Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How to Refinish an Antique Dresser

So you've spotted the most gorgeous antique dresser ever on craigslist...well, it could be gorgeous, right now it's a dumpster fire, or more realistically, excellent kindling for a dumpster fire. How HOW do you take that dresser from hot mess to hell yes? I'm about to tell you. 
Here it is, my tell-all. All the secrets, all my tips and tricks, all the advice and shortcuts. 

I did this in one day, and so can you!

Step 1. Prep Your Case

            The case is the part of the dresser that isn't the feet or top. On this particular dresser, as is common for most empire chests of drawers, it is mahogany veneer over Eastern white pine. The veneer was in pretty good condition, but after a hundred and fifty years, there was some loss (i.e. pieces of veneer flaking off). You want to remove any veneer that's bubbled up or loose, then fill all the chips and holes. I like using wood putty on veneer loss, it takes a while to dry, but is good and hard after, and easy to apply. I slather on a thick layer (usually with my finger), let it dry, sand it with my orbital sander, then apply a second thinner layer to any places that still have slight indentations, then sand once more.

 2. Address the Top

      Lazy furniture refinishers will just paint their tops. Yea, it's easy, and it saves many steps, but come on, the top's the best part! With this antique chest I actually got a bit of a surprise. I had expected several boards of eastern white pine, as is typical for empire pieces, but instead, I found a single 21.5 inch deep solid cherry board. Breathtaking! I use a dewalt orbital sander to remove just about anything from a wood surface; 80 grit to get the old finish off (paint included), and 220 grit to make it baby's butt smooth. I then layer coat after coat of poly until the top is like glass. For a more in-depth description of how I finish wood surfaces -read this blog post

 3. Stain Away!

         This is easily one of the most satisfying parts of the process. It doesn't really take any skill, but it will get your hands filthy. I suppose if you're obnoxious and high strung you can wear gloves to apply stain, or you can just show off those stained cuticles proudly like battle scars, like I do. I always use minwax. It comes in something like 24 shades, and is pretty reliable. Old wood takes stain darker than new wood, I'm guessing because the wood has lost most of its moisture and so the grain is more open. Cherry and mahogany will always pull red and dark, no matter the color you choose. Poplar hates to take any red and pulls more to yellows and browns. Maple and Pine are pretty pliable, and generally take just about any shade you throw at them. Oak pulls lighter, as does chestnut. Long story short, there are a lot of factors that might impact the color of your stained wood, don't just go by the picture. Oh, and dust that surface off before you stain it. I apply stain and then immediately wipe it off. Letting it sit, especially in a dry environment makes it tacky and hard to remove. And never stain outside in hot direct sunlight, it causes the stain to blister up from the wood in yucky blotches as it dries.

Step 4: Make Your Paint

         This is by far the step I get the most questions about, and with good reason, choosing the wrong paint, or improperly prepping a surface can really ruin a great piece of furniture. And some people will inevitably get all huffy about painting antique furniture to begin with. Click here for my thoughts on painting antique furniture- http://heirandspace.blogspot.com/2016/01/on-painting-furniture.html
I make my own chalk paint, like, not from scratch like some pilgrim woman. I'm not out there crushing madder to make dye. I buy bright saturated colors in gallons, as well as gallons of white and cream paint. I then mix many shades to make my own colors, cause I'm a weirdo. I use eggshell latex. That can is Clark and Kensington Paint and Primer, it's been good as any. The real trick is in the additive. I buy chalk paint additive from Amazon, $20 for a pound, which is enough to do lots and lots of furniture. I can't keep track but, it's a lot. So I mix a color to my liking, then I mix the additive with water until it's soupy and chuck that into the paint and stir. It works great. Yes, you can buy Annie Sloan or Amy Howard or Miss Mustard Seed, but they're all like $45 a quart. That to me is nuts. That gallon cost me something like $28. And I've painted around 5,000 pieces of furniture, so you can probably take my word on this one.

