The other day, we were sitting out the patio enjoying the warm spring weather. We were getting ready to have a braai, and I had just opened a new bag of Kameeldoring fire wood. While hauling bits of wood out of the bag, I came across a rather interesting piece. It was about 35 cm long, and about 10 cm thick. The inside of the wood had rotted through giving it a really cool appearance. I immediately thought I had to do something with it. It looked just too nice to throw on the braai.
I used my power washer to clean off the caked in drit and muck and get rid of some of the punky, rotten wood. After leaving it to dry in the sun for a couple of hours I used a wire brush to remove the rough outer pieces and smooth it down. I used my Dremmel with a fine rotary sanding attachment to clean the inside. It started to take shape quite nicely!
I scratched through my odds ‘n sods bin and came across a piece of Blackwood with a live edge. I straightened the edges on the table saw, and sanded it down. I used a piece of copper tubing to give it a little more height and place for the bulb and shade to attach.
I smoothed the wood down with some steel wool before applying two coats of a dark beeswax finish. I wired in a bulb and added a lamp and it was done.
And then, suddenly, popping into my YouTube feed was a series of videos on Japanese lanterns, or Shoji Lamps. I had to try and make one. I thought hand cutting dovetail joints was tough, but this was truly something else. In traditional Japanese carpentry, the Shoji screens contain hand-cut and elaborate kumiko or lattice patterns covered in paper. I scratched around in my odds ‘n sods and found some Beach and Kiaat pieces. These were perfect for what I had in mind,
I cut and planed and polished, and then planed some more. I squared the Kiaat side pieces at 20mm each and cut the half-lap joints in each to form the frame. I planed and squared the Beech to form the kumiko lattice pieces. These were planed to 8mm each and then I hand cut the lap joints to form the lattice. This was where the challenge lay. This is delicate, and detailed work and takes a fair degree of planning to get it right. I struggle to draw plans and prefer to work things out as I go along. That works out 9 times out of 10, when I making something rustic like the Firewood lamp. If its a little off square it adds character. If the proportion is not quite right, keep cutting till it looks right. However with these fine woodworking pieces, it has to be right. Every mistake is horribly amplified and easily noticeable.
I sanded all the pieces to 220 grit and gave it a fine polish with 00 steel wool. I used some white beeswax as a finishing coat. I used spray glue and translucent trace paper for the screens and wired in an LED bulb. A little bit of wood, paper and a gazillion hours of patience, cutting and fitting and it was done.
These two pieces couldn’t be more contrasting. The Firewood lamp is rough and rugged. It is striking in its appearance and the wood was saved from cooking my lamb chops by chance. The Shoji lamp is delicate, proportioned and balanced. When lit, it has a soft diffuse glow.
The one thing I don’t like about sleeper wood furniture is that it tends be bulky and heavy. I like the rustic nature of sleeper wood and I especially like the fact that the sleepers are being re-purposed. I have done some work with sleeper wood in the past, mostly making odds and ends, and really enjoy working with it. Sleepers tend to be hard as nails, and cut and machine with the same ease as metal. On a recent visit to local timber yard I noticed that they had a number of sleepers that had been milled into planks. This got me thinking. Would it be possible to build something elegant and light, while retaining the rustic nature of the sleeper?
I sorted through the pile and pulled out 4 really interesting planks. These must have been cut from the center of the sleeper because they still had a dark, rich red-brown colour. I was informed these were Jarrah, (Eucalyptus marginata), a hardwood highly sought after for its strength, durability and versatility. It has a rich colour similar to Mahogany, and is often used in cabinetry, decking, construction, and of course, railway sleepers. It was perfect for what I had in mind.
Once in the workshop, I chose to drill out and fill the holes left by the railway spikes. For these fillers I used some of the Jarrah itself. On one of the planks, there was an area that had rotted through. Instead of cutting it out of the design, I decided to fill it with a piece of mismatched timber. I cleaned out a square and cut a matching piece of Kiaat, deliberately mismatching the grain and colour to enhance the fact that this was a patch. I did not want this to blend in. I planed the patched level with the surface of the wood. I milled the lumber to an even thickness before cutting, jointing and joining the planks to make a table top that was 600 sq mm. I used a roundover bit in my router to round the edges.
For the legs, I joined two pieces to make an L-shaped leg 60mm wide on each side and 400 mm high. I built a small jig for the table saw and cut a taper into the side of each of the legs before using a round-over bit and router on all the edges to create a more elegant look.
I cut stretchers to size and rounded the edges. I used 8mm dowels and a PVA glue, specifically for oily woods to join the stretchers to the legs. This gave me 400 mm sq base to mount the top. I sanded down to 220 grit, and then applied several coats of furniture oil to complete the look.
