Let There be Light

My love of lamps was inherited from my mother. We grew up in a house filled with lamps. Bedside lamps, table lamps, reading lamps, desk lamps. They were made from wood and brass, and plastic, and steel. The shades were plastic and glass, vinyl and cloth. Any type of lamp you could think of, we had in the house. Of course, me being me, I pretty much disassembled and reassembled every single one of them at one stage or another. Most of the time without my mother knowing.

After I moved out of the house and into my own place, I forgot about lamps. Life was full of adventure and travel, work and marriage. However, nature is strong and it was inevitable that I would return to the lamps.

I built my first lamp in 2006. I was leaving the office one night when I spotted an interesting looking pallet lying outside our neighbor’s warehouse. The pallet had collapsed and was being thrown out. What caught my eye though was the base of the pallet. There were three solid pieces of what looked like rosewood. I stopped the car and loaded them into the back.

Whether they were truly the rosewood species used for making fine furniture or not is a matter of some debate. But they were definitely a hardwood with a feel and texture like rosewood. It also had that beautiful smell rosewood gives off when it is worked. It nearly burnt out my table saw it was so hard to work, but there was enough of it for me to create a free-standing, articulating reading lamp. I unfortunately can only find one pic of that lamp. The piece consisted of three articulating sections and it could be raised or lowered depending on the users preference. The wood perfectly complimented the style of the lamp. It never looked like wood reclaimed from an abandoned pallet.

Articulating Reading Lamp
Articulating reading lamp. I have another three pallet bases. Hmm… Maybe another one of these is on my event horizon.

I was hooked and started looking for my next lamp project. I had a rosewood door frame that had broken during in half while the carpenter had tried to install it. We could not fit it and had to replace it. I had kept the frame and it had moved to Cape Town with us. I had already used parts of to make a set of candy striped occasional tables, and I thought a pair of candy stripe lamps might be a nice accompaniment. I got some white oak and the candy strip lamps were born. My in-laws had just moved to the Cape and mother-in-law took one look at the lamps and immediately lay claim to them.

Candy stripe table Lamp
Candy Stripe Table Lamp made from virgin white oak and rosewood.
I love the feet on this and which were added as a last minute addition. I would like to incorporate this into other designs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next lamp project was made from some reclaimed oak barrels. I got these from a wine farm in Robertson. They had been abandoned outdoors after the barrels had collapsed. They had spent a lot of time outdoors, and the staves looked beaten and broken. But the amazing thing about oaks is how tough it is. Cleaning off the weathered wood revealed the beauty of the oak beneath, and I quickly assembled five of the staves into a lamp. The curved based taking the shape of the original barrel while the two upper staves reach gracefully upwards and join to hold the lamp. This remains one of my favorite pieces.

Reclaimed Wine Barrel Lamp
The reclaimed wine barrel lamp, proving just how tough oak is.

 

 

 

The base of the lamp follows the gentle curve that the original wine barrel would have had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next project was a prototype of a desk lamp. I love articulating joints, and I that seems to be trendy in desk lamps. I recently bought a stack of wood from my late friend’s wife. The family were moving to a new house, and she had to clear his old workshop. He was a shipwright and a master woodworker. He had loads of bits and pieces of scrap and odds and ends that he had squirreled away over the years. In among the pile was some Oregon pine. It was perfect for what I had in mind. It was just supposed to be a prototype, but the wood worked beautifully. It practically assembled itself, and the result is a beautiful modern articulating desk lamp. I will be making more of these from various woods that I have in the workshop.

Articulating Desk Lamp
Articulating Desk Lamp. These are for sale on my website, and are extremely popular.

I believe that everything has a story. I think that the standing lamp worked because the wood had been abandoned and was given the opportunity to show how beautiful it was.  The barrel lamp was testimony to how graceful oak trees are, but how tough, long lasting and versatile the wood is. The articulating desk lamp captured the spirit of my late friend. He was easy going, friendly and respected by everyone who knew him. He was deeply loved by his family and friends, and I still look back fondly on the many evenings we spent sipping brandy and sharing stories. He always had a good story to tell. That lamp captures his spirit.

