Furniture Crimes

Dear Nate

While you are not responsible for all the damage that was done, you are guilty for a large part of it.  And as I tell this story I shall tell you what crimes you and your unknown co-accused are guilty of. More about you later though. My part in this story starts with a WhatsApp message from a wine rack customer on a Friday afternoon. It read “Is there anything that you can do to save this?” accompanied by a picture of beat up and broken display case.  The message was from Giba.

He and his wife had come past the house to collect a winerack. While they were here they noticed our Art Deco drinks cabinet and wanted to know where we had gotten it from. My wife who was dealing with them, (I was out at the time), explained the story. She gave him my number and they left. When he got home, he messaged me. I had a look at the pic and messaged back “Sure. I can look at it. Pretty sure I can do something with it.” We agreed that he could drop it off the next day.

Giba and his friend duly arrived on Saturday morning, and we unloaded the cabinet from the back of his trailer and hauled it into the workshop. I gave it a quick once over and explained what I would be doing and what damage I had notice on first inspection. Giba’s response was, “I leave the patient with you. Don’t call me until its done.” And with that they were off.

I examined the cabinet in a little more detail. It stood about 1.5m high. At some point in its history it had been painted with grey chalk paint. The mirror at the back had started to peel. One of the doors had broken off its hinges and the two rear feet were loose causing the cabinet to wobble as I moved it. I decided to work from the bottom up, but first removed the glass panes and the mirror at the back so they would not get damaged. The batons holding the glass panes had been removed at some point and some of them were broken. It did not take too much effort to remove them.

I flipped it over onto its head and removed the feet. The front foot was in good condition. The two rear feet, not so much. One foot had a large crack running through the middle of it and bits of the leg were missing. The tenons joining the legs to the skirting were very poorly made and were loose on both legs. I scraped off the paint to see what wood I was working with. It was mahogany.

I sorted through my odds and off-cuts and found a suitable piece of mahogany. I carefully cut out the broken section of the leg and glued some replacement stock in place. Once that had dried I cut and shaped it using rasps and sandpaper to the original dimensions and shape. I cut the tenons off all the skirtings and squared all the edges with a quick pass through the table saw. I filled the empty mortices on both legs with scraps of Mahogany. I marked and drilled dowels for each of the skirtings before reattaching them to the legs. I reinforced each leg with a square block of Kiaat that I drilled and fitted using pocket hole screws. I scraped off the rest of the paint and sanded all three feet.

Cleaned, cut, glued, shaped and sanded. Done!

I turned my attention to the broken door. The door had been broken off the hinge. At some point someone had tried to reattach it to the hinge using 45mm dry wall screws. The screws had chewed their way through the chipboard and gone right through the front veneer. Not surprising considering the door was only 20mm thick! Not much of the chipboard remained. Using a chisel, I cleaned out the chipboard leaving the plywood and veneer. I squared the top and bottom ends. I found some Pine and planed it to the correct thickness before gluing it in place. Once dried I planed the edges flush and the repair was done.

45mm Screws in 20 mm door are never a good combination. Neither is chalk paint on beautiful veneer.

When I removed the feet I had noticed that that the base of the cabinet did not match the rest of the unit. It was a piece of modern pine shelving. It was badly fitted and on a hunch I tried to dry fit the door to the cabinet. I discovered the reason why the door had broken off. The curve of the base was not cut correctly to match the profile of the door. This  was putting pressure on the hinges. Forcing the door to close pulled the door off the hinges. Adding larger and larger screws caused the chipboard inner to crumble and break. And this Nate is your crime. I am guessing you were responsible for replacing the base and ultimately breaking the door. I know this was you because there was no white paint on the base.

And now dear reader, I bet you are asking, what white paint? While scraping down the feet I realised that the grey chalk paint was the second time this cabinet had been painted. The first time it had been painted was with white enamel paint. Now Nate, I cannot lay the blame for that on you, although given your history with a brush, it may well have been you. It looked like a fairly old paint job and was possibly the first crime committed against this cabinet. You, however, are guilty of adding the grey chalk paint.