        This is the most important step, so I'm going to obnoxiously write it all in bold. Here's the thing those fancy "furniture paint" companies don't tell you. Every piece of furniture is different. There is no logic or reason to it. It's like there's a mad furniture god above making adhesion decisions willy nilly. After defiantly shaking your fist at YE GODDE OF CHIPPED AND PEALING PAINT, you take whatever paint you've chosen, be it $45 a quart imported from England shipped in a gold box Annie Sloan, or bargain basement walmart flat wall paint (I won't judge), and you apply a bit on the case. Just like a few brush strokes, enough to coat, maybe an 8" x 8" section. Let it fully dry. Then give it the "scratch test".  If you can remove the paint by medium force scratching it with your nail, the adhesion is crap and you cannot move forward, pass go, or collect $200. If however, the paint stays put but changes color where you scratched ( a lighter shade) winner winner, chicken dinner!

And now this guide becomes a choose your own adventure.
IF your paint is adhering nicely, move on to Step 6. If, however, that paint came right off when you scratched it, do not despair, find you furniture salvation in step 5.5

Step 5.5: So You Have an Adhesion Issue
          Hey, it happens, and it's common for many adults. Adhesion is an issue often ignored and hard to broach. It's ok, I'm here for you. Your surface is too slick and your paint won't stick. That's what it comes down to in a nut shell. Sand it. Paint needs something to grip in order to adhere. Some people like de-glossers, but I've had 'meh' luck with them. I've found priming a slick surface with an oil based primer, Kilz and the like, to work well. So fix the problem (sand, prime, or sometimes both) and then apply a new test patch. That should do the trick, if not, try lighting the piece on fire and running for the hills, it might not help, but at that point it's damn satisfying.

 Step 5.75 Help! It's Bleeding!!

           Also if you have bleed through (where the old stain is seeping through the new paint, apply any oil based top coat to block it before applying paint. Sometimes I'll just give the trouble spots a few swipes with polyurethane or kilz, always does the trick! You can even do this between coats if you apply your first coat and then hit trouble.

Step 6: Paint Some More
          Again, every piece of furniture is different. Sometimes you only need to paint two coats to get perfect coverage, sometimes it takes three hundred and forty four, in which case I also recommend lighting the piece on fire and running for the hills. Yellows are notorious for thin coverage.

Step 7: Distressing
          I never get any questions about distressing, and it's a step where the best laid plans so oft go awry. You are not trying to make your dresser look like it's been attacked by a wolverine, or like it's wearing camouflage. You have two goals when distressing: To make your paint surface look old (and thereby natural) and to bring out the architecture of the piece. Or don't distress at all. If you hate the look of distressed furniture, ignore this bit. For those of you who like it, here's how to get the right look-
 Sand by hand. You DO NOT distress with an electric sander. You are trying to mimic the wear patterns of thousand of hands touching this painted surface for decades, so ask yourself what parts of the furniture would naturally get the most wear. It's the edges, raised surfaces, and around knobs and keyholes typically. But I like to artfully hit any carving or detail work especially, the wood that is brought through will make it stand out. I use an 80 grit to remove paint, and then I go back and sand the entire piece (except the top) with 220 grit to make the paint satin smooth.

Step 8: Waxing!

         You're almost there! Now to seal that beautiful paint surface so nothing ruins it! Lots of the furniture paint suppliers also sell finishing wax, but (surprise, surprise) I make my own, and it's better. I use Johnson & Johnson clear paste wax, it comes in a yellow tin and it's $10 in the cleaning aisle at Home Depot. I then mix the wax with minwax stain, usually dark walnut, though you can use any shade you like to get the color you want. It's soft, pliable, and makes the paint surface fully washable and ultra durable. It's the bomb.

