Refinishing An Antique Schooldesk

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.”

antique schooldesk tabletop

A neglected antique schooldesk top

Antique school desk, before refinishing

Why is her garage so much cleaner than mine?

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.

antique school desk underneath

What lies beneath?

antique school desk underneath, screws holding in place

I thought this would be easy after removing that screw at the top that you can’t see. If you look closely, you will see that there are metal knobs inserted into grooves.

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!

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat

A cute guy figuring out the swivel hardware

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat hinge

Closeup of the metal swivel hinge joint

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat hinge hardware

Hinge hardware

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat without hardware

After hinge hardware was removed

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat

Success!

antique school desk underneath, swivel seat hinge hardware

We got you, sucka! And the mallet that hit my fingers a few times.

So I finished taking the whole thing apart after about 2 nights.

antique school desk taken apart

The desk! And my toe.

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.

sanding antique school desk pencil groove

Getting the pencil groove

antique school desk seat sanded

Here’s the seat once it was stripped. Isn’t it pretty?

antique desk table top pieces

Perfectly fitted desk pieces, which I glued and clamped back together. Look at the wood grain up close! It looked like someone at some point had maybe sanded up and down rather than with the grain?

antique school desk seat

Paint? Gum?

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:

antique desk dark splotch

Probably water stains?

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.

antique school desk metal date

I’m guessing the date it was built? 1907? How cool is that?

antique school desk metal detailing

Before cleaning. Gorgeous detailing

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.

antique school desk after

Finished

antique school desk splotches

Sadly, I could not get the splotch out and the stain just accentuated it, but fortunately the owner was all right with its “character marks”.

Side view of the antique desk

Side view of the antique desk

Close up of the school desk legs

Close up of the legs

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.

antique school desk refinished

The antique school desk, restored in its new home

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I heart deuglified blue dressers

Refinished blue wood dresser, Coffee Under The Umbrella

Look, Chinese Food! Shiny dresser top!

I love blue. Blue ceilings, blue walls, blue vases, blueberries. My favorite house that I’ve lived in was bright blue. My favorite room in my house is blue. My kid loves Blue’s Clues.

Whenever I see blue oops paint, I snatch it up. I’ll paint anything blue. I’d paint my cat blue if she’d sit still long enough.

I went out on a limb and took a risk by painting this dresser blue, as well as the desk I posted a few weeks ago. And, erm, well, I don’t have much to say because I had the good fortune of not having to do much to this dresser as it was actually in pretty good shape. I wheeled and dealed a little when I bought it as the owner was moving and just needed it out, so I got a good deal on it.
Solid wood, structurally in good shape. Just needed some (well, a lot of) putty and new knobs to replace the old ugly wood ones. I used Valspar’s oops paint for the blue and Antique White for the drawers with some glass knobs.
I also tried General Finishes’ water-based polycrylic for the first time, and I’ll say that I don’t know that I can go back to Minwax. GF is more expensive, but the ease of working with the product surpasses Minwax by far. I tried the first coat with a Purdy brush, and I’ll say that I’ve always had trouble brushing on poly – I think it just takes practice – but this was actually ok in that there were far fewer brush marks than with Minwax’s product (whether that was because of the product itself or the brush I’m not sure of). I had trouble getting it on really evenly though, til I read this little tip from Mouse in Your House and used a small foam roller the next pass. I had never read of any blogger who did that, but I have to say that rolling it on worked like a charm.

ugly wood dresser, before

*Yawn*

Refinished blue wood dresser, Coffee Under The Umbrella

Refinished blue wood dresser, Coffee Under The Umbrella

Pretty pretty

A bathroom storage shelf is the perfect excuse to avoid working

oak refinished bathroom shelf towel storage

I have towel and TP storage! And I don’t have to go outside in the cold now!

I am a cold weather wuss.

It’s about 50 degrees and windy out, and I’m afraid to go in my uninsulated garage to poly a dresser I’m almost finished working on. I know, more FWP…I’m not complaining because I’m also not in the middle of a “Frankenstorm” or a hurricane. I can’t stand being cold. Give me 105 degrees in August, and I will putz all day in the garage.

