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Wood finisher Brian Miller on his 'dying art'

Miller, who worked on the Greene brothers' Blacker House, created a formula for Don and Natalie Kicks' house using natural finishes.

March 26, 2011
  • The front sitting area opens to a study and the kitchen. Don and Natalie Kick changed course during renovation, which grew to six years.
The front sitting area opens to a study and the kitchen. Don and Natalie Kick… (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)

Woodworkers will tell you that it's incredibly easy to ruin a beautiful, handcrafted design with a lousy finish. Brian Miller, the wood finisher for Don and Natalie Kick's house, should know. In the industry for 36 years, he is an expert in centuries'-old methods of coloring wood with dyes and chemicals.

"Coloring wood is a dying art these days," Miller said, no pun intended. "Everyone wants to stain wood — and I'll do that too if a client wants it. But stains hide the grain because they deposit pigments into the wood that prevent light from penetrating."

Dyes don't leave that residue, Miller said, so you get a much greater degree of clarity.

The Kicks showed Miller some colors in books on Charles and Henry Greene's Gamble House in Pasadena. They trusted Miller because in the 1990s, Miller had refinished the entire interior and exterior of the Greene brothers' Blacker House. For the Kicks, Miller made up a formula using water-based, nontoxic aniline dyes. He then walked them through the labor-intensive finishing process.

Although most people assume the Craftsman movement embraced natural finishes, Miller's experience debunked that notion.

"The Greene brothers used a lot of ferrous sulfate, which is iron, to color their wood. And they also used potassium dichromate. They weren't as 'natural' as you'd think!" Miller said with a laugh.

Brian Miller, (818) 388-6538, winoh@sbcglobal.net.

— Marcianne Crestani

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