Wax on, wax off. Work in small sections removing any excess dark wax as you go, it hardens quickly so don't let it sit.
You can see the difference it makes in depth and tone. Always remember to take the take wax into account when choosing your initial paint color! You can see how much it changes the shade.

It looks disgusting, it works like a dream
Step 9: Hardware

          I could write volumes just on what hardware suits what forms and why you should choose one color over another, but my husband has just pointed out that I've been typing for far longer than the 45 minutes I told him this would take, so I'll keep this brief. Knobs and pulls come in all different shapes, sizes, and price points both new and vintage. It comes down to taste, and sometimes to the other pieces in the room you're planning to put the dresser in when it's finished. Just remember that drawer front depths vary greatly and the screws the pulls came with will often not fit at all. You're totally allowed to swear and stamp around at that point, I almost always do. And then just grab one of the pulls, or hell, one of the offending drawers too, and dash to your local hardware store, mess about until you find the screws that will fit best. After years of mad dashes I've learned to save every screw from every pull I've ever removed, so I have quite the disorganized cache. I can usually find what I need by digging through it, but sometimes I still have to do the dash to Ace Hardware.

Step 10: Brag

        Because you've saved something wonderful and old and made it new and beautiful again. You've worked hard and you should absolutely sip wine and text pictures of your new masterpiece to everyone you know.

An Antique Empire Dresser in Sage

New favorite piece of furniture ever. I can't even remember what the most recent one was, probably a hutch, I'm such a sucker for hutches. But I'm an even bigger sucker for Empire dressers, and there's a few reasons why, and why this one is the best among them.

        First, they're the earliest pieces that I work on. I wouldn't touch anything earlier (before 1840), and maybe because of their age, they often look the most pathetic and bedraggled when I get them. So it's really really effing satisfying to bring these pieces back to life! And this one, it was the perfect combination of looking like a hot mess, but actually being pretty damn sound. The drawers worked okay, I had to reattach a couple bottom boards, and I actually had to reattach both feet (p.s. THOSE FEET!!!!), but the feet still had the dowels, so they're tighter and stronger than they've ever been. And this antique dresser was jam packed with surprises. First, my god, the form. Those acanthus leaf carved columns!!! And the feet. THOSE FEET!! Then when I went to sand the top, fully expecting a couple eastern white pine boards, nope, a single solid cherry board. Holy moly. And that also means it was almost certainly made right here in Connecticut, right around 1860. And then there's the pencil inscription on the bottom of the top left drawer "Send along color options for bed set". I get that. I'm pretty sure I've scrawled that exact note to myself at least once. Gives me goosebumps

          So I painted the piece a pretty eucalyptus, refinished the top, and swapped out the hardware. I was able to take it from start to finish in one day.

Monday, May 30, 2016

An Antique Inlaid Coffee Table

Goodness, I just adore this antique c.1930 coffee table. It's so so SO handsome. It has straight legs, a cross stretcher and ornate pierced knee brackets, classic chinoiserie, incredibly elegant. The top is perfectly inlaid and in lovely condition. I refinished the top to brighten it up a bit and really let all the inlay show to its best advantage. I painted the base in a custom mixed pale green I've named 'Sweet Celadon', lightly distressed, and sealed with dark wax. The top is so smooth, and sealed with about seven coats of oil based poly, you never need to worry about using coasters with this beauty!!

A Pine Server in Green

This was a fun piece to work on. It's a pine server by the Bombay Company with lovely turned legs and a neat fretted low shelf. These pieces are so handy, you can use them as sideboards, sofa tables, in a kitchen for extra counter space, as a media console, as a hallway table, or even as a bathroom vanity!
       I hadn't painted anything in a true green in a long long time and I'd been itching to. This is a new custom mixed green that's one shade of teal light of kelly green. I've named it 'Monet's Garden'. I painted it top to bottom, and let me tell you, that shelf took FOREVER. Since the piece already had a French Provincial feel, I went with a pair of ornate salvaged drawer pulls with an old white paint on them. Them white pops against the green so nicely! I refinished the pine top to bring the wood grain out, and to contrast more with the green. I lightly distressed the paint and sealed it with wax.

