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How do I achieve a reddish brown varnish/lacquer only using natural resins/colophony? Is this even possible?


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Just as the title says, I’ve been researching for a while now on how to finish some laminate birch I have. I am trying to achieve a dark reddish brown finish without the use of any synthetic resins, dyes, or pigments. The reasoning behind this is because somehow the Soviet Union was able to achieve this feat with the wood on their AK47’s. Yet no one in the west has been able to come close to replicating their result. I have attached pictures of what I am trying to accomplish. Please let me know what I would need to do in order achieve this using spruce resins and colophony. Thank you 









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Lol seems clear who sells varnish and who doesn't.  Perfectly natural...


1 hour ago, FiddleDoug said:

How do you know...


31 minutes ago, David Burgess said:

Are you specifically trying...


9 minutes ago, joerobson said:

We can do this. .... Email me at


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RNKL--I think you will have to do some experiments since there seems to be no source for this finish.  I would start with cooking rosin to get a dark red/brown color.  Go to some some supplier such as Kremer and purchase dark rosin.  Cook it outside in a stainless container.  Turn the electric heater up wide open--the temperature must get over 150 C.  Carefully monitor the color and stop when you get something that looks about right.  Dissolve in nitrocellulose lacquor and apply to test samples.  You may have to cook the rosin longer to get the right color or make the lacquor stronger in dissolved cooked rosin.  Keep notes--do not trust your memory.  Weigh things out.

The rosin you can purchase may be pine rosin but all are abietic acid.  StewMac sells nitrocellulose in cans.

As a practical thought, the gun manufacturers were not focusing on color etc.  They wanted a durable finish that could be applied quickly.  There are clues in this observation.

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44 minutes ago, Mike_Danielson said:

And I forgot to mention--once you achieve success, you can set yourself up as a varnish expert. and sell this stuff all over the world.

And his marketing brochure can describe it as "The most legendary varnish of all time".... the one and only varnish associated with millions of deaths. :lol:

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Frankly it looks like thinned paint on unprimed wood with a cheap clear varnish overlay, maybe shellac once but whatever does the job and dries fastest.  Pretty much in tune with plywood stock material.  Maybe it looks classier in real life, but the purpose of these things is to have competitive performance and durability specs, not need much maintenance, and be as cheap to manufacture as they can make them.  You could try some WATCO but I don't know why Kalishnikov would bother with a natural resin finish or something as classy as Danish oil on something like this.  Maybe wood products and labor are/were so cheap in Russia that natural resins are/were cost competitive - or the only thing available.

In the first and third pictures those grips look like plastic.  It wouldn't surprise me a bit.

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Here are some additional notes I found following up on MikeC's link.  I'd just skip #2 unless you think difficulty somehow makes things more original (see 3):

1.  "The finish the Russian used on their wood parts from the Mosin to the AK74 was a tinted shellac.
There is no hard and fast rule about the color though.
Since shellac is a natural product and varied from region to region and even time of the year it is produced, the colors vary widely."

2. "It isn't rocket science...here are a couple of my formulas....
For you Chemical Engineer types out there......
The Varnish formula is as follows:   Russian Gun Stock Varnish


Spar Varnish 98.920

Bayer Macrlolex Yellow 6G 0.800
Finos Red 693 0.125
Finos Blue 1402 0.155
Heat to 150-180F for 2 hours. Shake or shear contents for 10 minutes. Filter when cooled to room temp through 100 micron bag."
3.  "On the SKS, MinWax Red Oak is a near perfect match. Stain the wood and use semigloss polyurethane.
Nothing is original but the original, so don't kill yourself trying to get there. In other words, if you are refinishing, it will not be original. This is about the easiest way to get the color right."


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On 9/26/2023 at 6:40 AM, Michael Richwine said:

Looks to me like it's just a colored varnish, known earlier as a varnish stain. And I'd bet dollars to donuts that it's hardly "all-natural" colors, because natural reds are generally not light fast. 

It really depends. Some natural reds, dependent on preparation and fixative, are more lightfast than early (such as aniline) synthetics. It's really not until the late 50s that more light durable synthetics appear out of 3M and Dupont mostly, for the auto paint industry. We still have quite a lot of art objects from the Renaissance with madder and carmine reds that are in good shape. Turkey Red (a madder method) dyed textiles and rugs from the first half of the Ottoman Empire likewise retain a substantial amount of color.

Soviet industry was known for doing more with less, and "cheap" was mission critical. I'd be surprised if they were cooking up notably modern, lightfast synthetic colors during the manufacturing run of the 47 or even the 74 much later. But not being an expert on Soviet chemical history, I can only speculate. 

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After reading some sources and digging into my memory I'd expect they used common recipe of nitro lacquer after end of shellac. Those old nitro lacquers often contained other resins and shellac as well besides that nitrocellulose so the blend had desired properties (hardness, elasticity etc) Spruce rosin has been common material used in many industries and varnish making till fully synthetic resins took most of the uses. I still have a bag of old rosin from 70's or so I found on grandfathers attic (he used to work at chemical plant producing paints so I guess that is where it came from)

My suggestion would be first test sample for color in lacquer itself - srape minimal amount from thicker bead and notice if the color is still there or the spot becomes lighter colored which would indicate color in fininsh. When you get past the finish you may notice whether the color sits on the wood surface or just below or is soaked deep that would tell you about possibla stain - penetrating or thicker one and it's color density.

For re-creation of the lacquer you may look for MSDS of simple nitrocellulose lacquers - I'd not look into best modern producers but rather obscure producers from third world who may still be closer to simple old school lacquer and parhaps try mixing some rosin dissolved in acetone and perhaps bit of shellac or dark cooked rosin (like many makers use for violin varnishes) for extra color.

You may try to make your own nitrocellulose lacquer from pure nitrocellulose (available on internet) by dissolving in mix of solvents (acetone etc. depending on desired speed of drying) and adding bunch of other resins and plasticizers it is not different from simple spirit varnishes that violin makers make. Of course the chemicals may be dangerous for your health so take precautions.

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Agreed, nitrocellulose lacquer is a strong candidate too, since it was originally made from very inexpensive and abundant materials, like wood chips or other plant fibers.

I'd think that it would have needed to have some sort of plasticizer additive too, since it doesn't seem to show the aging artifacts of nitrocellulose lacquers without them.

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