I think this is the furniture equivalent of equivalent of fusion food. It has retained the rustic nature of the sleeper wood, and the patches emphasize that this is something that was rescued. I did consider making an elegant bow tie to fill the damaged bit, and I also considered using an off cut of the original wood. But I am trying to make a statement here. This was a piece of wood that has done some living, seen some things and should carry its scars with pride. The patch is not meant to hide the damage, but rather enhance the fact that it is just that, a patch. At the same time, this shows that sleeper wood can be crafted into something elegant and graceful. The table is well proportioned. The legs are solid looking without being bulky and it is functional. The slight taper at the bottom of the bottom of the legs adds a little bit of grace and the rounded edges add to that elegance. It has an ultra smooth matt surface, and you really want to run your hands over it.
“Why did you drill and fill holes in it?”my friend David asked.
“It’s where the railway spikes held down the tracks.”I said.
The part of my life that pays the bills puts me in an interesting position. I work for a large, US based multinational, but spend most of my working time in Africa. What I find very interesting is the juxtaposition of Western Time and African Time. Time as we use it in our daily lives is an artificial construct. We have taken the movement of the Earth around the Sun and divided it into Days, Hours, Minutes and Seconds, and then enslaved ourselves to that construct.
The standardization of time started with the development and expansion of the railroads system. Back in the days of yore, almost every town took its local time from the position of the Sun. The local church tower kept time and chimed the hours of the day so workers, mostly those in the fields, would know when to start work, when to eat lunch, when to pray and when to head home. But with the railroads, a standard measure of time became necessary. If your train was arriving at 11h50, it had to be the same 11h50 everywhere, or the system simply never worked.
The first piece of wearable technology was the pocket watch. Much like the technology we wear today, it was a status symbol. And much like the users of technology today, people have been faking it since the start. Those that owned elaborate and ornate pocket watches advertised the fact with a beautiful fob chain linking their watch to a button on their vest. Those that didn’t own a watch, simply wore a fob chain. The natural extension of that was to be punctual, because that meant you not only had the chain, but there was watch was attached to the end of it. And so the West became obsessed with time and punctuality.
Africa never developed extensive railroad networks so we Africans tend to have a fairly loose association with time. I have often found myself spending hours sitting outside an office of a high ranking official in a government official waiting to see them for a scheduled appointment only to be told that they are not available. Or arranging a training session set to start at 8h30 am only for the last person to arrive at around 10am. My American and European colleagues find this very frustrating. I spend a lot of time trying to explain to them that running a project in Africa according to a strict timeline is like trying to slice hot custard with a bread knife. All you end up with is frustration, a very sticky knife and no custard in your bowl. Its much better to be flexible and gently coax these things along and let them unfold in their own time.
We own a chiming wall clock. I have been listening to it chime away the hours most of my life. I am not sure when it first arrived in my parent’s house. I have a vague recollection of my father hanging it in the entrance hall of the house. That was somewhere around 40 years ago. It has a huge sentimental value for me. The position where it hung was above my head; my bedroom was on the other side of the hall, and my bed directly beneath it. I never owned an alarm clock, but knew to wake up when the clock chimed 6. As I write this I can hear the steady soothing tick-tock of the pendulum and it has just chimed nine o’clock. My mother gave me the clock shortly after my wife and I moved into our first home. I was chatting to my mother on the phone one day and heard the clock chime in the background. I suddenly felt very homesick and told her. That weekend she arrived at our new house with the clock as a house warming gift. It’s hung in every house I have ever lived in and makes it feel like home.
My wife recently had a major back operation. We have both been patients of the surgeon who looked after her. He repaired my mangled finger after I ran it through a table saw, saving the tip and nail and leaving me with a fully functional finger. He also performed carpal tunnel surgery on my wife’s hands. He is an excellent surgeon and a fine doctor. These are all skills that come with time, but being such a great human being is innate. My wife has made excellent progress after her surgery, and we wanted to give him a thank you gift for the care he had given both of us. After spending some time thinking about it, I decided to make him a wall clock. His consulting room is decorated with oak furniture, mostly from wine barrels. I assembled and cleaned a couple of staves from my special batch of aged oak barrels and fitted a clock mechanism. I found some laser cut numbers and added them to create the face. We handed it over to him at my wife’s last appointment. A couple of months later he bumped into my wife at the hospital and after asking after her health told her once again how happy he was with his gift, and how pleased he was that I had taken the time to make something unique for him.
