Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Happy Birthday, Mrs. King

[If you just stumbled in, or have very poor short term memory, I am recounting the story of a free clothes dresser we rescued from the curb during our town’s Festival of Trash]

My wife’s abandoned dresser didn’t stay on the lawn very long. An old feller pulled up in a pickup truck while the boys from across the street were still carrying bits of it out of the house. He tried to mangle it into his truck by himself. He thought he was in luck when the kids helped him load it, but of course he had no idea that the dresser was made in Beelzebub’s Country Classics Furniture Factory. My wife, bless her soul, tried to warn him that all that glitters isn’t glitter, but he wasn’t interested. He was a man newly smitten who wasn’t appropriately curious about exactly how the new object of his affections became someone else’s furniture version of an ex-wife. Good luck, my unwary friend.

A sense of urgency had now crept into the proceedings. My wife’s clothing collection is somewhat meager, but it looked much more extensive now that it was on the loose in our bedroom. Steps must be taken. Her new bureau must be pressed into service sooner than later.

The boys had deposited the old ark in my basement workshop. It was already after lunch. I began to take a real interest in the thing, mostly because I had to. It couldn’t be one of those projects that lingers languidly over the years, waiting for a supply of free time to make its appearance. I once had free time, back when Johnson was president, if memory serves. You’ll be glad to learn it wasn’t Andrew Johnson.

I needed to understand this wooden beast properly, or I feared I’d end up like the guy who was currently listening to the shrieking drawers in my wife’s old dresser. I looked for clues. The drawers were lined with newspaper from 1960, which were a hoot to read. That sort of clue works on TV, but in the real world it just means the dresser was at least that old.

The style looked postwar to my eye. It was sort of colonial without being slavish. The grain was mostly obscured by the muddy brown finish, but it looked like maple, which has bland grain. It was stupid heavy, though, so I knew it was birch. Birch was cheaper than maple back then, and got used in normal people’s furniture a lot. The dresser was made in a factory, but not a modern sort of factory. More like a workshop with a bunch of people in it. It still looked like humans had made it.

The drawers were dovetailed front and back. That’s pretty old school. I decided to stop using my spider sense to determine the age of the thing, and looked in the drawers instead. I found the spot where my neighbor’s big brother had written his name and the number 1943 in it. It might not have been brand new in 1943, of course, but hey, close enough.

The finish had been subject to extremes of sunlight and temperature and humidity. Not left outdoors, but I figured an attic or something. My neighbor later told me that it was left on an enclosed porch for many years. Bingo. The finish was missing here and there, but what there was looked like suede when you ran your finger across it. It was completely crisscrossed with fingermarks going every which way. I pawed at it a bit, running through the rusty filing cabinet of my mind to figure out what I was looking at. It came to me in a vision — all at once.

I knew it was shellac. Of all the dumb luck. No one had “fixed” this piece of furniture in 75 years. It didn’t have any new, improved finish that wouldn’t last but couldn’t be fixed. It wasn’t “eco,” another word for wasteful useless disposable plastic crap. The finish was made from the nasty ooze that comes out of a lac bug and dries on a tree branch. Your favorite Hindoo used to gather the stuff by putting tarps on the ground under trees where the lac bugs congregate, and then beating the limbs with sticks to make the amber flakes rain down. When you mix lac leavings with alcohol, you get shellac. It’s wonderful stuff.

Shellac sticks to anything. Anything sticks to shellac. Shellac can be diluted till there’s barely a whisper of lac left in it, but it still makes a coherent film. It seals knots. Shellac can be polished to mirror shine if you want to. A technique called French polishing is the finish you saw on Baron Percy Devonshire Smythe XXIVth’s harewood and mahogany gaming table back when King George was still gibbering on his throne. You can make shellac look like anything you want. Our dresser had pigment mixed in with it to make a kind of varnish stain that could be sprayed on in one coat as an all-purpose stain/finish.

Shellac is so safe for humans to handle that you can eat it, and you might have. They used to make the capsules that drugs and vitamins come in out of shellac. And the greatest thing about shellac, at least for me, is that no matter how old it is, it immediately dissolves and gets loose in the presence of alcohol, just like everyone at your office Christmas party.

My wife and I play a game. We talk about what we might accomplish if we had twenty-five bucks. I always come up with things like fixing one of many leaks in the roof with one bundle of shingles, while her mind wanders to a new shower curtain and rod, or something of the sort. We put our ideas into practice whenever fortune favors us with a quarter of a C note. It’s amazing how much pleasure you can bring into your life with a little sum if you set your mind to it. I set my mind to it.

I brought my 13-year old to the hardware store with me. That makes it a pleasure excursion instead of a chore. He made me stop on the way home at the waterfall, where we sat on the battered bole of a 75-foot tree that had drifted down the river and washed up on the granite ledge. We watched the water roar for a happy moment, and it didn’t even eat into our twenty-five bucks. Here’s what we bought:

That’s about all we would need. I could scrounge whatever else was necessary from around the house. I let my boy remove all the knobs, so that he could be part of his mother’s gift. Then we got to work. I poured alcohol into the spray bottle, misted the top of the piece of furniture, and then misted it again until it stayed wet-looking. Then I unwrapped a piece of steel wool, re-wrapped it into a flat pad, and went back and forth on the surface. The shellac quickly became a kind of porridge, which I wiped off with the paper towels. In a few minutes, the top was clean.

