The other day, we were sitting out the patio enjoying the warm spring weather. We were getting ready to have a braai, and I had just opened a new bag of Kameeldoring fire wood. While hauling bits of wood out of the bag, I came across a rather interesting piece. It was about 35 cm long, and about 10 cm thick. The inside of the wood had rotted through giving it a really cool appearance. I immediately thought I had to do something with it. It looked just too nice to throw on the braai.
I used my power washer to clean off the caked in drit and muck and get rid of some of the punky, rotten wood. After leaving it to dry in the sun for a couple of hours I used a wire brush to remove the rough outer pieces and smooth it down. I used my Dremmel with a fine rotary sanding attachment to clean the inside. It started to take shape quite nicely!
I scratched through my odds ‘n sods bin and came across a piece of Blackwood with a live edge. I straightened the edges on the table saw, and sanded it down. I used a piece of copper tubing to give it a little more height and place for the bulb and shade to attach.
I smoothed the wood down with some steel wool before applying two coats of a dark beeswax finish. I wired in a bulb and added a lamp and it was done.
And then, suddenly, popping into my YouTube feed was a series of videos on Japanese lanterns, or Shoji Lamps. I had to try and make one. I thought hand cutting dovetail joints was tough, but this was truly something else. In traditional Japanese carpentry, the Shoji screens contain hand-cut and elaborate kumiko or lattice patterns covered in paper. I scratched around in my odds ‘n sods and found some Beach and Kiaat pieces. These were perfect for what I had in mind,
I cut and planed and polished, and then planed some more. I squared the Kiaat side pieces at 20mm each and cut the half-lap joints in each to form the frame. I planed and squared the Beech to form the kumiko lattice pieces. These were planed to 8mm each and then I hand cut the lap joints to form the lattice. This was where the challenge lay. This is delicate, and detailed work and takes a fair degree of planning to get it right. I struggle to draw plans and prefer to work things out as I go along. That works out 9 times out of 10, when I making something rustic like the Firewood lamp. If its a little off square it adds character. If the proportion is not quite right, keep cutting till it looks right. However with these fine woodworking pieces, it has to be right. Every mistake is horribly amplified and easily noticeable.
I sanded all the pieces to 220 grit and gave it a fine polish with 00 steel wool. I used some white beeswax as a finishing coat. I used spray glue and translucent trace paper for the screens and wired in an LED bulb. A little bit of wood, paper and a gazillion hours of patience, cutting and fitting and it was done.
These two pieces couldn’t be more contrasting. The Firewood lamp is rough and rugged. It is striking in its appearance and the wood was saved from cooking my lamb chops by chance. The Shoji lamp is delicate, proportioned and balanced. When lit, it has a soft diffuse glow.
The one thing I don’t like about sleeper wood furniture is that it tends be bulky and heavy. I like the rustic nature of sleeper wood and I especially like the fact that the sleepers are being re-purposed. I have done some work with sleeper wood in the past, mostly making odds and ends, and really enjoy working with it. Sleepers tend to be hard as nails, and cut and machine with the same ease as metal. On a recent visit to local timber yard I noticed that they had a number of sleepers that had been milled into planks. This got me thinking. Would it be possible to build something elegant and light, while retaining the rustic nature of the sleeper?
I sorted through the pile and pulled out 4 really interesting planks. These must have been cut from the center of the sleeper because they still had a dark, rich red-brown colour. I was informed these were Jarrah, (Eucalyptus marginata), a hardwood highly sought after for its strength, durability and versatility. It has a rich colour similar to Mahogany, and is often used in cabinetry, decking, construction, and of course, railway sleepers. It was perfect for what I had in mind.
Once in the workshop, I chose to drill out and fill the holes left by the railway spikes. For these fillers I used some of the Jarrah itself. On one of the planks, there was an area that had rotted through. Instead of cutting it out of the design, I decided to fill it with a piece of mismatched timber. I cleaned out a square and cut a matching piece of Kiaat, deliberately mismatching the grain and colour to enhance the fact that this was a patch. I did not want this to blend in. I planed the patched level with the surface of the wood. I milled the lumber to an even thickness before cutting, jointing and joining the planks to make a table top that was 600 sq mm. I used a roundover bit in my router to round the edges.