Following on from the success of the wall clock, I decided to try and make a mantle clock. No question about the style of course. It would have to be Art Deco. With the Empire State Building as inspiration, I spent a long time working on the design. I am normally not very good at translating what’s in my head into sketches and I have never been very good with pen and paper; my handwriting is totally illegible, even to me. Almost all my plans, are scratches on bits of paper or scrawled marks on the chalk board. But for this project I took a lot of time to work on the design. One of the reasons I like Art Deco is that it is well proportioned and timeless. That is what I wanted for this piece. I dug through my pile of wood scraps and found some Beech and beautifully grained Kiaat. I cut and fitted and changed and re-cut and played, and in the end finished with a piece that almost looked like my design on paper and exactly what was in my head. This was just a couple of geometric pieces that I had to cut and assemble, but it me a long time to get it right. Each matching piece had to be identical. I even tried to match the grain to make it symmetrical. I built jigs and and guides to make sure that the pieces were placed perfectly. The end result is a beautifully proportioned clock. But what really made me happy was that I spent a great deal of time quietly working on this. This was truly fine woodwork and a step up in my skills. It didn’t matter how long it took, just so long as the end result was perfect.
I am in two minds as to whether I should sell the clock or hang on to it. Its not that I need a clock to tell me what the time is, I am a proud African and know that the time is always right now. But this clock, represents something special for me. It represents a coming of age for me as a woodworker and as a maker. This is one of the finest pieces I have crafted. Its incredibly simple, but its not something I would have been able to achieve in the past. This is a talent that I have only managed to develop over time. It was inspired by a thank you gift I made for a truly gifted human being, which in turn was inspired by a sentimental gift that reminded me of home. I am sure that in the future, I will find time to make clocks.
In my experience, whenever someone starts or ends an argument with “In my humble opinion”, that opinion is neither humble, nor correct. So with that as our starting point, in my humble opinion, chalk painting furniture is the worst thing ever. And that is saying a lot considering some of the ideas that have hit the market.
It’s not that I have anything against the shabby chic look or that I particularly hate chalk paint. It has to do with how it is used, or rather, what it is used on and what that represents. All too often, I have seen people painting valuable or rare woods with chalk paint, and that, in my humble opinion is unethical and constitutes an environmental crime. (OK, maybe the last point is a tad dramatic, but this is about stories and strong opinions. Frankly who cares about a dull story or weak opinion?!)
The other day, I was in a décor shop, and a lady was asking the shop assistant where she could find someone who could do a chalk paint finish. Because I am an annoying person, I butted into the conversation and told her I could do it. As the conversation progressed, I learnt it was a Yellowwood and Imbuia dining suite. She hated the yellow look of the wood and thought a chalk finish would make it look more modern and better match her décor ideas. I explained to her that Yellowwood was in fact a protected species in South Africa and that Imbuia was becoming a rare wood. She had not realised the value of the wood and agreed with my opinion that getting it valued first was a far better option than just slapping on paint.
I love going into furniture stores, second hand stores and décor stores to look for ideas and inspiration. I often see vintage furniture that has been chalk painted, badly too I might add, and being sold as something new and exciting. These are almost always solid, expensive and rare woods. Worse still, are the Walnut burl and Rosewood veneers in art deco furniture that get painted over. This, in my mind, is like pasting a glossy print of Marge Simpson over that little sketch of Lisa Gherardini with wall paper glue because Marge has better hair. I have heard the argument that you can always remove the chalk paint later, but I think there are better ways of dealing with furniture. Here are my golden rules and ideas for when to use chalk paint.
My first rule, as with any piece, is how valuable and rare is it? Old does not always mean valuable, but it is worth first checking with a professional or getting an idea of the value of a piece before you start painting. It is the patina that many collectors are after and once you have painted over that, its pretty much gone for good.
Check what is it constructed from. Rare woods should not be painted, especially woods like Rosewood, which cannot be traded anymore under a CITES ban, Yellowwood and Imbuia which are protected. Think twice before painting woods that are less rare, but are just naturally beautiful like Walnut, Kiaat or Mahogany. There is a wide choice of alternative finishes that will restore the natural beauty or enhance the appearance of these woods. Even ubiquitous hardwoods like Oak, Ash or Teak can be given a new finish that will show off their beauty. Good candidates for chalk paint are cheap woods from renewable resources like Douglas Pine and Meranti, but I would consider alternative options before applying paint to something like Oregon Pine. Man-made boards like chipboard, supa-wood or plywood, either bare or with a cheap veneer or plastic finish like melamine are excellent candidates and take well to chalk paint.
Consider what condition the piece is in. If it is battered and broken, and ready to be scrapped, consider it a good candidate. But also consider that it is possible to get such pieces repaired and retain the original wood finish. Broken legs, stretchers, and split panels can all be replaced or repaired. Scratches can be removed and dings and dents filled and fixed before a new finish is applied that brings out the beauty of the wood. The dings, dents and bashes can be incorporated into a new finish to add character and show that this piece has seen a bit of life.