There was a lot of elbow grease involved, but it was easy work because it was effective, and showed continual progress, which is important to avoid discouragement. I went over every surface, laying the furniture down flat whenever I could to make a very shallow swimming pool for the alcohol instead of a waterfall. Keeping it wet is important, because alcohol evaporates very quickly, and when it does, you’re back to the beginning. After an hour or two, here’s what it looked like:

It looked kind of blah, of course, but it was clean. If you refer back to my comment about shellac retaining its ability to cohere no matter how much you thin it out, you’ll understand that even though the dresser looks stripped, it’s really just very thinly shellacked. It’s sealed enough for a coat of finish, if that’s the way you wanted to go. I could stain (dye) it if I wanted, but that would add days of work I didn’t have. I put my thinking cap on.

Now is the part of the proceeding where the expert on TV mumbles, “And then a miracle occurs,” and then shows you the finished product in the next scene. Well, I might own next to nothing, but everything I do own is useful. I went rooting around on the shelves, and found this:

I bought this tub of Briwax in 1986. I was working for a rich A-hole on Cape Cod at the time. His carpenters had installed the kind of elaborate built-in closet interiors that are common today but mostly unknown then. They were fabricated in place from birch plywood and solid maple trim, and then finished with varnish. They were as rough as sandpaper, and he wasn’t happy. Like an idiot, they asked me how to fix it, and I told them to sand with emery cloth and then wax with fine steel wool applicators. Lucky me, they let me put the rich guy’s money where my mouth was, and I spent half the summer rubbing the insides of closets. I still had a half empty container of the pigmented wax I used. Golden Oak, if you’re interested.

The stuff never goes bad. I rubbed it all over using fine steel wool, and then buffed it with an old t-shirt. There was prodigious elbow grease involved, but the work wasn’t really difficult. This is what it turned out like:

I replaced a couple of drawer stops that were rattling around under the drawers, banged in a couple of nails that had worked loose, waxed the drawer runners with regular wax, and washed the inside of the drawers with Windex. I started the project after lunch, and was done at dinnertime.

The thing smelled great, in addition to looking right smart. Shellac and wax is one of the oldest finishing methods for furniture there is, and one of the best. The next day, my older son and I carried the dresser upstairs in time for the birthday party, and we had a feast and a cake.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. King.

14 Responses

  1. Really, just gorgeous. if your neighbor could see it now, he might want it back. Good thing it won't be out on the porch!

  2. Is that there DE-Natured alcohol now UN-Natural alcohol? Seems like it ought to be, but sometimes the rules of English language don't quite fit the way the real world works.

  3. That is, as usual, simply amazing! Some people just have the skills and experience to do good stuff. It's always kind of fun to be working with something that's real wood. Some people just also know how to make it look good.

  4. The dresser is more beautiful than new. Happy Birthday to your Mrs.

    I have used denatured alcohol and steel wool on many occasions, but I never thought to put the alcohol in a spray bottle; I just poured it out in a glass pie plate, and dunked the steel wool in it. I was afraid it would erode the plastic. I once poured a cup or so of acrylic paint into a cottage cheese tub, and it dissolved the bottom while I was painting a sign. That was a disaster I don't care to repeat!

    Is there a way to tell if a finish IS shellac? I know age is a good tip, and perhaps the orange crusties in the crevices of the piece, but is there a test kit or something that can help? I want to refresh an old cedar chest. It was burned in a fire and refinished by my father-in-law when he was a boy in the late 1930s, but it's rather beat up now and I'd like to restore the patina. But I don't want to make worse mess by dissolving an unknown finish.

  5. "And the greatest thing about shellac, at least for me, is that no matter how old it is, it immediately dissolves and gets loose in the presence of alcohol, just like everyone at your office Christmas party."

    That one made me laugh out loud.

    BTW, You refinished the dresser beautifully.

  6. You easily put my efforts to shame but French polishing is something that with a little effort even I have managed to do, granted you have to like a half polish half lint finish.

  7. My finish O' choice is a couple of coats of Danish oil followed by two applications of wax. I picked up an old power car wax buffer at a yard sale which prevents the elbow from needing grease.

  8. And btw, as an old long married fart, let me pass on two pieces of wisdom
    1. I have, for many years put to bed the question as to whether my wife is smarter than I with the simple question "Look at who I married and look at who she married, which one do you think is smarter?"
    2. Even if it technically true, it is never wise to refer to your spouse as "My first wife".

  9. Ah, Sipp, my brother who makes things, Viva le Shellac! On my chairs two thin coats of amber preceded 4-6 coats of spar varnish/linseed oil/turpentine, all followed with two coats of wax.
    What ever the question, the answer is usually shellac

  10. I understand why you use the steel wool to clean off the alcohol-softened varnish. But I don't understand why you would use it to apply the wax. I would have thought you would have simply used a cloth. Can you explain? Thanks!

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