But perhaps my favorite story about lamps takes me back to mother. When I first started working, I worked a late-night shift and would travel home in the early hours of the morning. I was still living with my parents. I would come home at two am and go into my parent’s bedroom, where my mother would leave her favorite tiffany lamp burning. They would be asleep and I would turn the light off. If my mother woke up during the night she would know I was home safe and sound if the light was off, and contently go back to sleep. I always think of her and that story whenever I make a lamp.

The articulating desk lamps are for sale in various wood species. Prices range for R540.00 to R750.00 depending on the type of wood. The sample shown here is R540.00 including the fancy light bulb.

The Beast!

“Well, what do you think?” asked Neville, my newly acquired co-conspirator and fellow furniture fundi. He was standing next to a round oak table in his furniture store. It was bulky, yellow and possibly the second roundest table I had ever seen. The only one rounder than that was the one that stood in my parent’s voorkamer for 20 odd years. “I am struggling to sell it.” He said. “Most people are not interested in round tables, and those that are say it’s too big. I am not sure what to do with it. The owner wanted to dump it and I thought I would try and do something with it. Any suggestions?”

My first thought was, what’s with the 70’s and giant round tables? Casting an ‘expert’ eye over it, I said, “You could either cut the sides off and square it or make it drop side table. It’s solid oak, and the legs look to be quarter sawn.

“Excellent idea!” replied Neville. “I will drop it off at your place on Saturday morning.” And just like that, it became mine.

Saturday rolled around, and so did Neville, trailer in tow, along with the ‘The Beast!’, as it came to be in my mind. We hauled it off the back of the trailer, down the drive and got stuck at the door to my workshop. We couldn’t get it in. It would have to be dismantled outside and brought in in pieces. Ten minutes and a thousand wood screws later, the top was off and rolled into the corner of my workshop. After carefully maneuvering the base through the door and having it take up most of the floor space, I came to the realization, that the door to my workshop will need to be made larger.

As with most projects when I don’t know what to do, I ignored the problem and hoped that it would go away. But ‘The Beast!’ was not going anywhere. The top sulked in the corner of my workshop demanding my attention. Mostly because I kept having to roll it out of the way every time I needed to get to my stores. The base just sat there tripping me up every time I walked past it. Eventually, in frustration, I took apart the cross braces, folded the legs together and stuffed it in front of the sulking top. Which simply meant that I now had to move two pieces of The Beast! every time I wanted something out the stores. “Enough!” I cried, “You win! I will deal with you now!” after the tenth move of the day.

I had not looked it over properly yet, and began my inspection. The table top was made of 20 mm jointed solid oak.  At some point in its 40 odd years of existence, the jointing had started to fail, probably because of shrinkage and the movement of the oak. Several bad attempts had been made to repair it. The first involved gluing the separating pieces together. Clamping a round table together is really difficult to start with. Without the proper tools it becomes a nightmare. The first attempt had involved spreading wood glue into the crack and then applying vertical pressure across the separating pieces to hold them together. When that failed, nails, a couple of wood screws and a few self-tappers followed. Surprisingly that too failed to solve the problem. But a bigger problem appeared to be developing. The stretchers had started to work themselves loose, and these needed to be repaired. The expert solution was to first glue and then nail square strips of wood into the stretchers. With the base stabilized the repairer expertly glued four pieces of thick meranti onto the oak, and screwed that in place with the 1000 screws we had to remove to get the top loose. Despite the messiness of the job, it managed to get the table past its 40th birthday. I am just grateful that no one has had to do that to me, just yet.

I loaded the top onto my table saw, as this was the only surface I had big enough to hold it. Measure. Ponder. Measure. Ponder. Go play with the dogs.

