Over a year ago, I wandered into my local Goodwill and fell in love. It was a small typewriter desk from the 1940s. Somebody had replaced the original hardware with hammer-beaten brass pulls, and then painted it a horrendous shade of institutional green with a faux paint finish over the top to make it look like black brush strokes. (Someone had taken some time to make this poor desk look really, really ugly.)

Faux finish hell

Faux finish hell

But, when you opened the top, slid the inner panel out and locked it up into position, suddenly, you saw the original, rich brown wood. The machinations for moving the typewriters up and down: gorgeous in their simple complexity. The small scuffs and gouges that marked its use and love and age—dents in the stiles where a desk chair had rubbed against it for years, a sweat ring on the top from a spilled cup of coffee, places where the paint had rubbed off from years of fingernails scratching behind the handles while searching for a pen. Best of all, I found inside that desk the original instruction label: “Please Note Typewriter Positions.” It was selling for $25.

20150723_152720[1]

I think I walked into that Goodwill looking for lampshades. I came out with two store clerks, carrying a seventy-year-old desk into my minivan. I had to have it. It was a piece of furniture made exclusively for writing. For creating. It wasn’t the greatest piece of furniture ever constructed (there was some veneer peeling off on the back, and I was convinced it was probably a cheap desk even when it was new). But there was something about it that called me. I couldn’t walk away. The Goodwill worker smiled when I asked her to put a “sold” sticker on it.

“Oh, I was hoping someone would take that desk. I remember my grandmother having one of those. It’s so cool!”

I put it first in my guest room (my parents smiled when they saw it. They still remember using typewriter desks. Everyone else cringed at the ugliness), then up in my master bedroom. My plan was to repaint it. Maybe something fun. I toyed with the idea of a cream base and orange top. Or a stately, dark brown. I wanted to turn it into my vanity table. I’d remove the horribly warped top, and instead place a mirror on it, tucking all of my makeup into the hidden lower panel. My style tends to lean towards mid-century modern. Clean lines. Bright colors. Either very dark or very white woodwork. Square corners. This desk had curves, routes, panels. It didn’t quite fit, but I still just loved it. I couldn’t really explain why.

Last Saturday, while my children napped, I decided to finally start working on my desk project. My husband has been working about 80 hours a week recently (we just broke ground on a new building for our family business, and he’s overseeing the entire, massive project), so I had been looking for something to fill up the lonely hours without him. I grabbed a screwdriver, took off all of the hardware, pulled out the drawers, cleaned it all with some Windex (I would never use that on a wooden surface, but it wouldn’t hurt the paint, and I needed to get the years of grime and dust off!), and carried all of the drawers down to the garage, where I knew we had some leftover paint stripper and mineral spirits. It was while carrying all of this downstairs that I noticed it. Underneath the largest drawer was an original factory stamp: “F.1117-846.” On the underside of both of the slide out writing panels, handwritten in orange, was “No. 846.” I chuckled, and texted my husband, “This thing is numbers matching!” I instantly started calling the project “The 846” in my mind.

20150723_152759[1] 20150723_152746[1]

I decided to strip the center drawer first. I poured on the stripper, following the instructions I had read on an online forum, and got increasingly excited as I watched the green paint bubble across the surface. After a half hour, it looked ready to test, so I grabbed a putty knife, and dragged it across the paint surface. (I have since switched to plastic stripping tools. This just shows what a big learning curve I had in front of me!) I actually gasped out loud. The wood. It was gorgeous. Dark, rich, reddish brown. Book-matched. With flame figuring. I texted my husband a picture, “Holy SHIT!!”

IMG_20150718_153748_076

When he got home that night, my husband asked to see the center panel again, up close. The top three center drawers were all made of the same kind of wood. The bottom ones were something different. A straight, whitish wood that was occasionally speckled.

IMG_20150723_083855_375

“I was expecting pine. Or oak. Honestly, I never see wood anymore. Furniture is almost all made with veneers and particle board now. What the hell kind of wood is this??”

My husband, who builds guitars (and therefore knows a lot about various “tone woods”) started getting excited. He was almost antsy, turning on the lights, inspecting the grain, talking about the pores, gently wetting it to bring out the figuring. He checked his phone, looking up various wood species, murmuring, “It couldn’t be . . .” Finally, he looked up.

“This is mahogany. This is what raw mahogany looks like. I thought from your picture that it still had a stain or a lacquer on it, but this is just the wood. This is just what the wood looks like.”

“My $25 desk is mahogany??”

“It’s not just that,” he was shaking his head. “I’m pretty sure—especially given the age and, really, the coloring—that this is Honduran mahogany.”

I started laughing. And shaking a little. You see, Honduran mahogany is an endangered species. It has been farmed almost out of existence. Prized for its coloring, its smoothness, its beauty, and only found in a specific climate region, Honduran mahogany (as opposed to the more plentiful African mahogany) is considered “genuine” mahogany. It is also almost impossible to get in the United States right now. Though there are mahogany plantations in Honduras that grow, sell, and export the wood, “genuine” Honduran mahogany is from the old growth forests. Massive trees that can reach up to 100 feet tall, and that, because of some genetic fluke found in many trees from that region, demonstrate the most amazing flame and quilted figuring. Those trees can no longer be cut. Their wood can only be used if and when a tree falls from natural causes. And there are now laws in place, strictly limiting the amounts of Honduran mahogany that can be exported. Mostly, instrument makers get small pieces of the wood, to use as guitar backs or necks (my husband’s custom-built Taylor acoustic has a mahogany back and neck, though there is no figuring on it).

And I had it across the front of my little desk. In fact, it turns out that the entire back, both sides, and even inside panels are genuine mahogany. That piece of veneer that was popping off the back corner? Yup. Mahogany.

The sides are mahogany veneer framed with cherry.

The sides are mahogany veneer

We determined that the other wood was cherry. I was expecting it to appear reddish, but the paint stripper had removed the original lacquer and revealed wood that had never been exposed to air and sunlight before, so the wood was still a fresh white. The entire desk was cherry wood and mahogany. Nothing else.

We sat and looked at the drawer fronts for awhile.

“Is it strange that I really want to honor these materials? I mean, I want to honor them. I want to show them off, treat them right. I want them to shine.”

“That doesn’t sound strange to me at all.”

I paused, thinking. “I want this to be my desk. My writing desk. I want to write my first book on this desk.”

My husband nodded. “I think that it should be.”

IMG_20150722_102411_073

I have just now finished stripping all of the paint and original lacquer off of the desk. I also straightened the warped top piece. I’m waiting for the wood to dry before I start hand-sanding it all. Then, I’ll look into filling a few dings on the top with wood filler (though I don’t mind them. Dents in wood are like wrinkles in a beloved face: evidence of their years and wisdom). My plan is to protect the mahogany. Seal it, coat it, and polish it until it shines. Then, I’ll mix a custom stain to make the cherry wood match the mahogany. The final touch will be these handles. They’re reproduction, but the style is period-correct (though the material isn’t. This desk likely would have had brass pulls). I’m hoping that by the end, this desk will look like it still has its flawless, factory finish. (I found another person who restored one of these desks, but I feel as though his final product doesn’t look cohesive. He stained both the mahogany and cherry the same color, so they don’t quite look like a family in my opinion. I also think that the finished product makes the cherry look almost grey.)

It will be quite a bit of work, but I’m willing to expend the energy, give the hours. I think about the beautiful, long-dead trees that were used to make this desk special, and I feel a responsibility to their legacy. This wood was once a living thing. Perhaps, with the right amount of care, it can feel that way again.

Advertisements