Archives for posts with tag: Refinishing

You know how some people say, “I fall in love with every dog I see”? Well, I’m starting to think that I fall in love with every piece of wood furniture I see.

Apparently, it is a springtime tradition for me now to refurbish and restore an old piece of furniture. Three years ago, it was my 1930s typewriter desk. Last spring, I sanded and refinished my new-to-me teak patio furniture. Now, I’m working on resurrecting a dark, nine-drawer dresser with faux-wood drawer fronts and large, heavy brass handles.

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14 days ago, on a whim, I logged onto Craigslist, and when I clicked “furniture,” my jaw dropped. The very first entry on the local page was this dresser. The pictures were terrible. The description was downright inaccurate (it was listed “excellent condition,” even though the pictures clearly showed water stains, dents, and scratches). The owners were vague and almost impossible to contact (pro tip for any future Craigslist posters: don’t write “text only,” and then respond at the rate of one text every 8 hours). But I couldn’t stop coming back to this dresser. I loved it. The shape, the size, the storage, yes. But mostly, the style. It was bold. Almost audacious. It was a true statement piece. It screamed the ’70s.

I was in love.

When we traveled in an early March snow storm to pick it up, I nearly backed out. While the owner had texted me “Solid wood,” my heart fell to the floor when I saw it in person and realized that the drawer fronts—those gorgeous, deep, intricate fronts—were made of (gulp) plastic. The plastic had been formed with phony wood grain, and painted a dark brown with black speckles. It was fake. It was dirty. It was damaged. It was heavy.

But.

I offered the guy $60. My husband pulled me aside and told me to not be stupid. To walk away. To look for something else. “I have a feeling about it,” I told him. “I know it’s crazy. But I can do something with this. I know it.”

When we got it home, my husband went into a rant. It was vomit inducing. It was ugly. It was a piece of crap back when it was built, and it’s a bigger piece of crap now. I had paid the guy for a piece of furniture that was going to end up on the corner with a “FREE” sign taped to the front. “If you can do something with that,” he said as he walked out of the room, “I’ll really be impressed with your skills.”

I was wracked with doubts. A part of me knew he was right. What could I even do with this thing? It wasn’t worth it. It was never going to be worth all the work.

Dejected, I started researching furniture restoration. Specifically, 1970s furniture. Specifically, cheap, plastic furniture. I didn’t find much at all. Nobody was restoring these pieces. Everybody else knew that these old dressers weren’t worth it. I was the only one who didn’t see it.

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Though I never found a guide for interpreting the serial numbers on the back of this piece, here’s what I’m pretty sure is happening here: “B” for bedroom. “DR.” for dresser. “79” is the year of manufacture. “Cadiz” is the name of the line. “Oak” is the material.

I pulled some of the drawers out of the dresser, and found a maker’s mark and date of manufacture. I found out that the dresser was built in 1979, part of Bassett Furniture’s “Cadiz” line of bedroom furniture. “Bassett.” My spirits sank even lower. Though they are all American made furniture, Bassett has always been known as a “budget” furniture maker. So. He was right. I had bought a 40-year-old piece of crap.

But I still loved it. And I couldn’t explain why. So, in spite of feeling like a complete sucker, I started to work on my drawers. I cleaned them all (so many disgusting Q-tips!). I fixed every loose joint. I glued and clamped one drawer which was cracking across the back. I filled the holes after removing the old hardware. Then, I started sanding the drawer sides. Unlike the plastic fronts and MDF backs, the drawer sides were solid oak. It was dirty and damaged, but it was straight, hard, clear American oak. I adore bringing old wood back to life, and I could feel my spirits lifting as I sanded and cleaned each drawer side, prepping them for polyurethane.

Suddenly, I noticed something. Only one drawer has the Bassett brand inside it. And I saw that the oak used for that specific drawer had the straightest grain, was the the clearest color, and was overall just the prettiest of the oak sides in the entire dresser. And I suddenly saw, with crystal clarity, a factory worker forty years ago in Virginia, assembling this dresser. They assemble hundreds of pieces of furniture, but as they put this one together, the select—with pride, with intention, with careful deliberation—the nicest drawer in the lot, and it is that one on which they choose to place the brand. They wanted to leave their mark—figuratively and literally—on something beautiful, something touched by their hands and sent out into the world for the consumption and enjoyment of others. This factory worker cared about their product. They cared about this piece. They put their sweat and their love into it. I could see. Burned into wood.

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And I realized just how worthy this dresser is to be saved. To be restored. To be loved and respected and given a place of honor. Because if we only value the stark mid century lines of the highly photographed and known pieces, then it is only the stories of the exorbitantly wealthy owners of Case Houses which will be shared through the narrative of our homes. If only pale grey walls can be considered sophisticated by certain tall, handsome brothers, then we risk losing the opportunity to turn our homes into an expression of our individualities for fear of disappointing urban, wealthy trendsetters. If we throw up architecturally inaccurate ship-lap on our walls in the name of style, we are replacing the narrative of our homes with one that has been fed to us through a hazy filter of produced nostalgia without backstory. Just because a piece was affordable, does not mean that it does not have a story that is worth telling, worth hearing, worth preserving. Giving this dresser a new life, and a place of honor, will preserve a history that is also worth hearing. One that is decidedly middle American. Lower middle class. Probably rooted in first time home ownership. One that looks at a fantasy world across the sea (“Cadiz,” the line was called. On the Spanish Mediterranean. It might as well be floating on one of Saturn’s rings for a late-seventies homeowner on the Rust Belt.) It is perhaps kitsch. Perhaps a bit disco. Perhaps a bit stylistically misguided. But it has value.

And, dammit. I love it.

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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.

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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.

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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!!”

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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.

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“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.”

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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.