I unscrewed the based and carefully removed it trying not to damage the sides. I refitted the loose door. I used a piece of MDF to trace the profile needed for the base so that the doors would fit properly. Using the MDF template I cut a replacement base and used a flush trim bit to finish the edge. The chipboard sides were crumbling a little and I was worried that it would not support the new base. I filled the crumbling pieces with PVA glue and refitted the base. I added glue blocks against the inner edge and screwed the new base into the glue blocks. I tested the doors and they fitted perfectly. And that dear Nate is how you replace a base.

Having completed all the repairs, I could turn my attention to removing the layers of paint and old varnish. Using a combination of scrapers and Stanley blades, I began to remove the paint, starting with the cabinet sides. The underlying veneer was well protected from the paint. Whoever had added the enamel paint had not sanded or cleaned the piece before painting it. They had also only added a single coat of enamel paint. Several years of furniture polish and wax lay between the enamel and the varnish and for the most part it came off with ease. The underlying veneer looked to be in good condition. What was surprising though was that the veneer was not Mahogany. As I worked my way across the piece and got to the solid wood pieces, the workshop was filled with a sweet spicey fragrance. It was Imbuia. The solid wood frame was in excellent condition, and again, the layers of wax and varnish had protected the wood from the paint.

It was while I was working on the solid pieces, dear Nate, that I discovered you were responsible for the damage, for it was here that you had signed your name onto your art work, “Nate 2015”. And that was your next crime. You are no artist.  Unless you surname happens to be Buonarotti, I would strongly suggest you stop carving your name onto your “artworks”. I took great pleasure in removing your name.

Nate 2015
Nate, you are not Michelangelo!

I then ran into the next problem. The internal cabinet had not been as well polished as the outside. It did not have a protective coating of dirt and wax. The underlying varnish was in excellent condition and the paint had adhered very well to the varnish. And dear Nate, you had a very heavy hand when you applied the chalk paint. I had to resort to paint stripper.

I do not like using paint strippers and chemicals in general. They are hazardous, bad for my chest, difficult to safely dispose of, and sometimes cause more problems than they solve. Paint stripper needs to be washed off with water, never a great combination with vintage chipboard. I also find it tends to soften the veneer and scraping the softened paint can cause damage to the veneer. However, in this case I had no choice. I carefully applied paint stripper and as soon as the paint started to bubble and soften, I scraped it off and cleaned the residue with a damp rag. This minimised the damage to the veneer. The top of the cabinet had a similar problem patch. And here, unfortunately, I did cause some damage to the veneer. After I had removed the paint and allowed the veneer to dry, I filled the patches with some wood filler and sanded it smooth.

I sanded the cabinet to 220 grit using a combination of my random orbital sander and hand sanding. The solid wood frame looked beautiful, and the doors were simply stunning. I purchased some Wood Doc Imbuia Gel Stain and applied a liberal coat to the piece. This was to even out the colour of the solid wood pieces, and get the fillers and edging to match, I applied two coats to the Mahogany feet, so they took on a dark hue. I gave the piece a light sanding with 0000 steel wool before applying three coats of polyurethane varnish. After the last coat had dried, I rubbed the piece down with 0000 Steel wool and furniture oil before applying an antique wax. This has given the piece a soft patina with velvet-satin finish that matches the age of the piece.

I attached the feet using glue and wood screws and flipped the cabinet over. She looked good on her own three feet.  I cut and stained new batons for the glass panes and refitted the glass. I got a new mirror cut to size and set that in place. I replaced the plywood backing with an MDF backing. And with that, it was complete.

I cannot say that this looks as good as new because it does not. Its not supposed to. The finish is beautiful. It has a satin texture that is satisfying to touch. The wood grain comes through and the doors look amazing. But it also has it scars. It looks like a piece of furniture made some time in the late 40’s or early 50’s. It looks like a piece of furniture that has done some living and seen a lot of history. Its scars, dents and injuries add to its charm. The repairs to its legs and base are seamless and the cabinet stands rock solid on its three legs. It takes some looking to spot where the repairs occurred. The areas where Nate (again your crime) had sanded through the veneer to add “Charm” to his Shabby Chic (Shitty Cheap in my mind), paint job cannot be repaired. The stain hides the worst of the damage, but it is visible. It now really does add charm to the piece.