What if you really don’t like the finish or look of real wood or it simply doesn’t match your décor? If it is a rare or valuable piece, consider selling it and buying a replacement before reaching for that brush. If the woods are rare, and you don’t like the look, consider changing it. For example, the Queen Anne Legs that you hate can be replaced without too much difficult by a skilled woodwork. Solid wood tables can be re-cut and re-finished to suit almost any style. Almost anything that is sold wood can be re-purposed to retain the wood. Even if it is just plain ugly, someone out there will like it.
Get new furniture custom made from inexpensive materials and have fun painting it. Either build it yourself or contract someone to make it. A chalk paint finish on cabinetry, tables and chairs made from cheap wood, scrap wood or man-made boards can look really nice. This is an inexpensive alternative to ruining an expensive or rare piece of wood. Chalk paint is a forgiving finish. If you make a mess of it, sand it down and start again. I have made several bathroom cabinets and applied a chalk finish with a good layer of wax to protect the surface. These have held up much better than similar enamel coated finishes. The construction materials were cheap pine shelving and they last much better in a damp environment than the expensive melamine products sold in bathroom stores. Chalk paint and pallet wood are a great combination. My wife is a chalk paint enthusiast and has refinished mirror frames, chalk boards and a beautiful serving platter.
Mixing and matching finishes can also create interest, especially when mixing an expensive or rare wood with a not so expensive wood. We had an old ball and claw side table that somehow ended up in our possession. To this day, I know not whence it came. But I used it for years as a small step for getting to those places just out of my reach, including as a painting aid. When I finally had a closer look at its construction it turned out to be a solid mahogany top, over “less-than-nice-and-not-real-mahogany-but-brown-enough-to-match” legs. After cleaning it up, and sanding it down, I chose to apply a chalk finish to the legs. I added an ultra gloss polyurethane finish to the top. The combination works well and it now does service in our lounge. A mini farmhouse-style occasional table.
At a deeper level, there is an ethical debate here. We live in a world that is increasingly grappling with what sustainable living means. I often think that people consider sustainability a way to maintain the status quo. But having lived through South Africa’s electricity crises, the Cape Town water crises, and the increasing talk of how plastics are finding their way into the food chain and the damage plastic is causing to the oceans and us, I am more convinced that this is a very wrong view. We have to seriously consider how we live and how we consume products from the natural world. We should carefully consider all our actions and the impact that they have on the broader world.
It’s only a table, you may argue. Its 50 years old and falling apart, and would have been dumped anyway! How does slapping some paint on it affect the world? Wood is a natural and in some respects a finite resource. It should be respected and treated as such. Hardwood trees take a very long time to grow, and deforestation, logging and human expansion into wild areas is rapidly depleting these resources and the ecosystems they support. I think there is a thin line between painting a Rosewood veneer and shooting a rhinoceros for its horn. Both actions result in the subject of these actions being gone for good. I don’t have children to leave the planet to, but would sincerely like to leave the planet in a better condition than I found it. And I think that is the true point of sustainable living.
Saving old pieces of furniture is just a small contribution to that ideal. Respecting the materials, they are made from, and the craftsman who made them is just as important. But hey, that’s just my humble opinion
There is a lot of grey between a renovation and a restoration. When I think of restoration, I tend to think of it as bringing a piece back to its original condition. This would involve using the original materials, and authentic replacements if needed. Renovation, is a partial or complete overhaul of a piece, giving it a new look or purpose with little to no regard of its original look or purpose. You can be as creative and innovative as you want.
When considering a renovation, I very much follow the same thought process as for a restoration. The most important consideration is whether the piece is rare or valuable. I rarely consider renovating very old or antique furniture. These may either be valuable, or well on their way to being valuable.
Vintage and retro furniture made from real woods make excellent candidates for renovation. Even inexpensive furniture can be given a new lease on life with a little bit of creative thought. Faux finishes like melamine and thin veneers can be upgraded and updated with some a splash or two of paint or wood stain. Repairing and renovating old furniture can be a huge cost saving especially for people on a tight budget.
Shortly before we were to get married, we purchased our first apartment and needed to furnish it. Being short of cash, and on a lab worker’s salary, we gratefully accepted a gift of an old 3 piece lounge suite from my wife’s family. It was a Pine and foam set that had been finished with a dark varnish. It had ugly 70’s style floral print cushions which I strongly doubt were ever fashionable. The foam seats were long past their best and never fitted properly to start with. Despite its looks, and its scratches and dents, it was a solid and functional piece of furniture.
Long hours of scraping, cleaning and sanding got the wood back to its bare state and got rid of the dark varnish. The cleaned Pine was stained a rich mahogany colour and a matt polyurethane finish completed the look. We purchased new foam seats and backrests that better fitted the seats, and my mother-in-law kindly sewed modern stylish cushion covers. Total cost for the renovation was a few hundred Rands. It went from dull, drab and downright ugly to modern, bright, clean and stylish. The furniture served us well for a number of years before we could afford an upgrade and was the favourite seating place for our golden cocker spaniel. The job must have been well done because this is still doing service in a family member’s home some 20 years after I completed the job. Sadly, this was before I owned a cell phone, never mind a camera, so I don’t have any pictures of it. (Yes, I am as old as the pieces I renovate!)
