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!

Lockdown!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe and look after yourselves and your families.

Chalk painted drinks tray

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

In my experience, whenever someone starts or ends an argument with “In my humble opinion”, that opinion is neither humble, nor correct. So with that as our starting point, in my humble opinion, chalk painting furniture is the worst thing ever. And that is saying a lot considering some of the ideas that have hit the market.

It’s not that I have anything against the shabby chic look or that I particularly hate chalk paint. It has to do with how it is used, or rather, what it is used on and what that represents. All too often, I have seen people painting valuable or rare woods with chalk paint, and that, in my humble opinion is unethical and constitutes an environmental crime. (OK, maybe the last point is a tad dramatic, but this is about stories and strong opinions. Frankly who cares about a dull story or weak opinion?!)

The other day, I was in a décor shop, and a lady was asking the shop assistant where she could find someone who could do a chalk paint finish. Because I am an annoying person, I butted into the conversation and told her I could do it. As the conversation progressed, I learnt it was a Yellowwood and Imbuia dining suite. She hated the yellow look of the wood and thought a chalk finish would make it look more modern and better match her décor ideas. I explained to her that Yellowwood was in fact a protected species in South Africa and that Imbuia was becoming a rare wood. She had not realised the value of the wood and agreed with my opinion that getting it valued first was a far better option than just slapping on paint.

I love going into furniture stores, second hand stores and décor stores to look for ideas and inspiration. I often see vintage furniture that has been chalk painted, badly too I might add, and being sold as something new and exciting. These are almost always solid, expensive and rare woods. Worse still, are the Walnut burl and Rosewood veneers in art deco furniture that get painted over. This, in my mind, is like pasting a glossy print of Marge Simpson over that little sketch of Lisa Gherardini with wall paper glue because Marge has better hair. I have heard the argument that you can always remove the chalk paint later, but I think there are better ways of dealing with furniture. Here are my golden rules  and ideas for when to use chalk paint. 

My first rule, as with any piece, is how valuable and rare is it? Old does not always mean valuable, but it is worth first checking with a professional or getting an idea of the value of a piece before you start painting. It is the patina that many collectors are after and once you have painted over that, its pretty much gone for good.

Check what is it constructed from. Rare woods should not be painted, especially woods like Rosewood, which cannot be traded anymore under a CITES ban, Yellowwood and Imbuia which are protected. Think twice before painting woods that are less rare, but are just naturally beautiful like Walnut, Kiaat or Mahogany. There is a wide choice of alternative finishes that will restore the natural beauty or enhance the appearance of these woods. Even ubiquitous hardwoods like Oak, Ash or Teak can be given a new finish that will show off their beauty. Good candidates for chalk paint are cheap woods from renewable resources  like Douglas Pine and Meranti, but I would consider alternative options before applying paint to something like Oregon Pine. Man-made boards like chipboard, supa-wood or plywood, either bare or with a cheap veneer or plastic finish like melamine are excellent candidates and take well to chalk paint.

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

Consider what condition the piece is in. If it is battered and broken, and ready to be scrapped, consider it a good candidate. But also consider that it is possible to get such pieces repaired and retain the original wood finish. Broken legs, stretchers, and split panels can all be replaced or repaired. Scratches can be removed and dings and dents filled and fixed before a new finish is applied that brings out the beauty of the wood. The dings, dents and bashes can be incorporated into a new finish to add character and show that this piece has seen a bit of life. 

What if you really don’t like the finish or look of real wood or it simply doesn’t match your décor? If it is a rare or valuable piece, consider selling it and buying a replacement before reaching for that brush. If the woods are rare, and you don’t like the look, consider changing it. For example, the Queen Anne Legs that you hate can be replaced without too much difficult by a skilled woodwork. Solid wood tables can be re-cut and re-finished to suit almost any style. Almost anything that is sold wood can be re-purposed to retain the wood. Even if it is just plain ugly, someone out there will like it.

