Sunday, July 1, 2012

Steps through frustration to a complete furniture re-finish.


I’m glad I have this one piece of furniture. My Grandpa Porche, who I loved, repaired it by fashioning and affixing a new leg. I can tell which one because the foot he shaped is a little different than the others.  He didn’t do a perfect job.

Grandpa Porche with grandaughter, San Francisco, circa 1944

I didn’t plan on stripping the piece because there was no need and it would have been too messy without a drip pan.

I prepared a work area in the garden patio to my studio.   I bought a plastic tarp, a couple sleeves of 0000 steel wool, beeswax, water, lacquer thinner and paint thinner, sheets of 400 and 600 grit wet and dry sandpaper, two spray cans of walnut and mahogany dye stain, spray cans of satin lacquer, plus a hot air gun.  I covered the cement on the patio with the tarp and assembled the material on the desk outside.
First order of business---clean it. Why waste time evaluating its condition when it’s dirty? I steel-wooled the piece with paint thinner, then dried it off, then washed the surface with water.  Paint thinner makes me nervous because its residue has been responsible for botched work in the past.

Before work begins
Now I do an evaluation. This top has a fairly large, dark area in the middle, but it’s not part of any finish. It’s part of the wood and I’m not going to get it out unless I bleach it out.  Also, orange putty marks, spaced where screws were put to affix the top, stand out with a lot of visual noise.  I can tell I’m going to have to obfuscate those putty marks and do something about that dark spot in the middle to tamp it down and render it less noticeable.  Also, one leg is a yellow, orange color while the others are walnut brown.
First I tape newspaper just below the top and around the skirt of the desk. I don’t want drips  to mar what’s below, but maybe I do this more out of adherence to learned procedure than necessity.  

I start with the orange putty marks, dabbing brown dye on top with toilet paper, forefinger and cotton swabs, making them look like splotches.   I can’t believe how hard this is to do.  I’m trying to tone and scale so it will appear naturally as a part of the finish.  As I go about it, since the stain is wet, I wipe off too much. The putty gets revealed. I drive to Wal-Mart to buy a hair dryer and use it to dry the stain. It helps a little, but not entirely. I’m frustrated. Even with the hot air,  this is taking mucho longer than I’d anticipated.  I start to spray reddish colored stain lightly, over the putty marks. ---Gently--- I focus on the corners to create depth.  I spray over the dark in the middle because something has to be done about it. The stain hides it, but I’m in danger of making it so red it will be out of sync with the skirt and legs.  When it’s dry, I figure I’ll steel-wool or wet sand until only enough red is left on to hide the dark spot. I want the brown to show as much as possible and those putty marks camouflaged so they appear like natural wear and tear.
At this point I have to wait for the color to dry.  It doesn’t look bad--- but I won’t be able to modulate for best affect while it’s wet.  Plus, there is no way I’m going to spray lacquer over color that hasn’t completely dried. 

After first day of work.
I bring the piece into my studio and place it on a bed sheet. I turn the studio heater on to high and start blowing hot air over the piece---for at least an hour. It’s taking forever for the stain to dry and it’s because I used oil based stain instead of aniline stain.  It would have dried almost immediately with an aniline dye, and I was looking to buy that kind of stain but couldn’t find it for sale on the Peninsula. I leave everything as is and go to the gym for a walk on the treadmill. I go to Heidi’s for a cup of coffee. When I get home the color is S T I L L sticky---but, I’m exhausted and go to bed.  The high temperature in my studio doesn’t bother---I’m too tired to notice.

When I awaken three hours later,  the piece is dry. I tested it everywhere with the palm of my hand and I know for a fact it’s dry. I spray on a light coat of satin lacquer. Why light? A light coat lessens the chance it will crinkle or bubble up.  It doesn’t--- so I repeat the process with two more coats to build up the finish.  I arrive at a good stopping point when it’s dry. Then it’s time for a second evaluation.
The main problem is the color on the entire rear right leg is too yellow and golden.  It’s a mismatch to the strain of walnut and mahogany color on the others. The bottom lip--- where the drawer slides in and out--- is too light as well. 

