2 months ago, a symphony colleague of mine got in touch with me to ask if I would be able to help her out with an antique, real-deal school chair that had been in her family for awhile. “I have a desk from the one-room school house that my great great grandmother taught in out in Nebraska. The legs are rusted and the wood needs to be stained perhaps and refinished. My grandmother stored this piece of furniture out in a shed and did not take care of it. I want to put it in my new house, but it needs a little bit of work.”
Complete with metal legs, seat that swung open and closed, and inkwell, this desk is the real deal!
I know there are ways to restore some finishes with products like Restor-A-Finish and Rub and Buff…but this really didn’t look all that salvageable to me. Plus I really didn’t feel like taking a product on its maiden voyage with someone else’s furniture.
So…I decided to start from scratch. Strip it naked and put some new clothes on it. My colleague wanted it to look as close to the original finish as possible, so no paint would be involved, outside of repainting the metal.
Staining scares me. It has always intimidated me because there is far less room for slop than there is with paint. Plus with antiques, you just don’t know what will be lurking beneath the surface, especially if it has been thrown in a shed for a few generations.
So I set out on the alien task of taking this thing apart. I spotted some screws underneath where the metal contacts the wood and removed them.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I guess I was sort of looking at this with a modern furniture perspective and was half expecting the metal bar to just slide out. So of course, nothing happened. The seat didn’t budge.
I googled around and found that the metal pieces had a line of knobs that were inserted into grooves into the wood. The grooves are long and contain holes spaced apart every few inches. In order to keep the desk together, the knobs insert into the holes and then have to slide in between the holes. The screws keep the wood parts from sliding once they’re in. In order to take it apart, the wood parts need to slide back over to where the metal knobs are aligned with the holes, then they just slip off. I realize that probably makes no sense, but it does once you see it.
I sort of half-heartedly wiggled the metal pieces; I hemmed and hawed. I am not an engineer, so I was terrified of breaking something. I knew I had to pull the metal out of the wood, I just didn’t know how to do it. So I broke down. I asked my husband, the handy engineering, problem-solving-with-a-vengeance computer nerd, to help me.
So you know that antiquated saying that says women need a man to do things? Forget that. Just get an engineer. Hubs flipped the thing over, eyed it from several angles, and figured it out. We got out a rubber mallet and a piece of scrap 2×4 and went to town banging away on the edge of the seat (well, he initially went to town, then after I saw that nothing broke, I finished the job) to move it over so that the knobs would line up with the holes. The 2×4 acted as a shield between the mallet and the seat. I initially started with some 3/4″ plywood as the shield, but I was too afraid to bang away. Once I banged the seat about an inch over, the metal knobs were aligned with the holes and I was able to wiggle the wood parts off.
These people knew how to make furniture to last. Even after successfully getting the seat off, I could probably have danced on the tabletop. This thing didn’t even wiggle, even without a seat.
Here’s a gallery of all the parts involved in just that little seat!
So I finished taking the whole thing apart after about 2 nights.
So because You Are Not Supposed To Strip An Antique With A Power Sander And You MUST Strip It By Hand…I initially planned to – insert spotlights and microphone – sand it by hand. I really, really dislike chemicals – I have mineral spirits, thinner, and even bleach only for the rarest of cases. I really didn’t want to go the Klean Strip route, plus I really didn’t know how I felt about applying something so highly toxic to an antique. I have had good experiences with Citri-Strip on paint, but stain typically doesn’t even budge.
So I started scrubbing away on the underside of the tabletop with 60-grit sandpaper. After half an hour, uncovering about 1/4th of the surface area, and feeling like I had just lifted some serious weights, I decided to pay my favorite nearby mom-and-pop hardware store a visit.
Talking to Tracy, the owner, is always enlightening. Big box store employees typically answer any questions I have by reading the label of the product in question out loud to me. I especially love it when the lumber employees tell me either that a 1x piece of lumber is actually less than 1″ in depth. Or that yes, a 1x is supposed to be 5/8″ in depth. It’s just awesome. Anyway, Tracy is a “real” carpenter and about 99% of the time has the right answers and/or products, fresh popcorn for my kid, and fresh vegetables from his garden in the summers.