Get new furniture custom made from inexpensive materials and have fun painting it. Either build it yourself or contract someone to make it. A chalk paint finish on cabinetry, tables and chairs made from cheap wood, scrap wood or man-made boards can look really nice. This is an inexpensive alternative to ruining an expensive or rare piece of wood. Chalk paint is a forgiving finish. If you make a mess of it, sand it down and start again. I have made several bathroom cabinets and applied a chalk finish with a good layer of wax to protect the surface. These have held up much better than similar enamel coated finishes. The construction materials were cheap pine shelving and they last much better in a damp environment than the expensive melamine products sold in bathroom stores. Chalk paint and pallet wood are a great combination.  My wife is a chalk paint enthusiast and has refinished mirror frames, chalk boards and a beautiful serving platter. 

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

Mixing and matching finishes can also create interest, especially when mixing an expensive or rare wood with a not so expensive wood. We had an old ball and claw side table that somehow ended up in our possession. To this day, I know not whence it came. But I used it for years as a small step for getting to those places just out of my reach, including as a painting aid. When I finally had a closer look at its construction it turned out to be a solid mahogany top, over “less-than-nice-and-not-real-mahogany-but-brown-enough-to-match” legs. After cleaning it up, and sanding it down, I chose to apply a chalk finish to the legs. I added an ultra gloss polyurethane finish to the top. The combination works well and it now does service in our lounge. A mini farmhouse-style occasional table.  

At a deeper level, there is an ethical debate here. We live in a world that is increasingly grappling with what sustainable living means. I often think that people consider sustainability a way to maintain the status quo. But having lived through South Africa’s electricity crises, the Cape Town water crises, and the increasing talk of how plastics are finding their way into the food chain and the damage plastic is causing to the oceans and us, I am more convinced that this is a very wrong view. We have to seriously consider how we live and how we consume products from the natural world. We should carefully consider all our actions and the impact that they have on the broader world.

It’s only a table, you may argue. Its 50 years old and falling apart, and would have been dumped anyway! How does slapping some paint on it affect the world? Wood is a natural and in some respects a finite resource. It should be respected and treated as such. Hardwood trees take a very long time to grow, and deforestation, logging and human expansion into wild areas is rapidly depleting these resources and the ecosystems they support. I think there is a thin line between painting a Rosewood veneer and shooting a rhinoceros for its horn. Both actions result in the subject of these actions being gone for good. I don’t have children to leave the planet to, but would sincerely like to leave the planet in a better condition than I found it.  And I think that is the true point of sustainable living.

Saving old pieces of furniture is just a small contribution to that ideal. Respecting the materials, they are made from, and the craftsman who made them is just as important. But hey, that’s just my humble opinion

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.

Hand Tools

Hand Tools and Toy Chests

I started to take woodworking more seriously as a hobby when we moved into our first house. I bought a collection of cheap power tools at an auction, some of which I still have, and setup a small workshop on our back stoep. This being a townhouse complex, I was limited as to how much noise I could make, and greatly restricted by how often I could get my wife to come and hold a piece of wood while I cut it. Despite the restrictions I made a couple of pieces of furniture including a bed-set complete with bed base and side tables. I also made a cot for my brother’s first born girl. Looking back, I don’t think either were very elegant, but they were fit for purpose and matched my skill level. I also learnt a great deal building those; mostly that if I was going to get anymore serious about this hobby, I was going to have to invest in more tools and gain some serious skills. Over the years I have been fortunate to accumulate a lot more of both.  

Until recently, most of the tools I have acquired have been power tools. Power tools are simple way to get the job done in as short a time as possible. There is a short learning curve to figure out how to use them. With the wide range of tools and prices to suit almost any pocket, anyone can get started as a maker. YouTube and other websites are a great source of learning materials, and other social media sites like Pintrest and Instagram are amazing sources of inspiration. 

However, I have recently started to experiment more and more with hand tools. This has partly been driven because of a desire to make better quality pieces, but also out of necessity.  Two recent factors contributed to me learning how to use a hand plane. The first was  when one of my workhorse tools, my Ryobi planer/thicknesser died.  It had served me well for over ten years and, like all my Ryobi tools had performed above and beyond what it was made for. It would no longer feed wood through the thicknesser and when I stripped it to find out why, I discovered that the shafts on the gears had worn out. I guess I could probably have replaced them, but decided it was time for it to be retired. 

