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.