Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Re-finishing a piece of furniture.


There just isn’t enough specific to Ecuador that I can find to write about every week, not in the way I have in mind to write this blog.  The blog is a record of my experience as I go through the planning and implementation of an almost 90 day visit to ascertain whether retiring in that nation is a viable option for me.There isn’t enough material that comes about every week to enable me to write just about Ecuador.  When that's the case, I’ll write on other subjects---which I’m doing this week. The post this week then is about re-finishing a walnut desk that was made for me in 1988.

The desk is a copy of an antique, Queen Anne period (1702 – 1715) tea table that had been restored at Furniture by Gatti in San Francisco, where I worked for quite a few years and where I learned the fundamentals of refinishing and restoration of fine furniture.  A fellow employee at Gatti’s traded his skill as a furniture maker with mine as a furniture finisher---The fellow employee had his highboy, (a high chest of drawers), re-colored and lacquered by me while I received the table he made. I then put a dark walnut finish on my new piece of furniture.  Rich Gatti has always been willing to let his employees use his shop for side projects of their own. When he invited me last year to bring in a piece and refinish it, that offer wasn’t out of the ordinary.  I took him up on it last week.

My Queen Anne tea table with its original finish.
The first order of business was to strip it. I put it in a drip pan and commenced with the application of remover.  I brushed on a thick paste.  I prefer this kind because it clings to the wood and doesn’t cascade down like the thinner, watery removers.  I brushed it over the table thoroughly, keeping the surface wet with remover.  I didn’t want any drying action going on because the finish needs to be wet to take it off.  I didn’t hurry the process.  I let the remover do its work of loosening the finish until it became time to take it off.  I could tell it was time when the finish began crinkling and I was able to scrape portions off easily.  I then did some scraping, but mostly I used fine steel wool soaked in lacquer thinner.  I'd rub the goo off, soak the steel wool again, then go back to rubbing it off, my motto being, take it all off!  The final step was the wash.  I took a clean rag soaked in lacquer thinner and washed off the piece until it was totally clean. I cleaned the drip pan, put it away, and that was that.

I wanted to lighten the color on my desk.  It not only needed re-finishing but I wanted less contrast and more color similarity among the pieces of furniture in my studio.  I’d have to bleach the wood to bring this about,  but before bleaching I sanded it with 220 grit sandpaper. This really, really cleaned the wood and opened its pores to receive the bleach.  I used a two-part bleach, Part A and Part B, pouring equal measures of both into a clean plastic container.  I then applied two coats with a rag, (a cut up t-shirt) and let the first coat dry before applying the second.  This bleach self-neutralized, which is an advancement. When I was doing finishing to earn a living, after bleaching, the bleach had to be neutralized by washing the wood with vinegar. This prevented a subsequent coat of lacquer from bubbling.

Table after two coats of bleach.
After the bleaching, I started manually applying a golden brown tobacco stain, using a rag, and working quickly. I was working to get an even distribution of the color and I’d go back over what I’d applied with a wet rag of lacquer thinner to spread and even out the stain. Then I wiped the whole piece with a dry rag. I was happy with how it looked after just that one application of stain.

After application of the stain.
The next step was to seal the stain with sanding sealer. I applied it with a spray gun and felt grateful to find that after twenty years the familiarity and skill of how to spray was still with me.  In furniture finishing sanding sealer is applied over the first coats of stain. It seals the color and when it’s sanded, that process fills the grain of the wood. I shot two coats of sealer and sanded both coats with 220 grit sandpaper.

The next step I took was to apply a coat of semi-gloss lacquer.   Everything up to this point had been going fine, no problems and no mistakes.  As I sprayed the desk, I kept my gun hand an equal distance from the surface to insure the application was evenly distributed.  And I sprayed the lacquer on in over lapping rows to insure that when it all dried it would dry with a smooth, melded together coat throughout.
After completion, I watched the lacquer slowly grow bubbles on the surface.  I could see I wasn’t going to get a free ride on this job.  I didn’t think to quickly spray lacquer thinner on top to engage with the bubbles and try to get them to melt into the surface, which sometimes helps. I had been away from the trade so long I forgot about this emergency measure.

Bubbles after first application of semi-gloss lacquer.
In any case, my next step was to take care of the problem--- to sand out the bubbles using black 400 grit wet or dry sandpaper with paint thinner as an emollient.  I was happy to find the bubbles were sanding out pretty fast. I just used my hand, no sanding block, being careful not to sand through the finish all the way to the wood.  I was done doing this after about two or three hours. 

At this point I was ready to shade the piece of furniture by coloring the corners and ends on the top. I used a red ochre color brushed on and smoothed and blended onto the finish with a rag. I also shaded the feet of the legs this way and the corners of the sides under the top.  The shading process keeps the finish from uniformity and gives it the custom made look not found in mass produced finishing operations.  When done with the shading, I was ready to spray the final coat of semi-gloss. Before this, wary of a repeat of the bubbles, I washed the entire piece with a clean, wet rag of water---then dried everything off.

So, I’m hoping at this point I can finish the job without any more setbacks and start to spray what I hope will be the final coat of finish. When done, I see the lacquer again bubbling up---but this time I try to stop it by immediately spraying lacquer thinner over the still wet semi-gloss. Lacquer thinner reduces and thins lacquer so this procedure does work sometimes to get rid of bubbles. This time it made things worse.  The surface developed hundreds of little valleys in all kinds of different shapes and sizes.  This is the kind of thing that often happens that makes it no easy task for a finishing business to turn a profit.  I can’t figure how it happened.  Nicole Smith, Rich Gatti’s daughter, who works at Furniture by Gatti and is an accomplished furniture finisher, tests the unit that keeps water out of the air hose that hooks to the spray gun.  The problem wasn’t caused by water in the line.  I didn’t by accident mix any materials that aren’t compatible---I know that much.  If I made any sort of mistake, I don’t know what it was.  All I know is that in trying to make a bad situation better I made it worse.

After trying to make it look better.
I start to wet sand again.  This time I use water instead of paint thinner and the process takes a lot of time.  The bubbles and little volcano holes don’t sand out very easy and I keep going back to the same spots to get better results.  Nicole suggests I pad and wipe the surface with a rag and lacquer thinner, and I start doing this and it helps more than I expect.  At the end of the day, the third day of doing the project, the top is very much improved.  Almost all of the bubbles and craters are gone and only a few swirl marks from working the finish with the lacquer rag remain.  Nicole predicts that in the morning it will look better and remarks that when lacquer dries it fills the grain and continuously flattens out.

Nicole Smith
The next morning when I take a look I get a big smile on my face.  I see that almost the only work left is a final wet sanding on a surface that is largely flat with all the grain filled and with few signs of bubbles or craters. I wrap a rag around a wood block and pour water on the top and start sanding.  I stroke back and forth from one end to the other in straight lines, then dry the water to measure progress. I sand the edges on the top where the finish still isn’t completely smooth.  But this doesn’t take all that long.  After a fairly short time I’m ready to deliver the finishing touches.

Job completed and back at home.
I use fine steel wool for this, dry, (0000 grade), rubbing back and forth on the finish to create a soft luster on the surface.  When I’m done with the top I go over the sides and legs to produce the same smooth luster over the entire piece. Then I wax and polish the whole desk.  I steel wool the brass hardware and install it back on the drawer face and with that the job is complete from start to finish.