My wife  found a Makita thicknesser online and purchased it for me as a “late Christmas, early birthday, now stop bothering me and go to your workshop”, present. That solved one half of the problem. I still needed to be able to flatten and joint boards. I was about to start working on a project making a toy chest from Kiaat, at the time that my Ryobi planer/thicknesser died.

I own two hand planes: a German made  No. 3 plane I inherited from my wife’s grandfather and a Stanley Bailey No. 4 that belonged to my dad. Besides shaving doors to fit into door jams, I had never had any success with planes in the past, mostly from ignorance and lack of skill. (In fact it was for fitting new doors in our old house that I originally borrowed the No. 4 from my dad, and had failed to return it. I guess after 15 years, he is not going to miss it and I can consider it mine. Sorry Dad.) The second factor was Eskom. No power means no power tools, and load shedding was having a devastating affect on my woodworking efforts.

That weekend, I hauled out the No. 4 and after a couple of YouTube tutorials, figured out where I was going wrong. I sharpened the blade, set it, tested it and suddenly, was jointing boards by hand. I also figured out that this was the wrong plane and started hunting for a No. 7.  It took about 2 minutes online to find what I needed. It seems that there are a large number of people selling old tools on online platforms, and high quality and vintage tools are easy to come by. I found a seller, and made a deal. That Monday, after work, I passed by his place and collected my new plane.

My "new"Stanley No. 7 on the way home.
My “new “Stanley No. 7 on the way home.

It was not in working order, and needed a little TLC to bring it back to life. Like my vice, it was rusted and a little rough around the edges but a solid vintage tool. I stripped it back to bare metal and cleaned up the rust. A couple of coats of hammered enamel later and a few hours of work flattening the sole and it looked like new. The only problem was I couldn’t get a decent edge on the blade. The blade was too large to fit into my honing guide and wider than my sharpening stone.

It looks a little rough, but these tools were made to last a lifetime, or two.
It looks a little rough, but these tools were made to last a lifetime, or two.

A trip to the local hardware store turned up a really neat sharpening wheel that attached to the drill. It was water-cooled so did not overheat the metal. I tried it on my chisels first, figuring I could always fix those easily if I messed it up. It gave them a neat, clean edge that I could hone using water-paper and a sheet of glass. My No. 3 and No. 4 blades were next and I soon had a collection of silky smooth wood curls collecting at my feet. But the No. 7 was just too large to fit into the rig. I had to improvise, and built my own sharpening jig using some carefully angled wood. Once I had that sorted was able to bring the plane to full use.

My newly refurbished No. 7 ready too go. This is a beautiful tool.
My newly refurbished No. 7 ready too go. This is a beautiful tool.

And so I learnt how to joint and flatten boards by hand. It is a lot of hard work, and not something I intend doing very often. I have a great deal of respect for craftsman who earned their living this way in the pre-power tool era. Power tools are great at getting a board to 90% ready for a good finish, adding hand tools  gives me that extra 5% for a great finish. Skill will eventually get me that last 5%. 

Jointing boards by hand is not for the feint of heart. it takes some serious effort, but the end result is well worth the effort.
Jointing boards by hand is not for the feint of heart. It takes some serious effort, but the end result is well worth the effort.

I managed to finish my project on time. It was for a couple that were expecting their first baby. They asked for a toy chest. The Kiaat was reasonably flat to start with but not flat enough for the thicknesser. A couple of passes with the No. 7 got it flat enough to go through the thicknesser to get it to size. I jointed the sides using the No. 7 and ran them through the table saw to get them perfectly square. A few passes with the No. 4 and the saw marks were cleared creating a tight fitting joint. These were joined into panels using biscuits and PVA wood glue. More biscuits and some pocket-holes got the chest assembled. A few passes over the joins with the No. 3  to clean the edges and it was perfect. A live edge lip completed the lid and 4 coats of polyurethane for a long lasting satin finish completed the piece. 

The finish on this is beautiful. Several coast of silky polyurethane and a polish with teak oil and it creates a hard wearing surface that is water, stain, and baby resistant.
The finish on this is beautiful. Several coats of silky polyurethane and a polish with teak oil and it creates a hard wearing surface that is water, stain, and baby resistant.