For the legs, I joined two pieces to make an L-shaped leg 60mm wide on each side and 400 mm high. I built a small jig for the table saw and cut a taper into the side of each of the legs before using a round-over bit and router on all the edges to create a more elegant look.
I cut stretchers to size and rounded the edges. I used 8mm dowels and a PVA glue, specifically for oily woods to join the stretchers to the legs. This gave me 400 mm sq base to mount the top. I sanded down to 220 grit, and then applied several coats of furniture oil to complete the look.
I think this is the furniture equivalent of equivalent of fusion food. It has retained the rustic nature of the sleeper wood, and the patches emphasize that this is something that was rescued. I did consider making an elegant bow tie to fill the damaged bit, and I also considered using an off cut of the original wood. But I am trying to make a statement here. This was a piece of wood that has done some living, seen some things and should carry its scars with pride. The patch is not meant to hide the damage, but rather enhance the fact that it is just that, a patch. At the same time, this shows that sleeper wood can be crafted into something elegant and graceful. The table is well proportioned. The legs are solid looking without being bulky and it is functional. The slight taper at the bottom of the bottom of the legs adds a little bit of grace and the rounded edges add to that elegance. It has an ultra smooth matt surface, and you really want to run your hands over it.
“Why did you drill and fill holes in it?”my friend David asked.
“It’s where the railway spikes held down the tracks.”I said.
There is a lot of grey between a renovation and a restoration. When I think of restoration, I tend to think of it as bringing a piece back to its original condition. This would involve using the original materials, and authentic replacements if needed. Renovation, is a partial or complete overhaul of a piece, giving it a new look or purpose with little to no regard of its original look or purpose. You can be as creative and innovative as you want.
When considering a renovation, I very much follow the same thought process as for a restoration. The most important consideration is whether the piece is rare or valuable. I rarely consider renovating very old or antique furniture. These may either be valuable, or well on their way to being valuable.
Vintage and retro furniture made from real woods make excellent candidates for renovation. Even inexpensive furniture can be given a new lease on life with a little bit of creative thought. Faux finishes like melamine and thin veneers can be upgraded and updated with some a splash or two of paint or wood stain. Repairing and renovating old furniture can be a huge cost saving especially for people on a tight budget.
Shortly before we were to get married, we purchased our first apartment and needed to furnish it. Being short of cash, and on a lab worker’s salary, we gratefully accepted a gift of an old 3 piece lounge suite from my wife’s family. It was a Pine and foam set that had been finished with a dark varnish. It had ugly 70’s style floral print cushions which I strongly doubt were ever fashionable. The foam seats were long past their best and never fitted properly to start with. Despite its looks, and its scratches and dents, it was a solid and functional piece of furniture.
Long hours of scraping, cleaning and sanding got the wood back to its bare state and got rid of the dark varnish. The cleaned Pine was stained a rich mahogany colour and a matt polyurethane finish completed the look. We purchased new foam seats and backrests that better fitted the seats, and my mother-in-law kindly sewed modern stylish cushion covers. Total cost for the renovation was a few hundred Rands. It went from dull, drab and downright ugly to modern, bright, clean and stylish. The furniture served us well for a number of years before we could afford an upgrade and was the favourite seating place for our golden cocker spaniel. The job must have been well done because this is still doing service in a family member’s home some 20 years after I completed the job. Sadly, this was before I owned a cell phone, never mind a camera, so I don’t have any pictures of it. (Yes, I am as old as the pieces I renovate!)
I have a friend whose house is stuffed full of old furniture, all of it great candidates for renovation. All of these have sentimental value for her, with this “piece belong to aunt so-n-so, and that piece the thing that her mom bought when…”.
When moving into a new house, she had retrieved some of her furniture out of storage from her brother’s barn. Unfortunately, some if it had gotten badly damaged from a leaking roof in the storage shed. One piece in particular caught my eye. After much back and forth, my friend agreed to let me take it, rather skeptical of what I was about to do. It was a solid Oak mid-century corner drinks cabinet. The top and side had gotten wet while in storage shed, and the drawer runners had broken off. Other than that it was in good condition.
The varnish was scraped off and the top and sides sanded to remove the water stains. I repaired the drawer slides. I love art deco, and thought that the piece would look really nice with a slight art deco look. I took some high gloss black spray paint and framed the door and coloured the feet. I stained the rest of the cabinet a rich dark mahogany colour before finishing it with three coats of gloss poly-urethane varnish. Some metal polish on the drawer pulls brought them back to life.