It was with a fair degree of pride that I sent the final photo to Giba. He and his wife are thrilled with the outcome. I don’t think they quite imagined that the piece would turn out as well as it has. As I write this blog post, they messaged me to tell me how happy they are.

And so dear Nate, my final words of advice. Put down your brush, and step away from that cabinet. Your paint job and “repairs” were simply not up to standard. My position on painting rare woods and vintage furniture is clear. It is a stupid idea. It detracts from the value and ruins the patina. It is an afront to the artisans and craftsman who made the furniture.

This piece was in bad condition. Its current owners picked it up off a Facebook add, but without serious intervention its next stop was likely to be the landfill or the fire pit. Had you, Nate, and whoever applied the first coat of paint thought about what they were doing a little more clearly, this piece of furniture would never have found itself in the condition it was in.

I am guessing this cabinet was probably made mid 40’s to early 50’s based on the style of construction and materials used. It was probably a budget piece of furniture.  It is a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster. Its feet were Mahogany, and it’s a combination of veneer and solid wood. It’s not quite art deco and not quite mid-century. However, it has survived for all of these years, despite the poor attempts to update it. Much like the Monster, it simply needed a little bit of love and attention to realise the beauty within. I have tried to restore it to its original condition. I am hoping that the repairs and finish will be good enough to last another 70 years, long after you and I, Nate, are gone.

Nate, you are guilty of crimes against beautiful furniture. Your punishment, hand in you brush, and never try and refurbosh another peice of furniture again!

Dovetails and Mouldings

The Apprentice

Being a self-taught woodworker means that what I have mostly learned over the years is how to make mistakes. Websites such as YouTube and Instructables mean that there are a lot of really good resources online to learn from. Some of the better “Makers” on YouTube have great channels that are a good source of inspiration and teaching materials.  But learning from a video is a little like understanding the theory of swimming; knowing that you move your arms and kick your legs is not going to get you out the deep end of the pool. It does not matter how many YouTube channels I subscribe to, or Instructables I read, or books I buy, there is a limit to how much I am going to learn on my own. Many of the makers are extremely talented, but, like me, many of them are self-taught and make the same mistakes I do. Plus, its one thing to watch a video on how to sharpen a chisel, its another to actually see it being done, and get to hold it, see the bevel and test the sharpness yourself.

Since I have a lot of spare time on my hands at the moment, I decided to see if I could get some time with some professional woodworkers. I approached a local cabinet maker and asked if I could join them for a week. This is a local, family owned, business that has been making bespoke furniture for more than 30 years. The owners were somewhat bemused at my request but agreed to allow me to spend some time in the factory.

Monday morning rolled around, and I arrived at the factory. I was introduced to the foreman, Clifford and told I would be working with him. Clifford is a master cabinet maker. He has been doing this job for more than 40 years. He worked as an apprentice himself for more than 6 years before he was considered fully qualified as a cabinet maker. He is extremely talented and pays attention to every single detail. He was about to start a huge centre island and I would be helping him. He started by taking me through his process. He starts by studying the drawings and understanding what is needed. He then lays out his piece in full scale on a piece of board. “Seeing a drawing, and actually working out how to put it together are two very different things” he told me. He plans each component in detail; measures and prepares cutting lists and thinks about the materials he is going to use in the construction. Most of Monday morning was spent discussing the materials, the types of joinery, and the construction. This was to be a painted item, and so it would be constructed from MDF and Poplar. It is the centre piece of the kitchen, and the last part to be constructed.

Just after morning tea ended, we started cutting materials. The MDF  was edged, and cut to size, biscuit joints cut and by lunch time, the base carcass was assembled with glue and screws. What amazed me was how quickly Cliff was able to prepare the materials and do the assembly without any errors. But then, he spent as much time preparing for the build as I do fixing my mistakes. The next step was to build the poplar framed panels and the columns. I was given the task of building the columns. Something I had not done before. Cliff cut mitred pieces, showed me how to assemble the first one, and left me to my own devices. A quick QC check on what I was doing, one or two corrections on technique and a bit of advice, and I was flying solo.

