Cerused Oak or So Called Limed Oak Furniture

- Aug 08, 2018-

What’s old is new again in the realm of interior design. Over the past few years, we’ve noticed a few of our favorite designers taking a liking to an age-old finish, céruse, which, we must say, has a curious history. Dating back to the 16th century, the white-pigment-based lead was originally used as a cosmetic. The best stuff, which acted as a powerful skin whitener, was imported to England from Venice and used by the likes of Queen Elizabeth I. However, if absorbed into the skin, it could actually led to lead poisoning, so it eventually fell out of favor in the realm of beauty.

The solution later drew attraction from cabinet makers, who used it for a decorative technique known as “cérused wood” or “limed wood,” in which they filled the grains of wood planks (usually oak) with white lead, creating contrast against the stain. The limed oak effect became popular in the Art Deco era, and was pioneered by French interior designers Jean-Michel Frank and Austrian furniture maker Paul T. Frankl. In the '50s, the look was widely imitated by contrasting a whitened grain against a black stain rather than a light one. Today, we’re seeing a mix of both lightly and darkly stained cérused woods as designers mix eras like midcentury modern and Art Deco in their rooms, and craftsmen are experimenting with different types of woods with porous, open grains.

Furniture is an easy place to start (scroll down to shop some of our favorites), but cérused woods are also gorgeous choices for kitchen and bathroom cabinetry, flooring, walls, and even ceilings. “Personally, I adore a full cérused paneled room,” Fulk says. “It's striking and glamorous while still inviting. It's not as heavy feeling as a traditionally paneled room. Recently, we cérused all the cabinetry in a kitchen remodel. We finished it in a beautiful foggy lavender—that, with huge slabs of white marble and warm unlacquered brass hardware. Sublime!” Meanwhile, Wearstler recommends considering it for hardwoods, and Jeffers praises its versatility… “I have used it on furniture pieces, on my line for Arteriors, and recently completed an entertaining space in a private home in which the entire room was paneled with cérused oak,” he says.

Stylistically, it’s also quite versatile and could suit many different styles of home. “It has a Deco vibe, but it is also thoroughly modern,” Fulk says. The classic way of treating wood “looks great in many applications, so I’m not surprised it is so popular,” Jeffers remarks.

“Back in the 1500’s, the French invented a technique of filling in the grains in oak beams and paneling with a toxic paste derived from lead. This was initially done to help prevent rot in oak beams. Later, the wood finish known as ‘limed oak’ became popular in the cabinet and furniture world.

Today that stylish finish is still called limed oak in Europe and here in the US we call it cerused wood or cerused oak. What’s so great about this look? A cerused finish will highlight the contrast between the grain and the rest of the surface. Oak is the go-to choice for a cerused finish due to its characteristic open grain, however other hardwoods like ash could also work.”