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.

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Bread and Roses

On the entrance arbor at the bottom of the steps that lead to our house I thought it would be nice to plant some climbing roses to add to the general fuddy-duddyness that is our 1920s bungalow. Our two climbing roses have survived neglect for many years now and put on a nice show for most of the year.

While I’m sure there are many more worthy and interesting heirloom climbing roses one can hunt down we went with two boring varieties. One is an Iceberg climbing rose that Kelly calls the “gas station rose” for its ubiquity. The other is a lot more interesting, a Don Juan climbing rose.

The Don Juan has a strong scent, a rare quality in a climbing rose. Plus the people like our Don Juan. This week I’ve seen folks Instagraming it and de-masking to smell the blossoms (hope we’re not a horticultural super-spreader event here). While our Don Juan is conventionally attractive in a red rose sorta way, the scent is the winning trait. I’d describe it as what you might imagine a perfect rose to smell like in a pleasant dream.

The Don Juan rose was introduced in 1958 by Italian rose breeder Michele Malandrone. It requires 6 to 8 hours of sunlight and grows to the manageable size of 10 to 12 feet. We’ve been more diligent in pruning in the past year to keep it tidy on the arbor.

The main problem with roses, in my opinion, is that at some times of the year the leaves are just frankly, uninteresting. As I noted I’m no rose expert, so I’d appreciate your opinions about ways to make our roses more healthy and vigorous. The soil they are planted in leaves a lot to be desired and I’m very confused about watering needs. I’m also open to suggestions from readers about interesting rose varieties either climbing or bush.

Saturday Linkages: Can’t Stop the Memes

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I Can’t Get Adam Curtis Out of My Head

Could it be that this entire multi-thousand post blog, with all those canning, bread making, gardening, squirrel complaining ramblings are just an excuse for those few times I get to implore readers to watch the latest Adam Curtis documentary?

Methinks yes and so I must note that a new Curtis just dropped on the BBC yesterday. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is Curtis at his most sprawling and complex. We watched the first episode last night which covers, among other topics, British colonialism in Kenya, the Discoridian connection to the Kennedy assassination, anti-immigrant movements, artificial intelligence, a messy celebrity divorce and . . . the Bavarian Illuminati.

I can think of only a handful of other thoughtstylists who have helped guide me through these confusing times (Mark Fisher, Cornel West and Slavoj Žižek come to mind). More than any other period in my 55 years, at this particular point I think it’s important to look at the ideologies that change the way we perceive things. Curtis is a master at revealing what’s hidden in plain sight.

Perhaps the hidden message of all the posts on this blog is summed up in a quote from the late David Graeber that Curtis uses at the beginning of episode 1, “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently.”

Can’t Get You Out of My Head is streaming for free on the BBC. To watch it you’ll need to live in the U.K. or use a VPN to get around the regional blocking. You can also search on YouTube. Curtisheads post episodes which appear for awhile before the BBC takes them down. Just Google and you’ll find it. Here’s the last: Hypernormalization.