And so the process continued. Cliff would instruct, I would absorb, he would demonstrate, and I would build. As my confidence grew, so too did Cliff’s confidence in me. By the end of Thursday, the island was built. It is a work of art, and I am proud to have been one half of the team that built it. By Friday, Cliff was allowing me to measure, cut drill and assemble on my own. Now that doesn’t sound like a big deal, except the saw I was using took up more space than my entire workshop. I was warned before hand that it was by far, the most dangerous piece of equipment in the workshop.

I learnt to build carcasses and panelled doors. I built columns with nothing more than glue and painters tape. I finally learnt how to cut dove tail joints and build drawers. I watched in amazment as Cliff hand built a complex moulding for the cabinet using nothing but a router and a table saw. He taught me to mitre and fit the moulding, taking almost two hours to cut the mitre joints so that they fitted perfectly. And perfectly fit, they did. I learnt to drill and fit hinges, and hang doors so they were pefectly aligned. I built the shelves and fitted the drawers.

I also got to work with Douglas. He is a few years younger than me and has been a master cabinet maker for as long as I have been a laboratorian. He is extremely skilled. The best part of working with Doug was the long philosophical discussions on beauty, art, and our favourite YouTubers. Doug told me he spent 4 years as an apprentice before he qualified. He is such a good cabinet maker that he went from apprentice to foreman skipping the bits in the middle. He is a natural in the woodshop and moves with grace and ease. Its clear that his was mentored by Cliff as they have a similar approach. He taught me to glue panels and edge boards all while carefully watching me, giving me advice and correcting mistakes. In the blink of an eye, the week was over, and my mini aprenticeship was done.

The furniture this factory builds is beautiful. Each piece is built with passion, pride and an attention to detail that borders on fanatical. That gives each piece a soul; a little piece of the maker that gets left behind that brings each piece to life.

The word “artisan” is derived from the French word, artisan, and from Italian artigiano, based on Latin artitus. It means to ‘instruct in the arts’, from ars, art- ‘art’. Artisans are important in the world, especially today. They create objects of beauty. In a world filled with mass production and consumerism, it is refreshing to discover that people like Cliff and Doug are still here, and still making beautiful objects by hand. Objects that will last more than a lifetime,. The best part of it was that they are willing to share that knowledge with people like me.

Thank you both, for the art, and for the teaching.

Something to Wine About

I do not consider myself a wine connoisseur. My pallet is refined enough to know what I like and what I don’t like. I can occasionally pick out the odd varietal, especially whites, but I mostly just like drinking wine for the joy of drinking wine.

I like collecting wine. In fact, one of the major motivators for moving the Fairest Cape, and our purchasing our current home was proximity to wine farms. We live on the doorstep of the Durbanville wine route. Our favourite weekend get-away spot is Robertson, and Franschhoek is close enough for a day trip. Over the years I have amassed a reasonable collection of wine. Most of it had been shoved into a cupboard for storage and almost all of it in boxes. We had a bar at one stage, but it didn’t really fit into the house, and so we sold it. Finding the right bottle was a nightmare.

On a trip to Knysna one year, we stopped in at one of the wood stores along the N2. As soon as I walked into the store, I fell in love with a Yellowwood slab. It was everything anyone could ever want in a slab of wood. She was lovely. But love is a fickle thing, and I had no sooner set my heart on acquiring her, when I spied her distant cousin, a Blackwood slab. It was love at first site…again. But this time it was to last. I purchased her and made arrangements for her to be shipped back to Cape Town.

The slab is 2.5 meters long, about 600mm wide, on average and about 50mm thick. It is the centre cut with a live edge on both sides. I was informed that the tree was felled about 100 years ago, and the slab has been hanging around since. I don’t know how old the tree was when it was felled, but I am pretty sure it had been around a very long time. I once read that Blackwood trees can take 70 to 100 years to reach that size. The slab was going to be the new top for our bar with wine storage underneath.