So today is a perfect day to find other things to do, like scrape caulk off the bathtub, which my husband has just tasked me with if I want to avoid spending $450 on labor to install a new one. Does he know how much lumber that could buy? Or what kind of router or how many shoes and purses at Marshalls?

Before I scrape away, I realized I forgot to post one of my first projects. My house, as I have said several times, was built in the 70s. Homes from the 70s are known, aside from their glorious popcorn ceilings, for their lack of storage and sensible layouts and awesome ugliness.

I’m afraid I don’t have a before picture, but I saw on Craigslist an oak bathroom cabinet for $25, and I needed wall storage in the bathroom since the floor was completely taken up by a toilet, a vanity, and a bathtub. I suppose I could have put something on the floor, but I decided to indulge my family by not creating an obstacle course to any of these three. It had 2 mirrored doors on it – just let your imagination feed on the 80s honey oak-stained awesomeness.

So I knew nothing about joints, filling in holes, sanding, etc at the time. Looking at it now, it’s actually built really nicely. I don’t know if it’s handmade, but the box, I would guess, seems to be put together with dowels or pins, and it attached to the wall with the horizontal bar, sort of like a French cleat but inside the box rather than behind it, that runs under each shelf – if you look closely you can see it.

I removed the mirrored doors, primed, and painted. Distressed lightly with a medium grit sand block, glued the applique to the top, and with spray adhesive, attached some countertop sticky paper that I liked to the back.

So this was a productive use of time that kept me from going into the garage. Now I will have to finish my dresser tonight after it gets even colder.

Bath shelf applique

Added some girly-girl

The Tiffany desk, a broken foot, and a nomination

Image

Shinyinlove.com has kindly nominated me for the One Lovely Blog award! Thanks to Larkin for the nomination. Now go show her some blog love.

I snatched up this desk when my BFF Craigslist told me about it.

wood vanity old desk before

She had potential

I sped over to the house, stopping at an ATM on the way, and pulled up where a man had placed it outside on the front walk. I suppose there’s always the temptation to pick it up and run, but I wouldn’t have been able to anyway because this. was. Heavy.

The man called a teenage boy in the house to help me load it in the back of my car. I drove off with it nervously shifting side to side in my trunk, and I shuddered at every thud I heard when I turned. Husband had to help me load it in the garage.

Later that week. I went to the garage to work on it, thinking it would be a fairly quick project since it was structurally sound and just had cosmetic damage, and that I would definitely be able to finish before leaving for our midwest vacation and the symphony started for me.

It was not to be.

broken foot leg

Fail

The foot had broken off completely. I didn’t know how I missed that. There was no way I was willing to sell this thing with a missing foot.

I initially dealt with this by ignoring it completely and addressing all the other cosmetic issues. Like the fact that it needed to be bathed in wood putty.

desk cosmetic fix wood putty

Desk and wood putty: head-on collision.

Then I sanded, sanded some more, puttied some more, sanded again, primed and painted several coats. Went on vacation, got my symphony music. And it sat in the garage, lamenting the fact that it was a fabulous color of blue but had no leg or drawers.

To condense a lot of boring details, I eventually decided to deal with the foot after talking to several “real” woodworkers by getting a rasp, a coping saw, and making the foot myself.  I did consider just prying off all the legs and replacing them with new ones, but after realizing how heavy this desk is and seeing how all 8 legs are heavily braced, this is the route I decided to take.

Here’s what I started with.

broken desk foot

The canvas I had to work with.

Here’s my arsenal:

Coping saw

coping saw

Arsenal of Insanity 1

Rasp

rasp 2x4 leg

Arsenal of Insanity 2

I took a piece of scrap 2×4, cut it to the correct height, placed it against the other leg, and traced the shape. Then I took the biggest drill bit I had and started drilling holes into the end grain around the border of the leg, if that makes sense. I cut away the excess with the coping saw, then rounded the concave part with the rasp. I lost a significant amount of sanity while whittling shavings away. I assume most woodworkers who had no access to power tools are legally insane.

attached wood desk foot

I whittled away my sanity, but at least I had a leg.

Finally, I had this.

wood desk foot

The left half is the foot I repaired. The right is one I was trying to match.

I pondered for awhile what to paint the drawers. I wanted white but as I mentioned in my previous post, I was afraid of it being too 8-year-old girl. I considered keeping the blue and also silver, but the majority liked the idea of white. A commenter on my FB page opined that the white against blue looked very “Tiffany’s” and I was sold.

