and stumbled upon you. I am bit of a dinosaur technologically. Made my calendula ung & am relaxing with a corona.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.