At the same time, I took 2 old picture frames from my friend. They were well beaten and looked ready for the scrap heap. These were gilded wood and plaster frames. The first one was in bad condition and needed to be re-glued. I chipped the plaster off and I sanded and cleaned up the Pine. I painted it with some off white PVA, and as it dried, I wiped it down to create an authentic distressed look. The plaster on the second was in much better condition, and I filled the chipped and broken off plaster and sanded and cleaned it up. I primed it with a white water based primer and then took a great deal of creative licence to colour and paint it. A red border matched my friends red sofa. My friend loved them, I had fun and we saved two pieces that would have otherwise been thrown away.
These are good examples of makeovers: taking an old and tired piece and with a bit of creativity, making something fresh and exciting. You are limited by as much as what you can imagine. Take the case of the giant round Oak table I wrote about earlier This was a complete transformation of an outdated and unwanted piece of furniture into something elegant, stylish and modern. Nothing went to waste. The left-over off cuts were transformed into stylish articulating lamps, stained black and fitted with built in wireless chargers. They now do service on our bedside tables (which themselves were made from cut-offs from floor boards).
Renovation has a lot of benefits. Its fun to do and there is no end to how creative and innovative you can be. If you mess it up, its not a big deal since in many cases these were pieces that were destined for the trash heap anyway and mistakes can be fixed. Its easy for kids to get involved in this. Renovation is friendly for the environment. Reusing and recycling pieces keeps them out of landfills or incinerators. Many of these pieces of furniture are made from exotic and rare woods. Recycling the wood means trees and energy are saved and carbon footprint is decreased. It saves you money. The cost of renovation is way lower than buying new furniture and renovating a piece of furniture can increase its value. Sentimental pieces can be saved and the life of these pieces long extended. And there is something really special about owning something you yourself created. It is always much better to have a story to tell than “Yeah, bought that the other day”.
In my last piece in this series, I will talk about chalk paint as a starting point for my final point about sustainable living.
I love old-timey things, and I love to restore and bring these things back to their former glory. I have already posted about some of my tools, and a few furniture pieces that I have restored over the years. This is the first in a three-part piece on my approach and philosophy when it comes to restoration and renovation.
I normally consider several factors before tackling a restoration. This is not an expert list, or by any means exhaustive, but I do hope these factors give guidance on when to restore an old piece of furniture, tool or collectable and when to leave it be.
But firstly, what is a restoration? A restoration typically involves bringing a piece back to its original, or close to original condition or function as possible. Restorations should not change the fundamental design elements of the piece and where possible should use as much of the original components as is practical. Where substitutes are used they should be authentic to the period and should not detract or distract from the overall appeal of the piece. Any repairs should blend seamlessly into the original. When considering whether to restore a piece, I usually run through the following check list.
How old and how rare is it?
People often use the term antique to describe anything that is old. However, something is only considered an antique if it is older than 100 years. Anything less than 100 but older than 20 years is considered vintage or retro. I normally avoid working with antiques because I am always worried about destroying the value. I would certainly not work on a rare antique without careful consideration of what effect it would have on its value. While antique does not always mean valuable, the last thing the owner of any antique wants is to destroy value through a careless restoration. That value is not always monetary, it could also be sentimental. I am a little more liberal when it comes to vintage pieces. These pieces are usually solidly constructed from high quality wood by master craftsmen and take well to restoration, while others were mass produced and are quite ubiquitous.
What material is it made from?
Many antique pieces are made from rare hard woods that are now endangered or not commercially available. This includes woods like Rosewood, trade of which is banned under CITES, and Yellowwood which is protected in South Africa. Although not on the CITES list Imbuia is on the IUCN Red List. Vintage pieces, especially ball and claw furniture, are often made from this beautiful wood. Art deco period pieces are typically made with hardwood veneers, especially Walnut burl, and Rosewood and incorporate composites including chrome, Bakelite and mother-of pearl inlays. These materials are often hard to come by and therefore difficult to restore.
What condition is it in?
A piece in museum show condition should be left in that condition. However, an antique piece with broken and missing pieces or loose joints is a good candidate for restoration, providing its not going to affect its value. Care should be taken when refinishing or repairing a piece not to destroy the patina. It’s often the patina that collectors are interested in or that give pieces their value. The ease with which it is to find replacement parts or substitutes should also be considered.