Here’s the final product from a few angles.

Refinished Tiffany blue wood desk, via Coffee Under The Umbrella

I have to say, I LOVE this color combination.

Refinished Tiffany blue wood desk, via Coffee Under The Umbrella

Refinished Tiffany blue wood desk, via Coffee Under The Umbrella

Look at these details!

Here’s the breakdown of steps and materials used.

1. Wood putty and spackle to fill in dents, gaps, other imperfections. Overfilled each one.

2. With my Bosch RO sander and 150-220 grit sandpaper, sanded off the excess putty after it dried. By hand in spaces too small for my sander.

3. Puttied again because inevitably there are always spots you miss, the putty shrinks more than you anticipated, etc.

4. This time, sanded by hand.

5. Vacuumed off dust, then wiped with a damp cloth or tack cloth, whichever was handy at the time.

6. Primed with Kilz latex. I am meh about this primer – it was on sale awhile back, but once this is gone, I don’t think I’ll be going back. It doesn’t wow me at all in terms of adhesion. It’s not horrible, but I think there are other primers that are better.

7. Sanded with 220 grit on the RO sander.

8. Vacuum, wipe, etc.

9. With roller, rolled on some Valspar oops paint I got awhile back that I’d been dying to use but hadn’t had a chance to. Added Floetrol and rolled on thin coats – thin as in, barely enough to cover the surface.

10. Brushed on where it’s too small for the roller.

11. Sanded with 220/320.

12. Lathered, rinsed, repeated steps 9-11 3 times.

13. Sprayed Minwax’s spray-on water based polycrylic in the blue can in semi-gloss. I’d had problems in the past with this product looking splotchy on darker colors (as in, anything darker than white), but I made sure to keep at least 10 in. of distance and went really light. It looked better after sanding with 320 grit by hand. I have mixed feelings about Minwax products at this time.

14. Scrap 2×4 for the foot – cut to size, traced the shape, drilled off the excess wood with a drill, cut off extra with a coping saw, then used the rasp to smooth out the curves.

15. Glued and clamped to the foot after filing the broken edge down, filled the crack between the two with putty, and sanded. Attached a block to the inside like the others with glue and wood screws.

16. New hardware from Hobby Lobby. Fixed the one drawer bottom with water damage by breaking it, then sliding in a replacement piece of plywood. Painted and top coated drawers.

This sits patiently (for now) awaiting a buyer. If you are local (Austin) and are interested, drop me a line through my contact page.

So the end of summer is finally upon us in central Texas, and while my output was slow last month, I have a garage full of furniture, a head full of ideas, and a house full of crap with nowhere to go, so the projects will again be forthcoming!

Update: I applied General Finishes’ water-based polycrylic to just the top in gloss. Hard as nails.

Linking up at Liz Marie’s linky party!

I am finally going to talk about furniture

I started this vanity nearly two months ago. It normally doesn’t take me 2 months to paint a piece of furniture, but with vacation in the midwest, symphony rehearsals + hands that are a little flabbier than when I was 18, and a 3-year-old birthday party to plan, well, I guess that’s not too rotten…

I’ll do a complete write-up complete with background, the broken foot, how to whittle away your sanity, more broken drawers, etc this week as soon as I decide what color to paint these drawers:

blue wood vanity painted drawers

You like? You hate?

Some have stated they don’t like the white drawers, that it detracts from the aqua/oops bin color. Someone else suggested silver, which is intriguing. Others have cheered on the white. My only fear is that white will make this look more 8-year-old girl than glam.

So I turn to readers for their (constructive) opinions. White, silver, blue, or something completely different? Here they are in context. The drawers have only 1 coat of paint on them, accounting for their blotchy appearance.

blue refinished wood vanity white drawers

Here are the drawers in context.

Public Service Announcement: Here’s what a drawer is not for

I really like redoing vanities and those smallish older style desks. I really dislike working with drawers in general. Mostly because I just figure it out as I fumble along. I dislike building them even more, but that is for another post.