The problem was I had never squared a round table before. It was too big for my table saw so I would have to use a circular saw. I wanted to to cut it so the grain kept its neat straight lines. Eventually I worked out where the center of the table was, and measured my first cut. I would be able to cut it square and remove most of the damage caused by the expert repairs without loosing too much table top. With one side squared, the others took shape and voila. The Beast! had been reduced. If nothing else, it was easier to move it around my workshop. The top now measured a respectable 1 sqm.

I ripped four 40 mm thick strips out the long grain left over from the removed ends and cleaned the varnish off them before running them through the thickness planer. I flipped the table top over and cleaned and scraped the underside before gluing and screwing the strips onto the edge. This provides a solid look and feel to top and a neat edge. The surface of the table was in pretty good condition, despite its age. Shrinkage and bad repairs aside, it had clearly been looked after. But the yellowed varnish had to go. It was first scrapped the surface using a shaving hook, followed by a Stanley blade. I sanded the bare wood till it was smooth, oak-white and beautiful. A quick turn with the round over bit and the router to smooth the edges and it was done. I then turned my attention to the legs.

Each leg was 75 mm thick. They were joined together with a 150 mm wide stretcher, mortised into the leg. These ran diagonally under the table. A brace across the bottom added further stability to the legs. I cut through the center joint on each piece separating the legs. I removed all the additional glued bits, screws and nails before cutting the mortise joints flush against the edge with a tenon saw. I scrapped off the varnish and ran each piece through the thickness planer to square them up again.  I squared the top and bottom on the table saw and made sure each leg was the same length. A quick pass on the router table with a round over bit and the legs were ready. I ripped each stretcher to 75 mm wide. I removed the varnish and squared each piece on the thickness planer before rounding the edges.

I used pocket holes and pva wood glue to attach the stretchers to the legs and used more pocket holes to attach the top to the base. A couple of coats of teak wood stain, followed by three coats of a mat polyurethane varnish completed the look.  And with that, The Beast! was truly vanquished. In its place stood The Elegant Lady. A sleek modern looking four-seater table, perfect for open plan living.

While I was working on this, I tried to imagine family that once owned it. Mom, Dad and two kids. It stood in their 70’s dining room, with green crush velvet chairs next to their burnt orange kitchen. I imagined the happy times spent around it. In the 80’s, an overworked Dad trying to repair the crack, eventually relying on the brute strength of the meranti to hold it together.

I wonder where it will go now? To some stylish townhouse owned by a busy young couple? To a bachelor pad, where some guy will entertain and hopefully convince his new girlfriend that he is worth hanging on to despite his poor cooking skills?

We are about the same age, The Beast! and I.  We have seen a lot of the world in our 40 odd years. Here’s to then next 40.

 

 

This piece is for sale. Asking price is R4400.00

Chest of Drawers

Mid Century Memories

I probably own t-shirts  that are older than the young man who was standing in front of me trying very hard to convince me that I wanted to buy the showcase. It was beautiful, in excellent condition and fairly well priced. It was by far the best piece in a second hand shop filled with battered furniture and bits and pieces parading as vintage and antique. I am not sure he quite appreciated the irony of his youth in the situation. But it was the chest of drawers that I had come for. 

I had come across an online classified ad for a set of drawers quite by chance. I loved the look of the drawers and contacted the seller. A quick negotiation and we agreed to meet to settle the price. It turned out to be a second hand store not far from my office.  After a handshake deal, a long poke around the shop, and 10 minutes of me telling him why I would not buy the showcase, I decided it was time to leave. My new young friend helped me load the drawers into the back of my car and headed into Cape Town’s Friday afternoon rush hour traffic.

The piece had some minor surface scratches and scuffs on the top, some  water damage and a nasaty oily spill that had marred the surface.

