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!

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.