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.

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.