Every time I have refinished a vanity/smallish desk except for one time, it has had exactly one drawer with a bottom ruined by water (or some other liquid? A bottle of bourbon?) that I’ve had to replace. It’s not that difficult and it gets easier as I go, so I’m not complaining. I’m just marvelling at the string of desks I’ve acquired whose former owners may or may not have known not to store liquid in a drawer.

Damaged desk drawer bottom

Wrinkly desk drawer bottom

In case you were wondering…don’t use a drawer as a water bowl for your dog. Don’t keep fish in it. Don’t dump a bottle of rubbing alcohol in it. Just don’t put anything liquid in your drawers.

Don’t know what will become of this old girl yet, but it’ll be something fabulous once I find a way to fix the missing foot in the back.

older wood desk

Smallish old desk before

Vanity Refinish the III/I do not make these things up

I love the lines of this vanity. It reminds me of something you’d see in the office of a private detective in the 1940s.

Slick lines

It was another CL find. $20 and painted peach. I deposited my son at my neighbor’s house and hightailed it over to the address I was given.

“I didn’t think anyone would want this old thing,” the seller told me. “But I got 10 emails for it the first hour.” Score.

Vanity before refinishing

Vanity in its peach incarnation.

She had replaced the hardware as well with these card catalog handles, which I liked well enough. It looked kind of industrial, which I guess is all the rage in design right now. Which means they will be this moment’s avocado green next month. It was really light and I was able to unload it by myself. So no legs were broken in the unloading of this piece.

She had done a decent paint job, but hadn’t really puttied any dents. I was curious to see how many layers of paint there were, so out came the Citristrip.

Turned out it wasn’t covered in layers upon layers of gunk. I managed to scrape off most of the paint/primer on the desktop. Then sanded. And sanded more. Then puttied. Then sanded again. Then puttied again. And sanded again. Then sanded some more.

I don’t know if it is just me, but I find that I spend most of my time sanding and applying wood putty when I do refinishes. I know, “the prep work is the important part.” Anyway, there were several hairline cracks, probably from age, maybe from the wood not being dried long enough, and my garage temperature in the middle of the summer in Texas doesn’t help. The top consisted of planks that appeared to be edge glued and probably joined with biscuits. One of the planks had shifted slightly to be millimeters higher than the adjacent plank.

Then there was the issue of one of the drawers. The drawers had dovetailed joints. They’re old but still solid. This particular drawer’s bottom was in poor shape – it looked like it had gotten wet at some point and had some deep cracks that ran nearly the length of the board, never mind the raised grain. A groove was routed in all 4 sides of the drawer so that the bottom just floated in it. And because of that, I didn’t know how to get it out.

You can see in this picture that the bottom of the back had a clean break right behind the groove. It looked like I could feasibly just break it off without any trouble and pull out the bottom. But this is my life and those kinds of things don’t happen to me.

Drawer back

Drawer back. Notice I refrained from using the word “crack” in the same sentence as “drawer” and “back”.

My woodworker neighbor had been out of town, so I was happy to see their car in their driveway (because I like them, not just because I could harass him about furniture). He pointed out a dot in the back that was apparently a nail and suggested I carefully pull out the nail, pull off the back, then the bottom.

So I got out a crowbar and started pulling very gently. It came out, but it wasn’t a nail. I ended up breaking that little piece off the back after all. And it was a clean cut! I didn’t break the drawer this time!

Drawer back after I broke it

Drawer back after I broke it.

The problem was that the bottom wouldn’t come out. One side was loose, but the other wouldn’t budge. I was sick of dealing with it, so I did what any sensible person would do. I got out a pair of pliers and just ripped the bottom into little pieces until it came out.

Broken drawer bottom, pliers.

This is where I really broke it.

Some 1/8” scrap wood, probably from another old vanity, done. Prime. Sand. Putty because priming showed more imperfections that I couldn’t see before. Sand more. Paint. Not done.

After 3 thin coats, I just needed one more light coat before applying poly. I went back to the garage and picked up my paint can to shake it. And discovered that I had forgotten to seal the lid back on.

What ensued looked like something out of a Wheaties commercial from the 80s where the camera zooms in on some liquid that’s supposed to resemble milk splashing over all the flakes. But instead of pouring out of a pitcher, picture it placed in a blender without the lid and hitting the On button. About half a gallon of Antique White Valspar paint flew everywhere. Like, on me, and on (and in) my Bosch sander. I yelled a few words, then yelled for my husband. No answer. I ran to the door leading into the house, poked my head in, and yelled again. No answer. I grabbed a few rags and sort of soaked up part of the mess.

