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Refinishing Antiques

     "Antiques restored," the ad says. "Damaged or missing design elements replaced by a master craftsman." If you read between the lines, what that artfully phrased sentence means is "am broke. Will do anything legal having to do with wood." To that end, I once refinished 84 cherry side table tops for a hotel; I lined them up on the porch of the mill and elicited the help of my entire family in an assembly-line process. Some of the family, however, were quite young, and although willing, sometimes lacked the steadiness of hand required for a smooth finish. By the time they were completed, I had put 96 finishes on 84 cherry side table tops.


     Not long after, I agreed to refinish - again, for needed shekels - a Victorian desk-cum-etagere, a 5-foot wide, seven-foot tall piece of furniture comprised of oak spindles, curlycues, veneer, and applied late 19th-century machine-made carvings. I don't much care for working with oak, as the grain is broad, and, to my eye, coarse; it is an unforgiving wood. I piled in, though, and took the old finish off with the necessary and equally unforgiving chemicals. I finished about a sixth of it a day, all I could stand of the vapors. And all I could stand of its towering ugliness. 


     At the end of each session, I covered it up with the biggest sheet I could find. I must admit, though, by the time it was refinished, it had emerged as a piece quite fit for Victorian bibelots and rather proud of its place in the time it was made for.


     If I sound as though refinishing older pieces is the act of a desperate man, I don't mean to. I have learned much of my craft from pieces made by my predecessors, and I have looked into the innards of 18th- and 19th-century furniture with awe and respect. I once had a particularly nice 200-year old wardrobe (parenthetically, now often called armoires, in an affront to their honest colonial beginnings) to refinish, and my wife, who dearly loves antiques, offered to help. I made a list of the necessary refinishing stuff, went off to town to get it, and by evening we were ready.


     I had laid the doors on the workbench, so we could see and properly tend each square inch, when my wife noticed some odd markings on the inside of one of them. We peered and puzzled; we angled a light across it, to better attempt to decipher it. We thought we must've found the signature of the maker, long gone, and maybe the name of the person for whom it was built. We saw something that looked like "18-something-something", but we couldn't make out the last of the date.


     Inspiration - or perhaps old-fashioned common sense - finally struck, and we scrabbled about for a thin piece of paper. We laid it across the markings and gently, ever so gently, lest we damage its historical references, stroked the side of a pencil across the indentations. We held our breath and watched the words emerge, great looping cursive words.


     It was my materials list, which totaled $18.42.


     I did have the pleasure of actually restoring (as compared to refinishing) a late 18th-century corner cupboard, brought to me by an elderly couple who had rescued what was left of this piece from a relative's barn. The only usable parts were the doors, one style, and the center drawer front, but the wood in those parts was rich and deserving of a respectful resurrection. I re-sorted odd bits of wood in the shed over and over, looking for appropriate replacement parts, and I mixed and re-mixed stains with the air of a mad scientist. My wife left notes on our household furniture to remind me that I was not allowed to take the furniture apart to get at a particular part of it, a part blessed with a matching color or grain.


     When it was finished, I invited its owners to come look. I feared they might think its family integrity was, somehow, diminished by the large number of replacement parts. I whipped off its cover, feeling a little like a conjurer and a lot unsettled - but she, a tiny lady with white curls, looked up at the cupboard and said, with a long sigh, "It looks just like it did in my grandmother's dining room."

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