Do I know what I am doing?
I once attempted to restore an old valve radio. I know nothing about valve radios, and despite a wealth of information online and some understanding of electronics, I could not figure out how to do this. I abandoned the idea being afraid that I was going to either electrocute myself, burn the house down, destroy the radio or all three. I still have it though and will probably get a valve radio expert to repair it at some stage. If I am not sure what I am doing, I would rather leave it alone or consult an expert.
Restoration of an Art Deco drinks cabinet
We inherited an Art Deco drinks cabinet from my wife’s Grandmother. We are not quite sure how old it is, but it stood for 60 odd years in their house starting in the late 1940s. We think it originally belonged to my wife’s great grandmother who moved in with her kids shorty after they setup house. We have owned it for a little under 15 years, so that makes it somewhere between 70 and 80 years old if not older. It’s not quite an antique yet but it is old and not far from being an antique. There are still a lot of Art Deco pieces in circulation, so it is not really that rare. There are no maker’s marks, identifiers or serial numbers on it.
It is constructed from block board sandwiched between thin sheets of plywood, common construction for Depression era furniture. The top coat however is a Walnut veneer with some burl on the doors. When we inherited it, it was not in great condition. The cabinet stood in the entrance hall in the grandparent’s house, and the right hand side that faced the front door had taken something of a beating. Sunlight had faded the finish and it had started to craze. The top had some deep scratches. At some point in its history, someone had re-varnished the top, and had not done a great job. The occasional spray from heavy Joburg thunderstorms coming through the front door had caused water damage on the side. The veneer was chipped and cracked and in places had peeled off completely. We brought it to Cape Town when we moved down in 2008. It is a remarkable piece of furniture, and we have often had people walk into the house and walk straight to it to admire it.
My wife was not that keen for me to restore it because of its sentimental value and was worried about the project not ending well. I felt confident that a restoration was possible. After our first Cape winter, I was concerned that the change in climate was causing the piece to fall apart. Large portions of the block board on the base were de-laminating and the cabinet was in danger of collapsing. The veneer had degenerated further and large sections had peeled off completely. One weekend, while my wife was visiting family in Joburg, I started to restore it as a surprise for her return.
I scraped off the old varnish and re-glued and fixed the broken block board with PVA wood glue. I repaired and re-glued the peeling veneer. The veneer, already smooth from being scraped was sanded through to 1000 grit with water paper to create an ultra-smooth and shiny surface. However, I was not satisfied with the colour of the finish. Some of the veneer had taken on an uneven colouring and my repair job on the veneer introduced further colour variations. The solution was to use a walnut wood stain to even out and standardise the colour. A further sanding with steel wool after the staining was followed by three coats of a high-quality polyurethane silk varnish. The scratch and water proof finish had the gleam and feel of what I think the original art deco finish would have had. The original brass hardware was cleaned and repaired and re-fitted.
Running through my checklist, was this a good candidate for restoration? This was old, but not antique. It was not rare, and while we couldn’t determine an exact value or manufacturer, I felt confident I was not destroying a long-lost art work of high value. Its sentimental value outweighed any commercial value and the intention was to retain it, not sell it. It had started to deteriorate, and repairs would be needed to extend its life. Despite my wife’s misgivings, I do sorta-kinda know what I am doing and have successfully restored several pieces of furniture. Ten years later and it still looks good. My wife was happy with the outcome, and I am sure that it will be with us for more years to come. The piece was restored to as near as possible its original condition with all original components being refitted.
I have already written about the restoration of a mid-century chest of drawers. This piece was not nearly as old, valuable or sentimental as the drinks cabinet. But the same principles apply. However, while doing this restoration, I did allow for two minor changes. Instead of a French wax finish, I substituted a polyurethane varnish. I felt that the polyurethane would show off the colour and beauty of the wood more than the French wax, which while beautiful, tends to hide the grain and colour of the wood. I also felt that a scratch and water-resistant finish would be more desirable considering the piece’s intended use. I did distress the finish slightly, so it created something of a patina. I could not match or repair the damaged drawer pulls, so I substituted with new brass drawer pulls with an antiqued finish that matched the age and condition of the piece and enhanced the overall appeal.