I don’t find aniline dye for sale on the Peninsula, even at Orchard Supply,  and I decide not to go into San Francisco to buy a can.  Maybe with the blow dryer and the hot sun, the oil based stain will dry soon enough to let me spray lacquer over the match job before the sun goes down on this second day of the project. It soon does dry.  With a few sweeps of the walnut spray on all sides of the leg, I get it to match the color of the others.  I look over the whole piece for other places that might appear in need of matching, but I’m good.  This time, especially in comparison with last time, the stain dries in short order. So I shoot satin lacquer to seal the color. I let it dry. Then, I decide to go for the black lacquer idea I’ve been playing with in my mind.  Will it push the envelope too far for my taste--- if I black lacquer the turnings on the legs and the pull on the drawer face?  That’s my idea---but I could live with the way it is now. Why take the risk?  I reflect a bit. I re-finished a Japanese kitchen tansu one time, and the customer wanted the frames to the sliding doors colored with black lacquer. It looked fantastic when completed.  The memory convinces me to go ahead and implement the idea. 
The only thing I would need to make sure is that I strictly tape out where I don’t want the black lacquer to go. I use blue masking tape because it peels off easy no matter how long it’s been on. I tape out the limits of the no black zones first, then, tape sheets of newspaper onto that tape . I tape around the pull on the drawer, using a razor blade to precision cut tape that doesn’t belong.  I was doing the work inside my studio.  When all was prepared, I had the desk on two bed sheets. I opened the windows and front door.  I turned on the kitchen fan. I then applied the black lacquer.  Luckily the few drips that flowed down didn’t dry into permanent drip marks.  

Drawer pull ready for black lacquer
 When the black lacquer dried, which it did within five minutes, I removed the tape and newspaper---and gave a thumb up to what I saw---an almost completed custom finish on a valued family heirloom.
At this stage I did final work before application of the last coats of lacquer.   Color on some of the legs had not yet fully dried and I began to use the blow drier.  I wanted to hurry things along and vigorously began rubbing the legs with the palm of my hand. The warmth generated helped dry the color and smooth out the finish. This action wasn’t a decision but more an automatic step I felt compelled to take.  At this juncture the spirit of wood finishing took over and guided my hand.  I wasn’t attempting to create a particular affect, but the hand rubbing and rubbing with steel wool erased areas of the exterior color.  It revealed strains of the lighter yellow over which I had sprayed the walnut color. The effect was to create the look of an antique. I was delighted to see this unintended consequence.
A finishing job is like a journey. You can find neat things that happen on the way.  Sometimes the job carries along the worker rather than being a manipulation by the worker. This works for good and bad. You can start well prepared but no matter how well prepared difficulties arise in the course of a project.  The finisher has control over aspects of the process but not all of them. Many times I’ve seen a nasty surprise delay a project.  Maybe hundreds of marble size balls appear within the finish of a dining table.  Maybe shellac won’t stick in places on a wall in a room made of redwood.  Maybe a layout of lacquer on a table top turns into host of hundreds of tiny bubbles or craters on the surface.  The finisher does have part control of the process. He or she can do much through learning and experience to prevent unwanted surprise and to blossom the quality of their work, but adverse surprises happen to the best and most experienced finishers.
I added this last stage of work to the piece before shooting the final coat of lacquer. I could detect left over signs of those orange putty marks. Maybe nobody else could but I could.  It came to mind to use the ink from a bottle of blue ink I have.  I splotched the ink over them and in other randomly chosen places with toilet paper and Q-tips, then dried it with hot air.

Moments before application of last coat of lacquer
I then applied the final coat inside my studio at night on the third day of the job. With bed  sheets in place over the carpet, I sprayed on what initially appeared a perfect coat of satin finish. I waxed the piece into a glowing piece of furniture. I was done---or so I thought.  The layout of the final coat dried with tiny crinkles in some areas. I’ll deal with it later. I’ve had enough of the job for now. I’ll go back and wet sand the wrinkles out later, when I get around to it.

Completion