I have a friend whose house is stuffed full of old furniture, all of it great candidates for renovation. All of these have sentimental value for her, with this “piece belong to aunt so-n-so, and that piece the thing that her mom bought when…”.
When moving into a new house, she had retrieved some of her furniture out of storage from her brother’s barn. Unfortunately, some if it had gotten badly damaged from a leaking roof in the storage shed. One piece in particular caught my eye. After much back and forth, my friend agreed to let me take it, rather skeptical of what I was about to do. It was a solid Oak mid-century corner drinks cabinet. The top and side had gotten wet while in storage shed, and the drawer runners had broken off. Other than that it was in good condition.
The varnish was scraped off and the top and sides sanded to remove the water stains. I repaired the drawer slides. I love art deco, and thought that the piece would look really nice with a slight art deco look. I took some high gloss black spray paint and framed the door and coloured the feet. I stained the rest of the cabinet a rich dark mahogany colour before finishing it with three coats of gloss poly-urethane varnish. Some metal polish on the drawer pulls brought them back to life.
At the same time, I took 2 old picture frames from my friend. They were well beaten and looked ready for the scrap heap. These were gilded wood and plaster frames. The first one was in bad condition and needed to be re-glued. I chipped the plaster off and I sanded and cleaned up the Pine. I painted it with some off white PVA, and as it dried, I wiped it down to create an authentic distressed look. The plaster on the second was in much better condition, and I filled the chipped and broken off plaster and sanded and cleaned it up. I primed it with a white water based primer and then took a great deal of creative licence to colour and paint it. A red border matched my friends red sofa. My friend loved them, I had fun and we saved two pieces that would have otherwise been thrown away.
These are good examples of makeovers: taking an old and tired piece and with a bit of creativity, making something fresh and exciting. You are limited by as much as what you can imagine. Take the case of the giant round Oak table I wrote about earlier This was a complete transformation of an outdated and unwanted piece of furniture into something elegant, stylish and modern. Nothing went to waste. The left-over off cuts were transformed into stylish articulating lamps, stained black and fitted with built in wireless chargers. They now do service on our bedside tables (which themselves were made from cut-offs from floor boards).
Renovation has a lot of benefits. Its fun to do and there is no end to how creative and innovative you can be. If you mess it up, its not a big deal since in many cases these were pieces that were destined for the trash heap anyway and mistakes can be fixed. Its easy for kids to get involved in this. Renovation is friendly for the environment. Reusing and recycling pieces keeps them out of landfills or incinerators. Many of these pieces of furniture are made from exotic and rare woods. Recycling the wood means trees and energy are saved and carbon footprint is decreased. It saves you money. The cost of renovation is way lower than buying new furniture and renovating a piece of furniture can increase its value. Sentimental pieces can be saved and the life of these pieces long extended. And there is something really special about owning something you yourself created. It is always much better to have a story to tell than “Yeah, bought that the other day”.
In my last piece in this series, I will talk about chalk paint as a starting point for my final point about sustainable living.
I love old-timey things, and I love to restore and bring these things back to their former glory. I have already posted about some of my tools, and a few furniture pieces that I have restored over the years. This is the first in a three-part piece on my approach and philosophy when it comes to restoration and renovation.
I normally consider several factors before tackling a restoration. This is not an expert list, or by any means exhaustive, but I do hope these factors give guidance on when to restore an old piece of furniture, tool or collectable and when to leave it be.
But firstly, what is a restoration? A restoration typically involves bringing a piece back to its original, or close to original condition or function as possible. Restorations should not change the fundamental design elements of the piece and where possible should use as much of the original components as is practical. Where substitutes are used they should be authentic to the period and should not detract or distract from the overall appeal of the piece. Any repairs should blend seamlessly into the original. When considering whether to restore a piece, I usually run through the following check list.
How old and how rare is it?
People often use the term antique to describe anything that is old. However, something is only considered an antique if it is older than 100 years. Anything less than 100 but older than 20 years is considered vintage or retro. I normally avoid working with antiques because I am always worried about destroying the value. I would certainly not work on a rare antique without careful consideration of what effect it would have on its value. While antique does not always mean valuable, the last thing the owner of any antique wants is to destroy value through a careless restoration. That value is not always monetary, it could also be sentimental. I am a little more liberal when it comes to vintage pieces. These pieces are usually solidly constructed from high quality wood by master craftsmen and take well to restoration, while others were mass produced and are quite ubiquitous.
What material is it made from?