For the long haul, I purchased a second hand industrial quality 8 inch jointer. It has been refurbished and I am still tweaking it, but can flatten and joint relatively quickly now. The No. 7 and No.4 are in regular use to create clean sharp sides and finish joined boards.

Happy to have a new jointer. It still needs some tuning and restoration, but it runs really well.
Happy to have a new jointer. It still needs some tuning and restoration, but it runs really well.

As for my other hand tools: I dug out the Stanley sureform that accompanied the inherited No. 3, and replaced the rasp blade. Its now regularly used to cut and rough shape pieces. I also sourced a Stanley No 80 Scraper for adding a silky smooth finish. I have started using chisels more often. My planes are now in constant use and mounted in easy reach of my vice.  I am still some way away from hand cut dovetail joints, but that is starting to look less and less intimidating.

Chest of Drawers

Mid Century Memories

I found this chest of drawers while poking around a second-hand store in Clairmont. The piece had some minor surface scratches and scuffs on the top, some  water damage and a nasty oily spill that had marred the surface.

Chest of drawers
Top of the chest of drawers. It was badly scratched with water damage and a nasty oil stain to one side

The french polish had long lost its luster and had taken on that faded and gray look common in pieces exposed to the harsh SA climate and too much sunlight. Aside from a small crack in the skirting near the front foot that had caused the foot to work loose, the carcass and drawers were in excellent condition. The wooden drawer pulls were recently chipped and damaged, and the drawer fronts were badly scratched. I suspect this was caused by people moving around the cramped confines of the shop.

Chest of drawers pre renovation
Front of the chest of drawers showing scratches and chipped drawer pulls

The piece was probably made in the mid 50’s or early 60’s. It was manufactured by the McNamee factory, most likely in their Pietermaritzburg factory. I have seen several pieces from that factory and they all have a similar style. The top is solid Imbuia with a roman ogee profile finishing the edge. The drawers have a beautiful series of horizontal curves that are matched by vertical curved pieces on the sides. The drawer fronts are a single piece of solid Imbuia, attached to the drawer carcass with dovetail joins. The drawer carcasses are plywood that have been lightly stained. The side panels are solid Imbuia and are seated in a frame with gentle curves. Ball and claw feet with a grooved skirt finish the footer. The wood has a beautiful grain and the drawer fronts have been well selected to show the beauty of the wood.

The original serial number or model number is punched in the back, and the original manufacturer’s tag is still attached. The manufacturer’s button is embedded in the bottom drawer.

To start the restoration I removed the feet and skirting which were held in place with old fashioned steel wood screws. The damage to the skirting was probably caused by the piece being dragged across a tiled floor and the foot catching in a grout line or on the edge of tile. I first worked the foot loose from the skirting before gently opening the crack. I added some pva wood glue into the crack then clamped and left it to set overnight. The dowels were drilled out and replaced before gluing the foot back to the skirt.

 

Front leg
Front leg after disassembly and before repair.

After cleaning and sanding the repair is invisible. I  scraped, cleaned and sanded skirt and feet before resetting the skirting on the base of the cabinet using the original wood screws.

Invisible repair on the foot

I scraped and cleaned the french polish from the wood before hand sanding the bare wood to a smooth clean finish. Imbuia has a spicy fragrance and the wood takes on a well polished finish as you work through to a 220 grit. I cleaned the sawdust off with a cloth moistened with mineral turpentine before coating the piece with three coats of matt polyurethane varnish. I slightly distressed the surface between coats with steel wool and polished the final coat with steel wool and teak oil. This will  will provide a hardwearing finish that will be stain, and water resistant.

 

The matt polyurethane finish which will be stain and water resistant.

I replaced the original drawer pulls with a copper-finish drawer pulls from my local hardware store. 

Brass pulls and and a patina that matches the age of the piece and highlights the beauty of the wood

 

This is a beautiful piece of quality furniture that will provide years of service. It is well constructed and was built by master craftsmen. These furniture pieces were made before mass production, when time and care went into the manufacture of each piece. That shows in the attention to detail in its construction and quality of the wood that was used to make it. These were made to last a long time.

Chest of Drawers
What a beauty!

 

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