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.

9 comments:

John said...

Seems like all the time you read about Lunstead building copper topped tables. The only copper Harry ever used was copper foil on ro0om dividers. I worked for HLD for years finishing metal and it was always BRASS or ZINC.

John Christianson

washington said...

I too worked for Harry Lunstead Designs from 1981 - 1988. I believe it was 1987 when Harry died from heart issues. Truly one of the unique men with true talent in the business.
He used pewter, brass, and copper on many items in his office furniture line and especially his conference tables. The man that "threw" the acids was an artist as well. No one could make a top look like a piece of art like he could.
I was very fortunate to be a bit favored in his eyes and he taught me passion for wood and how "each creation is alive".
Great Man!
Jeff

Margery said...

I liked the weathered look of the coffee table, it looks perfect to be placed in my living room and the so we can place our foods and drinks when we watch the TV, also, it fits the iron home accents I have on display.

BWiz said...

Count me in among those that worked for HLD for 5 years. Unfortunately I started there in 1988, about a year after he died. I heard a lot of stories about him... stubborn, but extremely talented. His partner and friend, Alfred Feichtinger, is still around. Saw him at a Lunstead reunion gathering a few years ago.

froggy57 said...

I was the volunteer director of Washington Oak in Tacoma, an apprenticeship program for street kids, for 6.5 years. We built office furniture. I had a dealer in Tacoma show me a Lundstead desk and asked if I could duplicate it for less money. We deconstructed the desk and improved it in every way possible... dovetails on the drawers, leather bottoms in the drawers, finished inside and underneath, inlays in the top of the desk, and sold them for less than half of Lundsteads price. Sold a ton of them to lawyers in the Tacoma, Seattle area.

wynken said...

The first piece of furniture I ever bought was a Lunstead table and I have bought others at estate sales, notably a round table and a wonderful big sideboard. Still love
Harry.
Joan

tom williams said...

That's right about the metal surfaces, brass and zinc, which we called pewter. I worked for Harry and managed the table and custom shop includimg etching from 1977 until the company was bought by Hawrth in 1990. I continued on with Haworth until the economy tanked in 2002 bringing an end to to the Lunstead facility in Washington.

Robert Wright said...

i worked for lunsteads for 14yrs 10 of which was etching those tables with muriatic acid and sulfur.tom williams is right

bill n said...

thanks for the write up - i have accumulated several of his pieces that i have been contemplating refinishing. as where all are in decent condition, the clear does need to be removed due to scratches, plus there are a few "less superficial" ones in the brass. I will give these techniques a try.

for the deeper scratches, i will try to darken them a bit with some brass black or even some liver of sulfur (let you know the results here). Thankfully there are no creases.

They are such beautiful tables and a little known secret from the northwest (kudos to you Robert). many people forget the high quality, post mid century gems that came shortly after the hay day, but these tables are right at home in any such decor.