Many antique pieces are made from rare hard woods that are now endangered or not commercially available. This includes woods like Rosewood, trade of which is banned under CITES, and Yellowwood which is protected in South Africa. Although not on the CITES list Imbuia is on the IUCN Red List. Vintage pieces, especially ball and claw furniture, are often made from this beautiful wood. Art deco period pieces are typically made with hardwood veneers, especially Walnut burl, and Rosewood and incorporate composites including chrome, Bakelite and mother-of pearl inlays. These materials are often hard to come by and therefore difficult to restore.
What condition is it in?
A piece in museum show condition should be left in that condition. However, an antique piece with broken and missing pieces or loose joints is a good candidate for restoration, providing its not going to affect its value. Care should be taken when refinishing or repairing a piece not to destroy the patina. It’s often the patina that collectors are interested in or that give pieces their value. The ease with which it is to find replacement parts or substitutes should also be considered.
Do I know what I am doing?
I once attempted to restore an old valve radio. I know nothing about valve radios, and despite a wealth of information online and some understanding of electronics, I could not figure out how to do this. I abandoned the idea being afraid that I was going to either electrocute myself, burn the house down, destroy the radio or all three. I still have it though and will probably get a valve radio expert to repair it at some stage. If I am not sure what I am doing, I would rather leave it alone or consult an expert.
Restoration of an Art Deco drinks cabinet
We inherited an Art Deco drinks cabinet from my wife’s Grandmother. We are not quite sure how old it is, but it stood for 60 odd years in their house starting in the late 1940s. We think it originally belonged to my wife’s great grandmother who moved in with her kids shorty after they setup house. We have owned it for a little under 15 years, so that makes it somewhere between 70 and 80 years old if not older. It’s not quite an antique yet but it is old and not far from being an antique. There are still a lot of Art Deco pieces in circulation, so it is not really that rare. There are no maker’s marks, identifiers or serial numbers on it.
It is constructed from block board sandwiched between thin sheets of plywood, common construction for Depression era furniture. The top coat however is a Walnut veneer with some burl on the doors. When we inherited it, it was not in great condition. The cabinet stood in the entrance hall in the grandparent’s house, and the right hand side that faced the front door had taken something of a beating. Sunlight had faded the finish and it had started to craze. The top had some deep scratches. At some point in its history, someone had re-varnished the top, and had not done a great job. The occasional spray from heavy Joburg thunderstorms coming through the front door had caused water damage on the side. The veneer was chipped and cracked and in places had peeled off completely. We brought it to Cape Town when we moved down in 2008. It is a remarkable piece of furniture, and we have often had people walk into the house and walk straight to it to admire it.
My wife was not that keen for me to restore it because of its sentimental value and was worried about the project not ending well. I felt confident that a restoration was possible. After our first Cape winter, I was concerned that the change in climate was causing the piece to fall apart. Large portions of the block board on the base were de-laminating and the cabinet was in danger of collapsing. The veneer had degenerated further and large sections had peeled off completely. One weekend, while my wife was visiting family in Joburg, I started to restore it as a surprise for her return.
I scraped off the old varnish and re-glued and fixed the broken block board with PVA wood glue. I repaired and re-glued the peeling veneer. The veneer, already smooth from being scraped was sanded through to 1000 grit with water paper to create an ultra-smooth and shiny surface. However, I was not satisfied with the colour of the finish. Some of the veneer had taken on an uneven colouring and my repair job on the veneer introduced further colour variations. The solution was to use a walnut wood stain to even out and standardise the colour. A further sanding with steel wool after the staining was followed by three coats of a high-quality polyurethane silk varnish. The scratch and water proof finish had the gleam and feel of what I think the original art deco finish would have had. The original brass hardware was cleaned and repaired and re-fitted.
Running through my checklist, was this a good candidate for restoration? This was old, but not antique. It was not rare, and while we couldn’t determine an exact value or manufacturer, I felt confident I was not destroying a long-lost art work of high value. Its sentimental value outweighed any commercial value and the intention was to retain it, not sell it. It had started to deteriorate, and repairs would be needed to extend its life. Despite my wife’s misgivings, I do sorta-kinda know what I am doing and have successfully restored several pieces of furniture. Ten years later and it still looks good. My wife was happy with the outcome, and I am sure that it will be with us for more years to come. The piece was restored to as near as possible its original condition with all original components being refitted.
I have already written about the restoration of a mid-century chest of drawers. This piece was not nearly as old, valuable or sentimental as the drinks cabinet. But the same principles apply. However, while doing this restoration, I did allow for two minor changes. Instead of a French wax finish, I substituted a polyurethane varnish. I felt that the polyurethane would show off the colour and beauty of the wood more than the French wax, which while beautiful, tends to hide the grain and colour of the wood. I also felt that a scratch and water-resistant finish would be more desirable considering the piece’s intended use. I did distress the finish slightly, so it created something of a patina. I could not match or repair the damaged drawer pulls, so I substituted with new brass drawer pulls with an antiqued finish that matched the age and condition of the piece and enhanced the overall appeal.