The first attempt at cabinetry was a plywood carcass with a built-in wine rack. I built the carcass and hated it. It never made it out the workshop. It became a small workbench instead. The slab meanwhile sat on the lounge floor covered with a couple of towels. One Saturday morning, during a visit to Timbacore for some garden stuff, I came across the biggest pile of Kiaat I have ever seen. Freshly sawn planks, waiting for me to select what I needed for the cabinetry. Thus was born the carcass. And the wine migrated out of the cupboard and into the cabinet, still in boxes though. I had made the carcass big enough to accommodate 4 stand-alone wine racks. I built the first 2, and then sold them. Which wasn’t a problem, because I built another one.  And gave it to my cousin. By this stage I was able to turn out wine racks at will. Eventually I finished the 4 for the cabinet. It has only taken about 5 years, but we finally have a home for most of our wine. I am still to make the doors, and will do so as soon as I have completed a stained glass course I want to attend. I want leaded glass fronts for the doors.

Orders for wine racks have kept coming though. Some of them with good stories to tell. Like the time I built a wine rack for a guy who felt wine was more important than a dishwasher. We built the wine rack to fit into the dishwasher space, or at least that was the plan. I somehow managed to completely misread the dimensions. Instead of fitting into the space with 5mm space on either side, it slid in like a large hand in a medium latex glove. It was touch and go, but it looks perfect.

Tight fit, but looks good!

A work colleague ordered one with a shelf for her gin collection. I had a beautiful piece of Kiaat with rotted bits. After grinding out the rot and wormholes, I was left with beautiful top. I had a live edge I cut from another piece and added it to the top.

6×6 With a shelf on top

Then there was the monster rack. I got a call from a lady who was urgently looking for a wine rack. We worked out the space she had to fill, and I ended up building a 9 x 11 rack. When I delivered it to her house, her story was that she got caught without wine during lockdown. As soon as the booze ban was lifted she ordered a few boxes. By a few she meant well over a hundred bottles, most of which were stacked on the floor. They are now stacked in her wine rack. I hope she has as much fun emptying her rack as I did making it. I was glad she made delivery before the booze ban was reinstated.

That will last a while. Cat not included!

Which brings us to today. We are currently in our second booze ban, with no end in sight. I heard SA has a gazillion litres of wine that were made this year that cannot be sold. I feel for those farmers, wine-makers, farmworkers and their families. I hope that this ends well for them.

As soon as the ban is lifted, I intend doing my part and restocking my stash. In the meantime, I can’t help with wine purchases, but I can help you create a space to store your wine when it arrives.  Give me shout for a custom wine rack or purchase one of my off the shelf variants. They are made as either a 4×4 or 6×6 in the hardwood of your choice. I am considering a smaller 3×3 variant but haven’t had any takers yet. The white oak with a black stain seems to be extremely popular.

I may not be able to solve your wine problem, but I can solve your wine rack problem. Stay safe and look after yourselves. Have a drink for me and bottle or three for our wine industry.

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.

Shoji Lanter

Firewood and Fine Art

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.

Firewood Lamps
My firewood lamp.

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.

The Kiaat frame, not yet glued and sanded yet.

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 light is soft and diffuse and the contrast between the Beech and Kiaat is beatiful.
Sleeper Wood Coffee Table

Sleeper to Coffee Table

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. 

Is this really sleeper wood? He replied? 

I knew at that point, I had succeeded. 

 

 

It’s about Time

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. 

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

Restoration, Renovation and Innovation, Part II: When and Why?

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.

Water damaged, scratched and sad :(
Water damaged, scratched and sad 🙁

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.

Well on its way to a new life with a makeover and sporting trendy back lines!
Well on its way to a new life with a makeover and sporting trendy back lines!

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.

Saved from the scrap heap. The distressed and the happy.
Saved from the scrap heap. The distressed and the happy.

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). 

A funky black wood stain still revels the grain pattern. A built in wireless charger gives me place for my cell phone to sit.
A funky black wood stain still reveals the grain pattern. A built in wireless charger gives me place for my cell phone to sit. All from leftovers.

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.

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.