Sunday, September 25, 2011

It Always Takes Longer Than You Think

Some time ago (6 months!) I received an email from a new client in Chicago. They had found me on the internet and wanted to know if I could add some marquetry to kitchen cabinets in a house they were building. Not my usual kind of job, but, in this economy, you cannot say "no" to work.

I was asked to provide some rough design ideas, so I turned to Pierre Ramond's book, "Marquetry," always close at hand. There, on pages 57 and 58 I found some examples that fit the dimensions provided by the customer.

I worked out a price and time frame and we reached an agreement to begin work.

There were some assumptions which were made that turned out to create problems almost immediately.

One of the problems I created for myself was to include much more detail than necessary. It is hard to draw designs with simple elements, after years of trying to add detail wherever possible. Why draw a flower, for example, with 5 elements when you can draw a flower with 30? Leaves should have multiple parts so that they can be shaded. Every time I added a line with the pen I thought it looked better, but I didn't consider the added work required downstream to cut, shade and assemble that extra part.

Another part of the job that I forgot to address was that I needed to glue my designs down to their doors, which were already assembled and finished.

That created the biggest problem: matching the cherry color to the existing finish. The doors supplied were finished with modern stains and spray finish, that created a deep blue-red color to the cherry. The color was a combination of the stain layers and the hue of the lacquer.

Marquetry is not normally stained. Staining marquetry with different woods only hides the work. About the only type of color that can be added to marquetry comes from using potassium dichromate, or other chemicals, which react with the acidity in the different woods, turning some woods dark and leaving others alone. For example, when boxwood or holly is inlaid in mahogany, you can use potassium dichromate to darken the mahogany without darkening the inlay.

We tried the potassium on the cherry, and it darkened it, but it was brown and not the blue-red we needed. So we built a waterproof box, bought an aquarium heater (large size!) and took all the cherry we needed for the project and started soaking it in a series of stains. Using various organic materials in the water, we were able to change the color of the cherry over time. In this case it took nearly a month of work to get it right.

After soaking, we needed to dry out the cherry and press it flat, which took several weeks of pressing and repressing, changing the paper frequently. More time lost.

All the projects were too large to cut on the chevalet, so we needed to cut most of the work on the overhead saw. Of course, that takes more time than the chevalet, so again we fell behind.

All the elements were placed in hot sand to create shadows, and, again, having more complex designs than necessary, that took longer than predicted. There were a total of 8 large panels.

Throughout all this delay the client was patient and understanding, fortunately. Instead of 3 months it took 6. The completed project was shipped out last week, and I expect that with the addition of the finish the cherry will be very close to the rest of the kitchen.

Moral: no matter how long you have been doing something in your career, always consider what can go wrong and, as the saying goes: PLAN AHED!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Memories of an Antique Dealer

I have often written in this blog about what I have been doing for the past 4 decades. When I get a call from an old client who mentions their name, I am often at a loss to put a face to the name. I usually ask what was the project or what was the piece I worked on, and then it often comes back to me. Sad to say that I remember the piece better than the person, but it's true.

Recently, I received an email:

Dear Pat:
I hope I have the right person, the Pat Edwards that used to operate an antique furniture refinishing business in the Adams Avenue area. If so, I want to thank you for my purchase of a Hoosier type kitchen cabinet from you in 1971-1972. My husband and I had just moved into a 1906 Craftsman home in old downtown La Mesa and we broke our bank to buy a Hoosier you had just refinished. We spent $125 and it seemed like so much to us (well, it was!!)
Over the years I bought, scrounged, refinished and often sold antique furniture, but never did I come across a better one than the one I bought from you, and thus I still have it and enjoy it every day.
We moved from La Mesa to an 1896 Victorian in Lemon Grove and the Hoosier was in the old kitchen there for 34 years. In 2007 we built a log home and moved to Hayfork (yes, Hayfork) in Northern CA and put the Hoosier front and center in our log home. Recently I bought an older pie safe and had to squeeze the Hoosier a little, but it remains my star piece.
I have often wanted to thank you again, so here it is! By the way, what was the name of your shop? And, do you have a similar business today?

Attached to this email were several nice photos of an old oak Hoosier kitchen cabinet. When I saw them, I was transported to a barn in Kansas in 1971. It was cold and there was snow on the ground. I had a few hundred dollars in cash and a pick up truck with a lumber rack and a tarp. The barn was full of oak furniture. Square and round tables, sets of press back chairs, treadle sewing machines, and kitchen tables and hoosier cabinets.

The "dealer" was the farmer, who invited me to dinner and fed me fresh corn and a steak. I bought several items, loaded them on the truck and moved on down the road. One of these items was a Hoosier which was nearly complete. Often these old kitchen cabinets lost their "guts" which included a wide variety of attachments to make the cook happy. Owning a good Hoosier meant that the person working in the kitchen had a central location for almost all the tools of the trade. Using a Hoosier along with a kitchen work table was essential for all small farm homes to efficiently prepare the meals.

This Hoosier had everything, including stained glass windows. It only needed refinishing...I can't remember if it was painted white, as most of them were, but I do remember refinishing it. See the next blog entry for me using methylene chloride at that time, since it was the only way I knew to do things.

I also remember repairing the tambour roll, which ended up working nicely. I was also pleased that the pull out enamel surface was not badly chipped.

In any event, I transported it 1500 miles home, refinished it and put in in my little shop with a price tag of $125. I assume that included a profit, but for the life of me I find that hard to believe.