When I got my head back on, I realized that paint was soaking into the innards of my sander, so I’d better wipe that up. I yelled for my husband again and this time he answered. I yelled that I really, really needed his help.

He grabbed towels and started mopping up the spreading puddle. He handed me some wire to clear the paint out of the holes of my sander. The scene was actually quite boring.

Sander covered in paint

My poor sander after the first clean off

Husband calmly asked me to get some garbage bags and more towels. Having splashed paint on one foot, I hopped across the living room on the other foot to the kitchen. “At least you’re ok,” he said as I handed him the materials. “It’s just stuff.”

Husband cleaning wife's mess

My patient hero.

I sadly picked up my sander, covered in paint, with a heavy heart. “I’m afraid it’s gone,” he said. “But maybe, just maybe, if we turn it on, the centrifugal force will keep the paint from congealing.” This is how nerds think.

I turned it on, fully expecting it to sputter and die a dramatic, expensive death. And it came on. And sounded and looked completely normal!

As of this writing, my sander is bravely soldering on. Oh, and I finished the vanity.

Vanity after refinishing

Vanity after

A patio slab deuglified and some lessons learned

Patio set plans by The Design Confidential, built by Coffee Under the Umbrella

My DIY patio set with some cute guy

As I mentioned in a previous post, I decided to build a set of benches and tables for the sad, unused little concrete slab of a patio outside our sliding glass door to the backyard. So here’s some background.

The previous owner of our home, we were told, had a dog. The backyard, when we moved in, was kind of in shambles. And the two are apparently directly related.

I’ve never had a dog, but I guess they can wreak havoc on backyards if left to their devices in that they can dig up your entire yard, which is what happened in our case. It was a large plot of bare patches of dirt, invasive trees and ivies, and a few nice trees. A sizable oak right next to the slab and a tall pecan in another location. And that’s it for the nice trees. There was a huge, huge chinaberry tree right in the back corner of our fence that was pushing the fence over into both our next-door neighbor’s yard and that of the neighbor behind us. And several hackberry and mulberry trees along the back of the fence.

About half the yard has no shade at all. An automatic sprinkler system came with the house, which we’re really grateful for, but in the furnace of the central Texas summers, not much survives in that patch.

Some previous owner seemed to have liked flowering plants, but also seemed to have not known much about those plants. There are several really beautiful bulbs planted around the backyard…all in areas that receive little to no direct sun. There was a little patch of canna lilies that never bloomed (and also which I killed this past spring, which I realize takes some talent to do…but we won’t talk about that. I never claimed to have green thumbs!). And there are several bulbs planted right at the base of the big oak, and of course, most of them are in total shade most of the year. There are some purple irises and paper whites, which weakly bloom in the spring, and several others that have never bloomed, so I don’t know what they are. My plan was originally to dig them up last winter and relocate them to the corner that the chinaberry was at (we had it cut down shortly after moving in), then install a rock patio around the oak. But I couldn’t because the bulbs started growing in NOVEMBER last winter when we started getting more rain after the long hard drought. So there they languish another summer.

Anyway. I was unhappy about that patio, as I was about the rest of the house, for over 3 years. I’ll detail more about the lessons I learned regarding that in a later post. The red chairs were my first attempts at deuglifying the slab…after which I stopped for whatever reason and decided complaining was a lot funner. Yeah, I’m sure my husband will tell you what a party I was.

Porch slab before

Blech

As I mentioned before, planning my son’s birthday party was the main motive behind getting off my bum and deciding to actually do something about it. I needed more seating, I needed a place to put stuff on, and I needed shade. I started there.

I dislike metal patio furniture, for whatever reason. It feels cold and unwelcoming to me (even though it is often too hot to sit on during the summer). I love the warmth of wood and dislike the prices of most wood patio furniture, so lumber and power tools to the rescue again. I looked through both Ana White’s site and Rayan Turner’s, and eventually settled on these benches and this table (and if you visit the links, you will see my build showcased).

