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