A Vintage Maple Student Desk in Blue

I think we've all seen this desk before, in fact, I'm willing to bet about 92% of us did our homework at one c.1994. I'm pretty sure I had one, and I see them all the time now on craigslist, at tagsales, and at the goodwill. No one wants these cute little desks any more, so this is my argument on behalf of the classic student desk.

         I picked this piece up from one of my new favorite top secret furniture sources and it needed some TLC. But here's what I liked about it; it's solid rock maple, always a good thing, and when can you find solid wood furniture new on the market these days?? Never. I like the asymmetry of it, with one bank of drawers on the left side, and the pretty turned legs on the right. It's got a bit more going on visually than a double pedestal desk. Being that it's solid maple and nicely made, all the drawers already worked perfectly and it was nice and sturdy, always good as it allows me to focus my energy purely on the surfaces and finish work.

         So to give this cutie an updated look I first sanded off the old chipped caramel colored finish on the top. The top had worn down to the bare wood in several places, and without the old varnish to protect it, it had gotten water stains all over it, but underneath all those ghastly black splotches I could see a spectacular figured maple top, definitely worth saving. So I used wood bleach, which works like magic, and the water marks were completely gone in under a half an hour. I then stained the top a dark walnut to give it a rich deep tone, and sealed it until it was glassy smooth. It's absolutely flawless, again, when do you ever see surfaces like that on new furniture?? Pottery barn? Restoration Hardware? Nope, never. This is the real deal, unique and breathtaking.

         Once the top was all set I got to work on the case. I filled the old holes from the original dumpy faux Chippendale drawer pulls, and swapped them out for salvaged antique knobs on the top drawer, and salvaged antique bail brass pulls on the other drawers. I recolored all the pulls to a dark dark dark gray that's almost black, but not quite. Much more sophisticated than the original pulls!

            Finally I sanded the case to prep for paint. I painted the desk in a new custom mixed blue that's kind of a slate on steroids that I've named 'Deep Shoal'. I love the color, especially against the warm espresso colored maple top. yummy. I lightly distressed the paint with 80 grit sandpaper, then sanded all the paint with 220 grit to make it satin smooth, and then sealed it with my homemade dark wax.

             Oh! and I almost forgot! What would a sweet vintage desk be without an even sweeter antique chair to go with it! The chair is a c.1890 oak press back with woooooonderful carving. I didn't want the set to be matchy-matchy so I mixed a separate paler blue for the chair.

Friday, May 27, 2016

An Antique Hutch in Black and Cream

I've refinished a lot of these little antique mahogany and walnut hutches over the last few years. They were made in the first and second quarter of the 20th century, often as part of large dining room suites that newly weds would purchase to furniture their first home. The furniture is nicely built and very appealing with loads of jacobean detail work like bun feet, applied crests and moldings, and shaped and turned stretchers. But of all the antique hutches I've refinished, this is hands down the best. It has all the bells and whistles. Every single detail the furniture designer could conceive was thrown at this model, and it was certainly the top of the line option of all the hutches. It's got turned feet, a shaped stretcher a center and wholly decorative and unnecessary center fifth turned leg, it has applied molding at the apron, waist, and crown, as well as carved molding above the over the top curved and inset drawers. It has a large window with oval opening and exceptional fretwork, and has applied panels highlighted by incised carving on top and lower panels of the case. To a furniture nerd, it's like a unicorn...made of platinum.
                And since the piece has every every every already, I went with a very simple finish, to play up the architecture of the piece, not compete with it. I painted the case in a simple satin black, liberally distressed and sealed, the inside is a custom mixed cream. The only extra bit I did was recolor the original hardware to brighten it up a bit against the black, and add white pin striping to the incised work on the case. I love this one.