Sunday, April 26, 2009

Restoring a Harry Lunstead Copper Top Coffee Table

On my last trip to Seattle, I bought a nice coffee table by Harry Lunstead for the bargain price of $50 (I've sold these tables in excellent condition for $600-700 in the past). Although I don't know a whole lot about Lunstead, I do know that he was a furniture designer and builder who was active in Seattle through the 1970s-80s. I don't know if he's still alive (my guess would be no), but I do know that he produced some awesome furniture in his day, and much of it seems to have remained in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone outisde of the Seattle/Portland area who's even heard of the guy.

I happen to believe that that will change before too long, simply because his designs have the quality of being extremely distinctive and unusual, yet beautifully simple at the same time. Lunstead is probably best known for his use of acid-treated copper in his tables - a treatment that I've never seen anyone else use with the same success.

Lunstead also produced a line of bronze tables that had glass tops, as well as case pieces of various descriptions. Although he also produced some stunningly boring office furniture, most of Lunstead's work is interesting and worth looking into. Now is a great time to start collecting Lunstead, if you have an interest, because I believe that interest in his work can only get stronger as time goes on.

So, back to this coffee table that I bought for $50. The reason it was $5o was not because the seller didn't know what he had - he did. However, the table had one major flaw - the clearcoat over the copper was chipped and worn, and needed to be redone. While this may not sound like a big deal, there's more to it than you might think. My main concern was that I had no idea how the treated copper would react to a chemical stripper, or how it would react to standard refinishing equipment like steel wool. However, for $50, I was more than willing to give it a shot.

I had John, my finisher, take a look at it before I took the plunge, and he kind of shrugged his shoulders and said "beats me! You'll just have to try a few things and see what works!". So, I figured "nothing ventured, nothing gained", and poured a dollop of Jasco extra-nasty stripper on the table, and watched happily as the clear coat shriveled up just like it was supposed to, with no ill effect to the copper underneath. So, one problem out of the way, the stripper worked like a charm.

The next problem was how to actually remove the old finish. Normally I use a metal scraper when refinishing wood, so that's what I used on the copper table - scraping very gently so as not to scratch the copper. In this fashion, I was able to remove about 95% of the old clearcoat. However, there was that last 5% that was quite resistant to being removed. Normally at this point with a piece of wood furniture, you would scrub the piece down with lacquer thinner and coarse steel wool to remove the stripper residue, and hopefully get off most of the rest of the finish while you're at it. If you couldn't get it all off this way, no big deal, because whatever didn't come off with the lacquer thinner would get zipped right off as soon as you started sanding the wood.

Unfortunately, sanding was absolutely not an option in this case, and I was uncertain whether I'd even be able to use steel wool on the metal. Sure enough, I tested some 0000 steel wool (the finest grade available) on an inconspicuous spot, and it took the patina right off the metal. Drat. So, I decided to try pouring lacquer thinner over the table top, letting it sit for a minute, then rubbing it vigorously with a rag. This worked reasonably well, so I decided to give this project over to my assistant the next day.

When I came back to the table the next day, the sun was shining directly on the table top through the skylight overhead, and I noticed a zillion little scratches in the metal - from where I had "carefully" removed the old finish with the metal scraper! Yep, shoulda used a plastic scraper! I knew that the direct sunlight was exacerbating the scratches and making them much more visible than they would be under normal inside lighting, so, while I cursed myself a little bit, I hoped that they would get covered up well enough when I put the new clear coat on.

We happened to have a regular kitchen sponge with a scouring surface on it laying around, and Matt (my assistant) decided to try scrubbing the table surface with that and lacquer thinner. This worked pretty well (much better than the rag!) and didn't seem to damage the finish at all, so this is how we got all the little bits of old finish off that didn't want to come with the stripper.

Once we had the table completely stripped, I had to decide on what kind of clear coat to use. Normally with stripped metal furniture, we use sanding sealer (which is basically shellac that's been diluted with denatured alcohol) wiped on with a rag as a clear coat, so that's what I tried at first. However, I quickly realized that I wasn't going to be able to get a smooth enough coat by applying it with a rag. So, I removed the sanding sealer with some denatured alcohol and my new friend the scouring pad, and went searching for my old friend, the Can O' Deft lacquer. Thankfully, I had one laying around, and proceeded to spray on a coat of lacquer, and was immediately greeted with my OTHER old friend, orange peel (a condition that happens to a finish for a number of reasons - usually when it gets put on too thick, or when the surface hasn't been treated properly). Cursing once more, I went searching for the lacquer thinner (dammit! I was just using it a minute ago!). However, happily, by the time I finally found the lacquer thinner, I saw that the orange peel had calmed down quite a bit, and the lacquer was actually laying down very nicely. So, I continued with the first coat, and then laid down a second. The same weird orange peel phenomenon happened with the second coat as well, but once again, it ended up laying down very nicely.

As a bonus, my hope that the final clear coat would render the small scratches that I had made in the metal invisible turned out to be true. So, while the metal isn't perfect, it looks a whole lot better than it did in the first place (of course I forgot to take a picture of the table before I stripped it), and now I'll know EXACTLY how to strip one of these tables if I ever have to do it again. Stripper. Plastic scraper. Lacquer thinner. Scouring pad. Can o' Deft. DONE.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

JL Moller #78 Teak Dining Chairs - Or, why I love projects

On my last trip to Seattle, I bought a set of 7 (yes, 7 - if anyone has a single chair in this model for sale, DO let me know!) fabulous JL Moller #78 dining chairs. If this means absolutely nothing to you, JL Moller is/was one of the more respected makers of Danish furniture. They are probably most famous for their dining chairs, which are notable for their solid teak construction and sculpted frames. The #78 is perhaps the most desirable of Moller's models, with its delicatey sculpted back and nifty pointed "knees". A set of #78 chairs in rosewood might just be the holy grail of Mollers, but these teak chairs aren't too far behind.