Chest of drawers
Top of the chest of drawers. It was badly scratched with water damage and a nasty oil stain to one side

The french polish had long lost its luster and had taken on that faded and gray look common in pieces exposed to the harsh SA climate and too much sunlight. Aside from a small crack in the skirting near the front foot that had caused the foot to work loose, the carcass and drawers were in excellent condition. The wooden drawer pulls were recently chipped and damaged, and the drawer fronts were badly scratched. I suspect this was caused by people moving around the cramped confines of the shop.

Chest of drawers pre renovation
Fornt of the chest of drawers showing scratches and chipped drawer pulls

The piece was probably made in the mid 50’s or early 60’s. It was manufactured by the McNamee factory, most likely in their Pietermaritzburg factory. I have seen several pieces from that factory and they all have a similar style. The top is solid imbuia wood with a roman ogee profile finishing the edge. The drawers have a beautiful series of horizontal curves that are matched by vertical curved pieces on the sides. The drawer fronts are a single piece of solid imbuia, attached to the drawer carcass with dovetail joins. The drawer carcasses are plywood that have been lightly stained. The side panels are solid imbuia and are seated in frame with gently curves. Ball and claw feet with a grooved skirt finish the footer. The wood has a beautiful grain and the drawer fronts have been well selected to show the beauty of the wood.

The original serial number or model number is punched in the back, and the original manufacturer’s tag is still attached. The manufacturer’s button is embedded in the bottom drawer.

To start the restoration I removed the feet and skirting which were held in place with old fashioned steel wood screws. The damage to the skirting was probably caused by the piece being dragged across a tiled floor and the foot catching in a grout line or on the edge of tile. I first worked the foot loose from the skirting before gently opening the crack. I added some pva wood glue into the crack before clamping and leaving it to set overnight. The dowels were drilled out and replaced before glueing the foot back to the skirt.

 

 

Front leg
Front leg after dissasembly and before repair

 

 

 

After cleaning and sanding the repair is invisible. I  scraped, cleanaed and sanded skirt and feet before resetting the skirting on the base of the cabinet using the original wood screws.

Invisible repair on the foot

 

 

I scraped and cleaned the french polish from the wood before hand sanding the bare wood to a smooth clean finish. Imbuia has a spicy fragrance and the wood takes on a well polished finish as you work through to a 220 grit. I cleaned the sawdust off with a cloth moistened with mineral turpentine before coating the piece with three coats of matt polyurethane varnish. I slightly distressed the surface between coats with steel wool and polished the final coat with steel wool and teak oil. This will  will provide a hardwearing finish that will be stain, and water resistant.

 

The matt polyurethane finish which will be stain and water resistant.

I replaced the original drawer pulls with a copper-finish drawer pulls from my local hardware store. 

Brass pulls and and a patina that matches the age of the piece and highlights the beauty of of the wood

 

This is a beautiful piece of quality furniture that will provide years of service. It is well constructed and was built by master craftsmen. These furniture pieces were made before mass production, when time and care went into the manufacture of each piece. That shows in the attention to detail in its construction and quality of the wood that was used to make it. These were made to last a long time.

Chest of Drawers
What a beauty!

While restoring this piece I tried to think of the story behind it. I imagined a young man arriving home with this as a gift for his new bride. I could picture him in his brown suit, carrying it into the house and setting it up in their bedroom; her in a cream dress with floral prints, her face a picture of delight. The top drawer held those items she used daily, the middle drawer her winter sweaters that she would knit herself and the bottom drawer a collection of keepsakes and memorabilia. A crocheted doily covered the top, and a black and white photograph of them on their wedding day took pride of place in the center. When they were older and her grandkids would arrive, she would whisper in their ears “There is chocolate in the middle drawer”, and her grandkids would run to the bedroom to grab their loot.

Mass produced furniture serves a purpose, but lacks soul and imagination. I cannot imagine anyone running their hands across the top of a 50 year old melamine flat pack and having those thoughts run through their head. This piece has lasted a lifetime and carries those memories, real and imagined in it. If well cared for it will last another. Maybe it will be owned by a young man, working his first job in his Dad’s second hand store…

This piece is still for sale. Asking price is R4200.00