I got the table frame built and square. I felt like a rock star when I saw how perfectly in alignment the aprons were with my carpenter’s square. I had built it while it was lying upside down on the patio, and was too excited to wait for my husband to come home to help me flip it, and it wasn’t heavy, so I figured there would be no harm in flipping it over myself. I thought I was pretty resourceful until 2 of the legs broke off as I was turning it.

I think my husband came home that day to me crying (again), but by then I had cried over so many projects that he was pretty nonchalant about it. I had considerably more problems accepting my imperfections back then than I do now. He gave me a pep talk and a hug as he stepped over the drill and the bits lying on the living room floor. He was, and continues to be, so awesome. I continued to sulk that evening.

The next day, I wrote to Rayan for the first time to let her know what happened and if she could offer any suggestions. I wasn’t really expecting an answer, but I actually got one within half an hour! “Don’t panic!” was the first thing she told me. She went on assure me that I didn’t completely break the table and that it was salvageable.

So I just flipped the legs over and reattached them. I think I recall having to take some things apart and redo them, which sucked, and was stressful since I had a deadline of my son’s party, but I sucked it up and did it. And made sure my husband was able to help me flip it over. (Note: If you take these on, I’d suggest you add some support brackets underneath where the aprons attach to the legs.)

That was done. I started on the table top. And here is where I learned a very difficult lesson.

I was very aware than a 1 x 4 board does not measure 1” by 4”. Really, I was. But I was unaware that a lot of them also don’t measure 3/4” by 3.5” either. I found this out when I was drilling the pocket holes for the table top. I had attached the outside frame together beautifully, then flipped it over and let out a primal scream when I saw that every. Single. Screw. Was poking out the other side.

I had already applied 3 coats of very not cheap sealer to these boards. I measured their exact width. 5/8”. Every single one. I wanted blood. I didn’t know whose, but I wanted someone’s.

I visited a few forums and submitted my questions. Was this common? Is there any way I could make this work? Some suggested I set my Kreg jig for 1/2” stock and to just use the 1.25” screws. Most told me to demand a refund and go find a real lumberyard.

I did, then called around. The first lumberyard I called didn’t carry western red cedar and explained that finding a 1x piece of cedar that’s actually 3/4” is actually difficult these days because of the nature of how they are cut. I don’t know how true that is (perhaps someone really familiar with the industry who is reading this can enlighten me), but I had to move on since they didn’t carry it anyway.

I found this place, and the fact that it’s women-owned and managed was a bonus. I got my lumber, they were all 3/4”, and I was happy. I finished the table top and was happier. Getting the little pieces in took the longest to do because the openings weren’t equal width across the length of the table top. I thanked God when I was finished with that.

I needed benches. And I needed to cut the angled back legs with something. I borrowed a jigsaw and tried at first to cut out the rounded legs on some scrap 2x4s. I decided to scrap that plan and go with angled legs.

I borrowed my neighbor’s Porter Cable circular saw. And it scared the daylights out of me with all its testosterone. So much that I had to buy my own (I bought a little Skil saw).

I had a week to build two benches. My husband lifted his eyebrows and nodded when I told him. He patted my shoulder. “No matter what happens, I’ll still be proud of you,” he said. Ok, whatever.

And I did it. I later ended up reinforcing the joints with some diagonal bracing, stretchers, and dowels, which my neighbor kindly showed me how to do. But I finished them before the party. I bought the cushions at Garden Ridge Pottery – they are actually meant for a lounge chair, but were the perfect length. I drilled an umbrella hole for the table, then looked for the umbrella. The one we chose is from Costco, made with Sunbrella fabric. The base is a very heavy granite square with wheels. The best part is that we got both from craigslist.

Bench bracing by Coffee Under the Umbrella

How I reinforced the bench

I got some charming little hanging candle holders from Pier 1 and Ikea and eventually some potted plants. The small white table I threw together with scraps from this plan. Another neighbor kindly gave me the baby spider plant that you can’t really see, and the stupid-heavy concrete planter it’s in was in the backyard when we moved in. And yet another neighbor gave me the bougainvillea in the white planter. You might be able to suspect why I decided to stop griping over the ugly factor of my house – because I have the most amazing and generous neighbors.

So that is the story of my patio, and the picture is where it stands today.

Patio after by Coffee Under the Umbrella

Today!