Generally, I consider these successful restorations. The spirit, style, look and feel of each of these pieces was maintained. Wherever possible the original materials were restored and reused, and the reason the owners of these pieces valued them was maintained. At least one was saved from deterioration and being tossed out.
In part II I will talk about the When’s and Why’s of refurbishment.
I started to take woodworking more seriously as a hobby when we moved into our first house. I bought a collection of cheap power tools at an auction, some of which I still have, and setup a small workshop on our back stoep. This being a townhouse complex, I was limited as to how much noise I could make, and greatly restricted by how often I could get my wife to come and hold a piece of wood while I cut it. Despite the restrictions I made a couple of pieces of furniture including a bed-set complete with bed base and side tables. I also made a cot for my brother’s first born girl. Looking back, I don’t think either were very elegant, but they were fit for purpose and matched my skill level. I also learnt a great deal building those; mostly that if I was going to get anymore serious about this hobby, I was going to have to invest in more tools and gain some serious skills. Over the years I have been fortunate to accumulate a lot more of both.
Until recently, most of the tools I have acquired have been power tools. Power tools are simple way to get the job done in as short a time as possible. There is a short learning curve to figure out how to use them. With the wide range of tools and prices to suit almost any pocket, anyone can get started as a maker. YouTube and other websites are a great source of learning materials, and other social media sites like Pintrest and Instagram are amazing sources of inspiration.
However, I have recently started to experiment more and more with hand tools. This has partly been driven because of a desire to make better quality pieces, but also out of necessity. Two recent factors contributed to me learning how to use a hand plane. The first was when one of my workhorse tools, my Ryobi planer/thicknesser died. It had served me well for over ten years and, like all my Ryobi tools had performed above and beyond what it was made for. It would no longer feed wood through the thicknesser and when I stripped it to find out why, I discovered that the shafts on the gears had worn out. I guess I could probably have replaced them, but decided it was time for it to be retired.
My wife found a Makita thicknesser online and purchased it for me as a “late Christmas, early birthday, now stop bothering me and go to your workshop”, present. That solved one half of the problem. I still needed to be able to flatten and joint boards. I was about to start working on a project making a toy chest from Kiaat, at the time that my Ryobi planer/thicknesser died.
I own two hand planes: a German made No. 3 plane I inherited from my wife’s grandfather and a Stanley Bailey No. 4 that belonged to my dad. Besides shaving doors to fit into door jams, I had never had any success with planes in the past, mostly from ignorance and lack of skill. (In fact it was for fitting new doors in our old house that I originally borrowed the No. 4 from my dad, and had failed to return it. I guess after 15 years, he is not going to miss it and I can consider it mine. Sorry Dad.) The second factor was Eskom. No power means no power tools, and load shedding was having a devastating affect on my woodworking efforts.
That weekend, I hauled out the No. 4 and after a couple of YouTube tutorials, figured out where I was going wrong. I sharpened the blade, set it, tested it and suddenly, was jointing boards by hand. I also figured out that this was the wrong plane and started hunting for a No. 7. It took about 2 minutes online to find what I needed. It seems that there are a large number of people selling old tools on online platforms, and high quality and vintage tools are easy to come by. I found a seller, and made a deal. That Monday, after work, I passed by his place and collected my new plane.
It was not in working order, and needed a little TLC to bring it back to life. Like my vice, it was rusted and a little rough around the edges but a solid vintage tool. I stripped it back to bare metal and cleaned up the rust. A couple of coats of hammered enamel later and a few hours of work flattening the sole and it looked like new. The only problem was I couldn’t get a decent edge on the blade. The blade was too large to fit into my honing guide and wider than my sharpening stone.
A trip to the local hardware store turned up a really neat sharpening wheel that attached to the drill. It was water-cooled so did not overheat the metal. I tried it on my chisels first, figuring I could always fix those easily if I messed it up. It gave them a neat, clean edge that I could hone using water-paper and a sheet of glass. My No. 3 and No. 4 blades were next and I soon had a collection of silky smooth wood curls collecting at my feet. But the No. 7 was just too large to fit into the rig. I had to improvise, and built my own sharpening jig using some carefully angled wood. Once I had that sorted was able to bring the plane to full use.
And so I learnt how to joint and flatten boards by hand. It is a lot of hard work, and not something I intend doing very often. I have a great deal of respect for craftsman who earned their living this way in the pre-power tool era. Power tools are great at getting a board to 90% ready for a good finish, adding hand tools gives me that extra 5% for a great finish. Skill will eventually get me that last 5%.
