So, much to my consternation, the refinishing of the antique dresser with old-school, non-toxic products rather than the standard ones labeled "Contains substances known in the state of California to cause birth defects and other reproductive harm" has presented some problems.
The original plan: strip it down to bare wood, paint with black milk paint (a centuries old mixture of lime, milk protein, and pigments), finish with tung oil (from a Chinese tree's nut) and carnauba wax. I mean, people eat milk and nuts, right? You can't get much more benevolent. We'd stripped the piece, patched some chips in the drawer front veneer, and put on two coats of the milk paint, rubbing it down with 0000 steel wool after each to burnish the surface. Looked fabulous. But milk paint is very porous...it absorbs oils from your skin, etc., if you don't seal it with something. We tried three hardware stores in our search for pure tung oil; not even the Depot had it. Finally ended up at Rockler Woodworking in Cambridge (very well-regarded by those into all things wood), where they carried everything we needed. Giles, a knowledgeable and friendly fellow who works at Rockler, must have spent 30 minutes discussing our options with us. He recommended a water-based polyacrylic for durability - said people used it over milk paint all the time. We bought both that and the tung, to keep our options open.
Next time we made it down to the Ladow garage to apply our finish, we took the easy way out and didn't test the two products on a sample piece of wood. BIG mistake. Chad and my mom agreed I was being too anal in my insistence to test them out...that we'd never finish the damn thing, and that we should just go with the polyacrylic. I acquiesced. Well, the polyacrylic wasn't leveling at all as Chad applied it...every brush stroke was preserved on the surface of the dresser. Totally unacceptable. I told Chad to try sanding it after it had dried with silicon carbide paper...used in automotive jobs. He tried it both dry and wet (the super-fine grit and water create a slurry that's almost like pumice and supposedly can help you get a glass-smooth surface). Instead, sanding brought out these little white flecks in the milk paint, or took it off entirely if the area was raised at all, and didn't seem to erase the brush marks. WTF?
Now we're at a point where Peter (our expert woodworking resource) thinks we should just sand everything down a bit and slap on some good ol' high-VOC black oil paint, which will level beautifully and withstand all sorts of abuse. My attempts to create something beautiful AND non-toxic have been foiled. Will all those nasty chemicals volatilize before we bring it home to our bedroom?