Lockdown!

I have never been the sort of person that enjoys working from home.There are too many distractions. There are dogs to play with, the wood-shop to play in, the garden to work in and too many hours to spend watching the cat do nothing more than be a cat. So the idea of spending 5 weeks working at home would, under normal circumstances, seem unproductive. But these are not normal times anymore, (or maybe crazy is the new norm?).

Fortunately, I don’t have to be too worried about being productive; at least not in the short term. I exited my job the Friday before the COVID-19 lockdown was announced. It was not as a result of COVID-19, like so many poor people but rather, the company and I mutually agreed to part ways.

Whoohoo! I thought as I packed up my office. I am going to spend the next month doing Nothing!! with a capital N and at least two !!’s. Then worry about a job. Out came a long list of activities that I had planned to do. This year has been a slow woodworking year for me. Most of the weekends have been filled with activities and so I have not really had time to get into the shop. So I was looking forward to spending time with my wood plus I had plans for the garden. And then, Lockdown was announced.

Technically, I still have a week left of doing Nothing!! before I have to seriously start thinking about how to earn money. Although I am doing Nothing!!, projects (also known as work) seem to be finding me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, and I am very grateful in a COVID-19 world that my skills are needed and being used. But Nothing!! is slipping away :(.

I did manage to buy and plant a gazillion plants for the garden to replenish the stock that died off after the extended drought we had in Cape Town. There are still water restrictions in place and we do not generate enough wastewater to maintain anything more than the lawns and a few flower beds. I hope that planting some water-wise plants before the winter rains will allow them to establish themselves and they will survive next summer

The woodworking front has been taken up by some serious maintenance activities. I have gotten into the habit of cleaning and lubricating all my tools before winter arrives. I discovered after my first Cape Winter that the weather here is not kind on tools. I spent a considerable amount of time cleaning rust off most of my tools after that first wet season. This was a problem I had never encountered on the Highveld. So my entire tool set gets cleaned and sprayed with Q20 at this time of year.

I built a couple of patio sets some years back. The first is a two-seater table and chairs that sits outside on our back veranda on the west side of the house. I originally built it so that we could sit and have our breakfast there in the summer in the shade, or grab a cup of coffee and some sunshine on a winter’s afternoon. The second was a larger 6-seater table that sits on our veranda on the east side of the house near our pool. Both sets have seen good service over the last 4 years. Many a happy party has been had around that table.

The tables are built from Saligna and are finished in a high gloss polyurethane varnish. The two-seater’s chairs are both Saligna, but the rest of the chairs are Meranti. Both sets have spent the last 4 years either baking in the hot summer sun, or being being lashed by the winter rains. They were not under cover until recently. The table tops have taken a beating, and the finish on both had started to crack and peel. The UV rays had damaged the polyurethane causing it to crack, while the water had penetrated and completed the job of ruining the finish. Fortunately, I had purchased loads of sand paper before the lockdown and was ready to tackle the job.

I sanded both tops to bare wood. Remarkably, there was very little damage to the wood itself, and once that top layer of oxidized and damaged wood had been sanded off, the original beauty and colour of the wood was restored. I was more impressed with the fact that despite being exposed to the elements, neither set showed any structural damage. The underside parts of the table and chairs not exposed to the elements were still in perfect condition. I had not expected these to last this long, and when I started to repair them I expected them to be in much worse condition.

I sanded both tops back to barewood, and then roughed the surface of the varnish on each to create a good key. I wiped it down with a turpentine soaked rag to get rid of the dust and dirt and the surface was ready for varnishing.

I decided to go with the same varnish I had used originally. I figured it had lasted well under the conditions, and since both of these tables were now under cover, it would probably last as long if not longer. However, I tried something different. I am experimenting with wipe on varnishes, as I think one gets a better finish and more control with a rag than with a brush. I diluted the first coat out 50% with turpentine and applied a liberal coat to both tables. One thing I noticed immediately is that the thinner varnish seems to absorb into the wood much better when applied with a rag than the manufacturer’s recommendation of thinning the varnish 10% to 20% and applying with a brush. The coat is of course thinner but it seems to fill the more open texture of the wood better. I suspect that it probably has something to do with a decrease in the viscosity of the varnish.

Thinning the varnish means that I have to apply more coats and the next three coats were applied the same way, however I thinned the varnish to around 30% with turpentine. The last coat was applied diluted to 10%.

It makes for a slightly longer process to apply the varnish using a rag. But I think that is offset by the fact that I can mix up exactly the amount of varnish I need to use without worrying about waste. When I am done, I don’t need to worry about cleaning a brush as I can simply throw out the rag and take a new clean rag for the next coat. I also don’t need to worry about storing and disposing of hazardous chemical waste. Getting rid of used turpentine is a mission. I normally evaporate used turpentine outside, but that takes a long time and I have to make sure I can leave it somewhere safe from my animals, and somewhere where it is not going to get knocked over and spill into the soil or get filled with rainwater. Plus I really hating cleaning brushes.

I re-did the two two-seater chairs in the same way. The Saligna has held up beautifully on these as well. The remaining chairs, on special request from my wife, are being finished with chalk paint and wax to bring some colour to the patio. Because they are made from Meranti, I am OK with this.

These sets were partially made as an experiment. I wanted to design a table and chair set for some time. I also wanted to see how well these would stand up to the Cape weather. I am very impressed with both the construction and the longevity of the finish. I have made a couple of these now, and I am prepared to offer any customers who purchase these tables and chairs from me the following warranty: 2 year conditional warranty on the finish and a 5 year warranty on the workmanship for the construction. I am hoping that we get another 4 or 5 years of life out of this set before I have to make the next one. And like this set, I hope we emerge after COVID-19 and lockdown, a little better than when we entered it.

Stay safe and look after yourselves and your families.

Chalk painted drinks tray

Restoration, Renovation and Innovation, Part III: In my humble opinion.

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.

Chalk paint does work well as a finish when it is applied correctly. and when the piece that it is being applied to is not a rare wood.
Chalk paint does work well as a finish when it is applied correctly. and when the piece that it is being applied to is not a rare wood.

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. 

A serving platter my wife made. The base is reclaimed pine, and the platter was custom made for chalk painting. The starters were delicious, by the way.
A serving platter my wife made. The base is reclaimed pine, and the platter was custom made for chalk painting. The starters were delicious, by the way.

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