My garage sale dining table

I bought my first real piece of furniture, new, when I was single and in my mid 20s. I agonized over the decision because it was my first real big purchase. As a freelance musician, I didn’t have a lot of cash to burn, and while I won’t divulge how long ago that was, I didn’t know anything then about refinishing furniture.

It was a dining table with 4 chairs and solidly built. I have no idea what sort of wood it was, but it was solid wood with a tile inset in the table top. And it was freakin heavy because of that tile top. My friends hated me when it was time to move.

My 1st real piece of furniture

My 1st real piece of furniture! With dirty grout!

I asked my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, what he thought, because I really thought that it was going to be ours. He muttered that it was ok, but that the grout would be difficult to clean. And that I should just get it if I really wanted it. I was not as practical of a person then as I am now, so I just thought I’d learn to deal with it. I loved it, so I bought it.

And I owned it for 9 years. It saw cats being shooed off and a baby smearing stuff all over the top and into the grout. By now, the grout always had gunk in it. And I grudgingly admitted that my husband had been right. And he graciously didn’t respond at all when I told him that.

My tastes had changed considerably over the years. I no longer liked the swirly pink tile look. I wanted something clean that would fit in our little breakfast nook. I didn’t want to go through all the effort to build a table that wouldn’t accommodate more than 4-5 comfortably. More on that in a later post.

One Saturday morning we spied a garage sale on the street behind us. We wandered over and I spied a dining table. It was wood and a very common farmhouse sort of style with an atrocious honey sort of shellac-y finish on it. And it was $25 because the owner just wanted it gone. Sold! She loaded it into her SUV and was nice enough to drive it over to our house.

And like a lot of projects at my house, it sat in my garage for A Really Long Time. Here it is in its original finish with, as every other surface in my house, a bunch of crap on it. Including the second Skil sander I owned that lived a very short life.

My $25 garage sale table

My $25 garage sale table in its honey shellac-y glory

I finally got around to sanding it down. And I used my Minwax Mahogany Gel Stain again. And it looked horrendous.

What I should’ve done is apply wood conditioner. It had a “fishy eye” appearance in which most of the surface looked fine, but there were these odd little blotches here and there about the size of a fish eye, which apparently is rather common, as Google told me.

So I stripped it again after it sat in my garage and served as a work table for a while. And I applied wood conditioner this time. And decided to try a water based stain. I tried Minwax’s Express stain that comes in a tube. And here was the result.

Table refinish 1.

Take 2. Ugh.

Yeah, I wasn’t a fan, either.

By now I was crying at the thought of stripping it again. My husband told me to just “spend the money! Stop being a tightwad! We’re going to use this for 20 years and it was $25!” I was told to spend money?! Wahoo.

I went to my local Woodcraft. I heart those guys. It’s 5 minutes from my house and staffed mostly by old-timers who never look at me funny when I show them pictures of my projects that I just broke and ask what I need to fix it (with the understanding that I’m going to actually buy something from them, of course). I showed the guy there a picture of the horrible stain job. He refrained from laughing hysterically at me and politely asked what I used, and he never batted an eye when I told him. “Not good?” he asked. “Not good,” I replied. I threw a barrage of questions at him, including whether I’d have to strip the table again completely. “Not necessarily,” he replied. Which made him my hero.

I told him I wanted to use water-based stain. Mostly because I can’t throw away oil-based stains or staining rags in the garbage. I’d have to take them to our city’s hazardous waste facility and it’s a 25 minute drive from my house (laugh all you want, big-city dwellers. We complain about commutes longer than 15 minutes in these parts). He showed me General Finishes water-based stain in Espresso. “I use this for clients all the time,” he told me. I asked him if water-based stains were all that much worse than oil-based. “Ten years ago, they were,” he said. “They’ve come a long way since then.” I asked what he would use for his own house. “Oil. I’m old school,” he replied.

Since this is already way too much detail, I bought the GF water-based Espresso stain. I gave the table top a light sanding and applied the stain right over the existing mahogany with a rag. And it looked amazing. 4 coats, then 4 coats of poly, a fresh coat of white paint on the legs, sold the tile top dining table, and done.

dining table refinished espresso

Isn’t she slick?

dining table after refinish espresso

Because you have to see it in context.