Archives for category: refinishing

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.

 

Dreams, Anxieties and Outcomes

A.V. Walters

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Ready to go!

When I was very little, my father dreamed of owning a sailboat. Saddled with five small children, it wasn’t a dream that was on his horizon, but a man can dream. He had the big blue book of sailing, Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling. It lived on the shelf in the living room, and he’d take it down from time to time and study it—while bringing my mum up to speed on the tips and best practices he’d learned. The closest we got to boating was an 18 foot, molded mahogany canoe. It was big enough to hold the whole family for day excursions, though in rough water the waves came dangerously close to the gunnels. Five little tow-heads with guarded, wide eyes scrutinized those lapping waves.

I understand the lure of the long-term dream. I’m approaching a number of mine—living in the country, building a home, and keeping bees. I have to keep pinching myself. In my mind’s eye, I also always wanted play a musical instrument. I cannot sing (or so say those around me) but I love music and throughout my life I wanted “in” on that secret language.

That’s how I think my father felt about sailing. His grandfather had worked the lake boats. He grew up on stories about the big lakes. When he retired, it was time. He didn’t need a fancy boat or a fast boat. He wanted something stable; after all, he was a beginner in his sixties. He settled on a MacGregor—a bit of a tub, with an oddly avid following. To pinch his pennies, he searched for one that needed work. (Sound familiar?) It was not seaworthy when he got it. He spent a couple of years upgrading, and, being a woodworker, he added a lot of nice little touches one wouldn’t expect on a beginner boat. As completion approached, he pulled out the big blue book and he and my mom drilled on small boat handling. As a landlubber, she was cautiously enthusiastic. Her father had been an expert boat pilot, both in the Coast Guard and during his 1920s exploits as a rumrunner in Detroit.

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We have finished the banjo restoration. I say “we” because a project this cool attracts volunteers. Rick could not resist, and it became our joint endeavor. Really, how hard could it be? It took many internet consultations. Rick re-machined some of the damaged parts. There are You Tube videos on how to stretch a calfskin banjo head. (Of course, beyond the general, no two of them agree on how it’s done.) We picked a natural calfskin (not white) because it’s most likely what would have been put on the banjo when it was first made, back in 1928. We were a little intimidated by the mounting process. Basically, you learn what you can—and then you throw caution to the wind and let common sense guide you. Then you have to set the tailpiece and the bridge, so that you can install the strings. Suddenly, it’s a banjo! It’s not rocket science, but I’m grateful that there were extra hands in the crunch. It’s beautiful, fully restored to its authentic 1920s glory. It has a rich, warm resonant tone—with just the right amount of steel-string twanginess. I am smitten.

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My father only sailed for a couple of seasons. He loved his boat. He had a vast book knowledge of how to maneuver it on the water. But he hadn’t counted on seasickness. Both of them. Even if you think you know the ropes, it’s hard to master sailing if the Captain and the crew (of one) are both incapacitated, hurling over the sides of the boat. In the calmest of conditions they could handle the motion, but of course, the calmest of conditions don’t include wind. Wind is a necessity in sailboat operation. They floundered. It became a bit of a joke in the Harbor—these two eager, elderly sailors, flailing at the task. More than once they ran aground, because neither of them could see beyond their nausea to steer to safety. My nephew (who apparently takes after my grandfather and can sail like a pro) tried to help. In the end, all he could do was to watch, laughing. I understand their predicament because I, too, am plagued with motion sickness.

My father did well on the sale of the boat. After all, it was in mint condition with many, many, lovely little upgrades.

Now it’s time to walk my talk on the banjo. I’m a little nervous. The instrument itself is so awesome that I feel like a fraud, holding it. It’s unnerving, to get that close to your dreams. All I need now is a pitch pipe, so I can start up with the proper tuning.

