Sunday, August 20, 2017

Mission Impossible

     I spend a lot of time driving around Connecticut. It's one of my favorite parts of the job. I'm a sucker for a good drive, mostly because I'm a sucker for rural landscapes and old houses. I couldn't care less for cities. In my book "urban" and "hell" are filed cheek by jowl, but oh a quiet New England town, laying gently in some comely valley, or perched primly on a hillside with a sweeping vista. Sometimes I see views so wonderful I get choked up, because I'm nuts, and definitely not the bastion of sanity you deserve in a furniture blogger.
     I solemnly swear I did not weep as I drove through Higganum, Connecticut last Thursday, but I was oh so close. In all my driving, through high and low country, the New York-y corners and those  southeastern bits that snug up against Rhode Island and reach out towards the Atlantic, and I'd never before seen this jewel of a town that all but sits in my lap. As the crow flies, Higganum is just a hair south of East Hampton across the Connecticut river, over the bridge by the Opera House and off a road (rt. 154) I've turned left on nearly one thousand times, and had not once turned right. On Thursday I turned right and goodness gracious what I've been missing! Higganum is SO. DAMN. CUTE.
     It was the lure of a free sideboard that finally drew me out that way. With a loosely Jacobean form popular in the first quarter of the 20th century, these sideboards are generally excellent candidates for upcycling. They were part of the first major wave of mass produced furniture for the American middle class, generally made of walnut or mahogany veneers over poplar or chestnut secondary wood. They're nicely built, super funky and fun, and in no way rare, valuable, or important (so no one needs to shout at me for painting one). There is a caveat though. These pieces have a huge HUGE achilles heel, and that is moisture. When they get wet, or damp, or someone walks near them while sipping a glass of water, the veneer explodes off, pealing in every direction with extreme and focused intent...*when unrefinished. Once painted or refinished they're just as hardy as any other antique piece.
      The wonderful folks who gave this unfortunate sideboard to me cannot be blamed for its woeful condition. It came with the SO. DAMN. CUTE. house they just bought in so damn cute Higganum. The sideboard had been kept in the basement of their 1950s cape for goodness knows how long, possibly eons, judging by the damp it had survived. They'd sent me a picture, but when I saw the piece in person my heart sank a bit. It had once been glorious, easily the best form I've yet seen on one of these c.1915 pieces, but oh she was rough stuff. I make a rule of never leaving a piece behind. If I've inconvenienced folks by coming out to their house, the least I can do is take the piece off their hands. That doesn't mean sometimes I don't get home and cannibalize it for parts (more on that later), but I swear, like the true yankee I am, I will scrounge and salvage every last bit that can be saved.
      So I loaded up this faded beauty, already picturing the massive funeral pyre I would build her, and feeling my heart ache for the shame of it. I was sure she was too far gone, absolutely beyond reasonable hope. But.
Reason be damned.

      And here's what it took: First I scrubbed this sucker from stem to stern cause she was naaaaarsty. I battled three spiders, killed two, and one scuttled off to likely call in reinforcements (I will almost certainly die by spider). I removed all the damaged applied plaster molding. These appliqu├ęs are always the weakest link against moisture, rare is the surviving whole example. The feet were the greatest challenge. The way they're always built, blocked and glued to achieve that round form, the hide glue alway gives near the damp cement floor, and the blocks start to fall off. This is easily repaired if you have the pieces, if not, you have to get creative. Referencing other William and Mary forms, I removed the damaged and remaining pieces and sanded the feet down to smaller elongated oval foot that one also sees in the period. That was the easy part. The hard part was hacksawing off the crumbling casters so rusted they couldn't be yanked out.
      I patched the few spots of veneer loss, not many actually, as the case, and the top were in surprisingly good condition. The damage seemed to have only snaked its way up to the apron but no farther. The drawers already worked well, just some light sanding of the tops to eliminate sticking. The lock had been wrenched out of one door, and both needed filling and repairs. I painted the case in a soft distressed black, and, in keeping with the theme of salvage, replaced the mismatched and broken wood knobs with a set of antique glass pulls from the same period. I'd pulled the paint caked knobs off a rotten vintage dresser, the only part of it worth saving, and had actually had to hacksaw several of their rusted posts to remove them. At the time it had seemed a fool's errand, but then when facing this sideboard I'd needed ten glass knobs, and lo and behold, there they were. I scrubbed them in hot water, replaced all the posts, and whiz bang-the knobs were aaaaaabsolutely flawless, and so is the sideboard.
      This is a long post so, something something, don't give up on stuff.
But really the moral is, for the love of god, stop storing your antique furniture in the damp basement.

Loads of late summer flowers from my garden!


  1. Great job! You write so well. It's as though you are here talking to me.

  2. it's gorgeous! i SO wish i lived closer to you! i have tons of furniture i need to have refinished. i live in pennsylvania though. i love your work.

  3. Magnificent article! I have a similar piece and have put off redoing it but now I'm psyched!

  4. I love reading your entries as they are always so informative but also amusing. That piece now looks amazing and loved.

  5. What a transformation! You are a miracle worker! Pretty flowers too....