I do remember at that time another client walking into the shop and asking about a nice oak roll top desk I had for sale. When she asked about the price I said "Three fifty." She pulled out a five dollar bill and expected change!

In any event, I am pleased to hear that some of the things I have worked on have been important to the people who supported me. Gosh, when I think of all the antiques I have taken apart, restored, conserved, upholstered, finished, or sold over the years...each of them is important to the owner and represents an important possession in their life.

I am happy to have been of service.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Stripping Patina?

I shudder to think about the way I approached refinishing furniture when I started over 40 years ago. First of all, I was young, impatient and considered myself indestructible. I was never sick, and could work all day and night, every day of the year. I was never tired and always excited to see what kind of wood was hiding under the disgusting old finish.

I consumed gallons of paint stripper, and went out of my way to use the stripper with the most methylene chloride content. It was more expensive, but, oh boy! did it work! Put the stripper on the surface and watch the dark years of dirt and finish wash away.

I was not too concerned about my exposure to the chemical. After all, I always worked outside in the shade with a cross wind and wore heavy rubber gloves. I really did not concern myself with a respirator, since it was always in the way, and I usually worked up a sweat. Comfort was important.

From time to time, I would get spots of stripper on my arms or face. Once even I got it in my eye. I would just turn the hose on myself and wash it off while I continued to work.

After about 10 years of this kind of activity, I started to notice problems. In fact it was my wife who would look at me when I returned home and say "I see you stripped furniture today." She could see the gray color of my skin and the confusion in my eyes. Methylene chloride had beaten me, and I started to question my whole relationship with the chemical. I began to research the material to find out what was going on.

I discovered that the chemical industry had a very effective and strong lobby in Washington to protect the use and distribution of methylene chloride. It was the most effective chemical to remove paint, and, for example, when you have to remove tons of paint from airplanes or ships you do not have a lot of alternative choices.

My good friend, Michael Dresdner (finishing expert), adds: "Futhermore, it's used in a host of other manufacturing operations, including as an aerosol propellant, a plastic welder, a blowing agent for urethane foams, a degreaser in electronics manufacture, and to decaffeinate coffee, tea and create flavoring and hops extracts. One of the more interesting marginal uses is in those bobbing glass gooney birds who would tip over until their beak went into a glass of water, then bob up straight until the water on their beak evaporated and the head started tipping down again."

Just a bit of chemistry here to explain what happens when you put stripper on a finish. The chemical molecule of methylene chloride is very tiny. So tiny that it sinks down through almost all finishes and quickly attacks the finish bond at the surface of the wood. This causes the finish to blister and fall off the surface.

However, since the molecule is so tiny, it easily passes through almost all other materials, from heavy rubber gloves, to protective clothes and skin. It quickly enters the blood and creates stress in most of the important organs, like the liver, heart and brain. My experience with it indicates that the body gradually becomes more sensitive to exposure, so that when I started using it, I had little reaction, but after a decade of use I would notice a strong reaction almost immediately upon opening the can. There are some reports of older people who experienced heart attacks while refinishing kitchen cabinets, for example, and did not connect the attack with the exposure to the chemical.

Certainly the most dramatic accident relating to furniture refinishers I know of occurred just a few blocks from my shop last year. A elderly woman hired some workers to refinish the wood trim in her historic craftsman home. These guys put flammable stripper on all the wood work in the house, without opening the doors or windows. Just as the woman was rushing out the back door to avoid the odor, the water heater kicked in and ignited the fumes, exploding the home and instantly destroying it. I saw the smoke and flames from my shop and rushed over to see what was happening. There were dozens of paint stripper cans in the front yard, and I tried to make a sick joke with the fireman who were fighting the fire, "I hope it wasn't the stripper!" I said. He just looked at me, and I knew.

If you must use methylene chloride, contact an industrial safety supply company, like Lab Safety. They will direct you to the proper gloves, suit, shoes, mask and breathing protection which will be necessary. For example, the chemical penetrates my old heavy rubber gloves in 6 minutes. The proper clothing can provide complete protection for many hours. Very important.

One problem with methylene chloride is that it completely removes all finish, color and patina. The color, stains and dyes are removed and you must start over to make it look "old". Not a good thing for fine antiques. I wanted to find another way to remove the finish, so I started to test other methods, which lead me to focus on denatured alcohol.

Denatured alcohol is a larger molecule than methylene chloride and can easily be used with minor protection. It is also a solvent for shellac and will dissolve other finishes given enough time. The problem is that it quickly evaporates, and I work in Southern California, where the climate is hot and dry most of the year.

I found a system which works wonderfully, is quick and easy and doesn't remove the patina from the wood. Since the wood grain is not raised, it doesn't require sanding, except in rare cases. I use paper towels, denatured alcohol, plastic food wrap and green scrubbing pads. I place the paper towels on the surface, add a lot of alcohol, cover the towels quickly with plastic wrap, smooth out the bubbles, and wait.

After 10 minutes or so, depending on the finish, I remove the covering and use more alcohol and scrubbing pads to wipe off the surface finish, leaving clean old wood. If required, I can repeat the process to remove stubborn finishes. Never use steel wool; only plastic pads. Steel wool can cause black spots, and scratch fine wood surfaces.

I have used this method to great success on evaporative finishes and those oil finishes made with alcohol soluble resins. Alcohol will not remove most cross linked finishes, such as chemical or UV cured urethanes, ureas, polyesters, and acrylics, nor will it remove most epoxy finishes, but all those finishes should never be applied to genuine antique surfaces.

I have used this method to get great results for many, many years, and I have no desire to open another can of methylene chloride ever again.