 

 

Arts and Crafts

A.V. Walters

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When I refurbish a piece of furniture, I have a couple of rules. This is not to say that my way is universal, or that I pretend to be some fancy, high-end professional restorer. But, I do try to maintain the integrity of the piece. My rules, in short, try to restore the piece to its original condition, respecting the aesthetic of the time; when possible (in keeping with the first rule) try to reveal the beauty of the wood (or other materials); and maintain, or return the piece to its original functionality. It’s not enough to be cool-looking and old; I want it to be useful, too.

There are exceptions—just as our aesthetics are shaped by our experiences, sometimes we make substitutions. What we modern people admire about classical Greek sculptures—the revealing beauty of the white marble—is not what the Greeks had in mind. Originally, those marble statues were painted! Accustomed to the elegant monochrome, my eye is offended whenever I see a “fully restored” Greek figure. To my eye, with paint, they look garish and cheap.

My favorite era of antiques is Arts and Crafts—sometimes known as Mission. This artistic movement was a backlash against the frippery and soulless excess of industrialization. At its best, the lines were clean and simple, harkening back to a time of craftsmanship and honest labor. (At its worst it can be chunky and monolithic, crude for crude’s sake.) The philosophy behind Arts & Crafts reflected the relationship between the materials and the craftsman, showing each to its best potential. Of course, once popular, its designs were copied and manufactured, en masse, by American factories. Savvy manufacturers, like the Stickley brothers, created a design cult and a “buy in” mentality for their lines of cottage-style furnishings. The success of the movement’s philosophy, and marketing, soon made it another passing fad. By the start of The Great War, the style was already fading. Its American heyday was between 1905 and 1915.

I like the furniture of that era, featuring rich woods, quarter-sawn oak or aged natural cherry. Like many antiques, there’s additional caché for a piece when it has its original finish. Sometimes, that’s an original “fumed” finish—and I laugh. What we see today in those fumed finishes, often dry feeling and nearly black in color, looks nothing like it did when it came from the factory. They were ammonia based “lusters”—added after the standard wood finish, a process that created an iridescent color—almost a glow, in pastel tones. But, the factories knew that the fuming was ephemeral. It didn’t last. In fact, the fuming actually degraded the wood. So current antique emphasis on an “original fumed finish” puts a premium on what was really a failed experiment from the start. It’s not unlike the Greek statues—completely different in their own time. I’ll sand and refinish a fumed surface—regardless of the premium (breaking my own first rule.) I once sold a chair to an appellate judge who wanted a blond mission rocking chair, specifically so that he could experiment with fumed finishes. Now, that’s a purist. I pale by comparison.

Recently I found a lovely little “sewing rocker” on craigslist. From the picture, it had nice lines, but was nearly black. I figured I could refinish it, so long as it was solid and the joints tight. At thirty-five bucks, it was worth the effort, especially since I need a small chair for the downstairs bedroom. In person, it was just as dark, but it didn’t have the dry feeling of a fumed finish that I’d expected. I bought it. Once home, we found a faded label—Otsego Chair Company. A quick trip to the internet told us that Otsego was a Michigan company that closed in 1915. So our little rocker is at least one hundred years old.

With winter slowing us down outdoors, this is a nice time for indoor projects. I’m still waiting for the rest of my banjo parts, so I pulled out the little chair. I wondered about the nonstandard color—near black. I decided to start with a thorough scrubbing with Murphy’s Oil Soap. What a shock. This piece was never fumed; it was just filthy!

Underneath all that grime was a lovely little chair with a slightly weathered, rich patina. I didn’t remove the original finish, but, in the interest of my second rule, I did cheat a bit and enhance it with a layer of penetrating stain. The oak is quarter-sawn and highly figured. That means that the wood was cut for structural stability—and to enhance the variation in the wood’s grain. Before adding stain—I hit the “rays” with a lighter, golden-oak stain, another cheat. That way, they resist the overall, darker stain, and emphasize the contrast in the natural oak grain. I think it came out nicely. A coat of beeswax polish and it will be ready to put back into service.