I showed him the desk and explained the project and that sanding by hand was getting pretty old and giving me biceps. I told him I knew that You Are Not Supposed To Use A Power Sander and asked what he would do. He sort of sniffed and muttered something about extremists. “I always used Klean-Strip. I never had luck with Citri-Strip, so I don’t sell it,” he told me. “Cover the ground with cardboard, get ventilation, wear goggles, gloves, and a mask, and don’t get any of it on your skin or clothes.” He showed me a nasty red mark on his arm. “Because this is what happens.”
I was not thrilled about using a product requiring a DIY hazmat suit. I asked if something so toxic would pose any harm to antique wood. “Not any more than sanding would,” he said. “But if it were me, this desk probably isn’t worth THAT much, and she’s not planning on selling it to a collector. I’d just use a power sander and sand out any swirl marks by hand,” he told me. I nearly fainted. Would an angry mob of woodworkers come after me? Would they swarm into my garage the second the power sander turned on with pitchforks and torches?
Tracy just shrugged. “There will always be extremists,” he said.
I went home, feeling considerably lighter now that I had permission from someone who really knew what he was doing to use a sander. I got out my beloved Bosch RO sander, still covered in white paint from when I dumped half a gallon in it. I seriously peeked over my shoulder, placed it on the surface, and turned it on. And sanded the finish off. And laughed at my neuroses as I imagined a mob of angry middle-aged men yelling at me on the internet.
The next day my next door neighbor, who built his way through college, came over to see me when he heard my sander running. I asked what he would do in my situation. “What you’re doing,” he replied. Well, knock me over, but that was 2 people who gave me permission to use my sander over my lack of sanding muscle. Because really – ain’t nobody got time for that.
So I stripped the finish off. And that is really all I have to say about that because the rest of the process was really rather uneventful.
If you are a real carpenter with some constructive feedback, I’m all ears. If you are a real carpenter outraged at this crime against woodkind, think of me as a troglodyte, and convinced I ruined this desk, I have all the respect in the world for what you guys do, but, well, you’ll get over it . I used clear printing labels for my wedding invitations and printed out most of my guests’ addresses on them. The wedding police will get over it.
And the next dilemma:
Once I stripped the finish off the tabletop, I saw the dark splotches. Big, black, and an eyesore. I mean, I saw them when my friend dropped the desk off, I had just assumed they’d come off once I sanded. My other friend Google told me basically that it was stains from water that had seeped through the wood. My neighbor told me to try mineral spirits, but that it would still be difficult to remove. I saw solutions from household bleach to wood bleach to hydrogen peroxide to vinegar to mineral spirits. So I decided on the path of least resistance and got out the bleach since I had some in the garage. I took the cheapest no-name paint brush I had, a tiny little 1″ or so, dipped it in, and dabbed a very tiny amount full strength on the splotches. I did 3 treatments, allowing several hours to dry, then wiped it off with vinegar to neutralize the bleach (so Google told me), which did lighten the splotches.
Here’s a list of what I did next:
1) Scrubbed the loose dirt off the metal with a metal brush and then washed with soap and water from a high pressure spray gun. Air dried outside.
2) Primed with Rustoleum’s Rusty Metal primer. Let dry.
3) Spray painted with Rustoleum’s 2x Coat in black with several thin coats. I lay them down on a tarp to cover one side, then when that was dry, leaned them against a work table with a tarp behind them so I could flip and paint the other side.
4) Applied Minwax’s oil-based wood conditioner to the wood. Wiped off after 10-15 minutes.
5) With a clean rag, applied 2 coats of Minwax’s gel stain in Aged Oak. Wiped off excess.
6) Applied 2 coats of Minwax’s polyurethane in semi-gloss (from the can). Initially tried a sponge brush, but didn’t like that it gave me little control over the amount. I tried a clean cloth on the second layer and that felt a lot better.
My friend later told me that her father, upon seeing the restored desk, said his mother would be very happy to see her desk today, which, to me, was the highest compliment I could’ve hoped for.
And because I don’t have a picture of the finished desk in a setting other than my garage, here is a picture of it in my friend’s home in its own little nook in progress, complete with her grandmother’s other belongings.