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

A head turner and conversation piece with many years life still to come.

Restoration, Renovation and Innovation, Part I: When to restore.

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.

 

Restored to its original condition, with all the original hardware.
Restored to its original condition, with all the original hardware.

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.

Beautifully restored with a patina to match its age.
Beautifully restored with a patina to match its age.

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.

The vice with a fresh coat of paint, waiting to be mounted

Record Vice Restoration

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. 

It looks a little rough, but not in bad condition considering its age. Nothing elbow grease, Wynn's Clean Green, sand paper and Q20 can't fix.
It looks a little rough, but not in bad condition considering its age. Nothing elbow grease, Wynn’s Clean Green, sand paper and Q20 can’t fix.

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. 

Munki-kat. She supervises many of my projects and does regular site inspections to make sure that health and safety standards are adhered to. Quality is supervised by her mother Soxie-kat.
Munki-kat. She supervises many of my projects and does regular site inspections to make sure that health and safety standards are adhered to. Quality is supervised by her mother Soxie-kat.

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. 

Before and after shots. The broken spring can be seen next to the vice in the bottom right picture.
Before and after shots. The broken spring can be seen next to the vice in the bottom right picture.

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. 

Laminated construction plank
Construction plank I found in my wood stash.

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.

Cleaning up the plank with the belt sander
I used a belt sander to clean up the old varnish off the plank and make sure there were no surprises for the blades on the jointer and thicknesser.

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. 

The completed workbench with vice attached.
The completed workbench with vice attached.

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.

Chest of Drawers

Mid Century Memories

I found this chest of drawers while poking around a second-hand store in Clairmont. The piece had some minor surface scratches and scuffs on the top, some  water damage and a nasty 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
Front 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 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 a frame with gentle 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 then clamped and left it to set overnight. The dowels were drilled out and replaced before gluing the foot back to the skirt.

 

Front leg
Front leg after disassembly and before repair.

After cleaning and sanding the repair is invisible. I  scraped, cleaned 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 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!

 

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