I managed to finish my project on time. It was for a couple that were expecting their first baby. They asked for a toy chest. The Kiaat was reasonably flat to start with but not flat enough for the thicknesser. A couple of passes with the No. 7 got it flat enough to go through the thicknesser to get it to size. I jointed the sides using the No. 7 and ran them through the table saw to get them perfectly square. A few passes with the No. 4 and the saw marks were cleared creating a tight fitting joint. These were joined into panels using biscuits and PVA wood glue. More biscuits and some pocket-holes got the chest assembled. A few passes over the joins with the No. 3 to clean the edges and it was perfect. A live edge lip completed the lid and 4 coats of polyurethane for a long lasting satin finish completed the piece.
For the long haul, I purchased a second hand industrial quality 8 inch jointer. It has been refurbished and I am still tweaking it, but can flatten and joint relatively quickly now. The No. 7 and No.4 are in regular use to create clean sharp sides and finish joined boards.
As for my other hand tools: I dug out the Stanley sureform that accompanied the inherited No. 3, and replaced the rasp blade. Its now regularly used to cut and rough shape pieces. I also sourced a Stanley No 80 Scraper for adding a silky smooth finish. I have started using chisels more often. My planes are now in constant use and mounted in easy reach of my vice. I am still some way away from hand cut dovetail joints, but that is starting to look less and less intimidating.
I found an old Record Vice 52 1/2 in a second hand store on Route 62 somewhere between Oudtshoorn and the middle of nowhere. I managed to buy it for next to nothing. It was hidden behind a pile of rusty old tools, and I think the shop owner didn’t realize how valuable it was. The mechanism was jammed solid, and it had some surface rust and pitting, but was in really good condition otherwise. I had been looking for a vice for some time, and had not found anything that met my needs. This was perfect.
After a couple of squirts of Q20 into the mechanism and a quick whack with a rubber mallet, I managed to get the screw turning. And then disaster. There is a spring that presses the half nut onto the worm drive. Trying to get that moving, I managed to snap the spring. A quick internet search, and I was able to find that parts for these are readily available. Problem solved and I could carry on.
I stripped it down and started cleaning the parts removing the hardened grease and decades of saw dust and rust. After a bottle of Wynns Clean Green, loads of Q20 and a wire brush and under the watchful supervision of my cat Munki-kat, I had the pieces cleaned, shiny and ready for a coat of paint. I decided to go with a black hammered enamel finish, rather than the original Record blue. As a bit of fun, I painted the quick release green.
I managed to source a replacement spring from the UK for 25 GBP. But the shipping to South Africa was 120 GBP! That was almost 10 times what I paid for the vice and almost half the price of a new one. A quick call to a friend in the UK, and he bought it for me and had it shipped free to his place. We were meeting in Germany on our next business trip in month and agreed to the exchange over a beer. After my return, I fitted the spring and the vice made fully functional.
I found this very comprehensive blog post about the vice at the Small Workshop. From this post I am guessing mine is a model VI. It’s not really possible to date it beyond the model number. Being a little bit sentimental I would prefer to think of mine as being one of the first of those models, and significantly older than me.
The next issue was figuring out how and where to mount it. I found this piece of laminated pine construction lumber sitting among a pile of wood I inherited from my good friend and neighbor who had recently passed away. He was an excellent woodworker having trained as a shipwright in his youth. He made many of his own tools, and had a love for all things old-timey, especially hand-tools. I thought that if he were alive, he would have loved to see this being put to such a good use.
I cleaned it up with belt sander before I cut it to size with a circular saw. A quick run through the jointer-planer gave me dead straight boards. I joined two boards together to make the top using biscuits and PVA wood glue. Once it was dry, I cut it to final size on the table saw and rounded the edges with a round-over bit using my table router. The sides were joined to the top with biscuits and wood glue, and because I was worried a little about the stability, I added some pocket holes for extra measure.
I mounted this to my workbench and bolted the vice under it. My workbench stands a little under 90 cm high, and the final height of the bench a little over 110 cm. I am just short of 6′ tall, so the small work top makes an excellent platform for marking and assembling small parts without my back taking strain. The vice sits at a perfect height for planing wood as I can get my shoulder behind the plane.
Having this simple tool has made a huge difference in the workshop, and I love the little worktop with tool storage underneath. Munki-Kat too has given it a stamp of approval with a rating of Purrrr-fect.
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 2016. 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.
I was hooked and started looking for my next lamp project. I had a rosewood door frame that had broken in half while the carpenter was installing 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 ugliest table I had ever seen. The only one rounder and uglier 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?”
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 I needed a bigger door and a bigger workshop.
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 thick 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. I 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.
This piece has sold. The asking price was R4400.00. I can create tables like this, from virgin wood, or trim and shape existing tables or reclaimed materials. These can be made to any dimension you need. Prices will be supplied on request when assessing your needs.