Generally, I consider these successful restorations. The spirit, style, look and feel of each of these pieces was maintained. Wherever possible the original materials were restored and reused, and the reason the owners of these pieces valued them was maintained. At least one was saved from deterioration and being tossed out.
In part II I will talk about the When’s and Why’s of refurbishment.
My love of lamps was inherited from my mother. We grew up in a house filled with lamps. Bedside lamps, table lamps, reading lamps, desk lamps. They were made from wood and brass, and plastic, and steel. The shades were plastic and glass, vinyl and cloth. Any type of lamp you could think of, we had in the house. Of course, me being me, I pretty much disassembled and reassembled every single one of them at one stage or another. Most of the time without my mother knowing.
After I moved out of the house and into my own place, I forgot about lamps. Life was full of adventure and travel, work and marriage. However, nature is strong and it was inevitable that I would return to the lamps.
I built my first lamp in 2016. I was leaving the office one night when I spotted an interesting looking pallet lying outside our neighbor’s warehouse. The pallet had collapsed and was being thrown out. What caught my eye though was the base of the pallet. There were three solid pieces of what looked like rosewood. I stopped the car and loaded them into the back.
Whether they were truly the rosewood species used for making fine furniture or not is a matter of some debate. But they were definitely a hardwood with a feel and texture like rosewood. It also had that beautiful smell rosewood gives off when it is worked. It nearly burnt out my table saw it was so hard to work, but there was enough of it for me to create a free-standing, articulating reading lamp. I unfortunately can only find one pic of that lamp. The piece consisted of three articulating sections and it could be raised or lowered depending on the users preference. The wood perfectly complimented the style of the lamp. It never looked like wood reclaimed from an abandoned pallet.
I was hooked and started looking for my next lamp project. I had a rosewood door frame that had broken in half while the carpenter was installing it. We could not fit it and had to replace it. I had kept the frame and it had moved to Cape Town with us. I had already used parts of to make a set of candy striped occasional tables, and I thought a pair of candy stripe lamps might be a nice accompaniment. I got some white oak and the candy strip lamps were born. My in-laws had just moved to the Cape and mother-in-law took one look at the lamps and immediately lay claim to them.
My next lamp project was made from some reclaimed oak barrels. I got these from a wine farm in Robertson. They had been abandoned outdoors after the barrels had collapsed. They had spent a lot of time outdoors, and the staves looked beaten and broken. But the amazing thing about oaks is how tough it is. Cleaning off the weathered wood revealed the beauty of the oak beneath, and I quickly assembled five of the staves into a lamp. The curved based taking the shape of the original barrel while the two upper staves reach gracefully upwards and join to hold the lamp. This remains one of my favorite pieces.
My next project was a prototype of a desk lamp. I love articulating joints, and I that seems to be trendy in desk lamps. I recently bought a stack of wood from my late friend’s wife. The family were moving to a new house, and she had to clear his old workshop. He was a shipwright and a master woodworker. He had loads of bits and pieces of scrap and odds and ends that he had squirreled away over the years. In among the pile was some Oregon pine. It was perfect for what I had in mind. It was just supposed to be a prototype, but the wood worked beautifully. It practically assembled itself, and the result is a beautiful modern articulating desk lamp. I will be making more of these from various woods that I have in the workshop.
I believe that everything has a story. I think that the standing lamp worked because the wood had been abandoned and was given the opportunity to show how beautiful it was. The barrel lamp was testimony to how graceful oak trees are, but how tough, long lasting and versatile the wood is. The articulating desk lamp captured the spirit of my late friend. He was easy going, friendly and respected by everyone who knew him. He was deeply loved by his family and friends, and I still look back fondly on the many evenings we spent sipping brandy and sharing stories. He always had a good story to tell. That lamp captures his spirit.
But perhaps my favorite story about lamps takes me back to mother. When I first started working, I worked a late-night shift and would travel home in the early hours of the morning. I was still living with my parents. I would come home at two am and go into my parent’s bedroom, where my mother would leave her favorite tiffany lamp burning. They would be asleep and I would turn the light off. If my mother woke up during the night she would know I was home safe and sound if the light was off, and contently go back to sleep. I always think of her and that story whenever I make a lamp.
The articulating desk lamps are for sale in various wood species. Prices range for R540.00 to R750.00 depending on the type of wood. The sample shown here is R540.00 including the fancy light bulb.