Gunk n' grime - nothing a little Feed n' Wax can't take care of!

I bought them from a friend who is also a dealer - who gave me a very good price on them because, as is fairly common with these chairs, the seats need to be redone, which is a reasonably costly proposition. They either need to be rewoven with Danish cord (VERY expensive) or reupholstered in leather (LESS expensive, but still not cheap). The previous owner of these chairs had attempted to re-weave the seats themselves, but let's just say they could have used a little more practice. A few of the chairs were only halfway done, meaning that even if you weren't bothered by a less-than-perfect weaving job, they still needed to be redone.

A less than professional weaving job.

I ordered the leather today (black) and in the meantime we are waxing the frames and pulling off all the old cord (and pulling out all the nails that the cord is held in with. Matt gets all the fun jobs). I will re-post when we get them all ready, they should look fantastic.

3 chairs, stripped, waxed, and ready for their new black leather upholstery.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A $90,000 Desk? Or, How to Turn $90,000 into $100 Over the Course of 38 Years

About a month ago, I went out to Beaverton to look at a desk that I saw posted on Craigslist. It was advertised as a "Huge Burl Wood Executive Desk with Return" (or something like that). The guy was asking $1000 for it, on the logic that his father had gotten the desk "on sale" in 1971, paying a mere $17,000 for it.

OK - think about that for a second - $17k in '71, when the average price for a HOME was around $25,000. So...let's think about what went into this buying decision - "should I buy this INVESTMENT PROPERTY over here, or this SUPER-HOT DESK over there?"

It probably went nothing like that, but it boggles the mind that someone would pay the equivalent of around $90,000 (according to for a NEW piece of furniture.

At any rate, I went out to look at the desk. It was MASSIVE, alright, the main desk measures about 8' wide by 4' deep - then there's the return! It had also seen better days - the top needed to be completely refinished, and to make matters worse, there was an area of water damage where main desk surface meets the return where the particleboard (yes, 17,000 1971 dollars for a desk, and the damn thing's made of particleboard!) had swelled up, and because of this, the return would no longer meet up properly with the main desk surface. It also had REALLY HIDEOUS hardware on it.

Despite all this, it was a pretty impressive piece of furniture. When I went out to look at it at first, I told the guy "I don't want to buy it, but if you wanted to put the money into having it restored (we would do the restoration), I will take it on consignment and split it 50/50." He said he'd think about it.

Meanwhile, I kept seeing the desk pop up on Craigslist, with the price steadily getting lower and lower. A few days ago, I saw "$300 or best offer. If no one takes it by Sunday, it's going away". So I thought, what the hell, make an offer. I emailed him and said I'd give him $100 for it. I didn't hear back for a few days, but on Saturday evening, I got a call from him saying "if you can come take it away tomorrow, it's yours". So, I hastily made arrangements for my mover to go pick it up, and now it sits, in several pieces, in my warehouse.

This is a good thing, I think. Once the top is refinished, the hardware is swapped out and the necessary repairs are made, it's going to be a pretty amazing piece - perhaps the ultimate "Power Desk". I mean, admit it, you'd be pretty impressed if you walked into someone's office, and they were sitting behind this incredible 8-foor burl wood monstrosity. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Reflection on Adulthood via Jawbreaker's "Dear You" LP

I had the urge to bust out Jawbreaker's "Dear You" this evening, which I haven't listened to in years. Damn good record. As I was listening to the emotional rollercoaster that is the song "I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both" (now how's THAT for a song title?), I thought to myself "this is great, but it really sounds a little...shall we say...adolescent". Then I thought, "gee, when did this record come out, anyway?" 1995. 14 freaking years ago! That was a bit of a shock in and of itself. Then I thought "well, how old was Blake Schwarzenbach when Dear You came out, anyway?" I did a little looking - he was born in '67, which would make him 28. College years still in fairly recent memory, numerous failed relationships, house parties, and broken friendships passed.
"So", you're thinking, "what's yer point"? Well, here's the thing. I'm 33. I'm married. I have a kid, 2 years old. When I listen to Dear You, it brings back memories, sure, but God, I feel like I'm a WORLD away from the mindset of the guy who wrote those songs. Not like I wrote them, but in my 20s, I was able to identify with Blake's words. In fact, a lot of them cut very close to home. Now, not so much. Not so much at all. Still, I can't help but get a kick out of tunes like "Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault".
I hadn't heard much about Mr. Schwarzenbach recently. His last band, Jets to Brazil, broke up in '03, who knows what he's been up to for the last 5 years. He does have a new band together called Thorns of Life (great name!), and at the ripe old age of 42, he's still bashing out punk rock. However, I kind of doubt that he's writing lines like "I don't think I hate you enough to commit you to me" anymore.

Did you notice how I casually avoided any mention of the fact that I haven't written a blog post in OVER 2 WEEKS? So...uhh...sorry. I'll do better next time. I promise. Lots of posts about furniture to follow.