My son and I rescued another end table from an estate sale. Solid wood and weighing around a hernia, we found ourselves drawn to its intriguing carvings. Unlike our earlier pet bed converted from an end table, we decided to leave the doors on because of the eternal pet debate: when company visits, should you close up your pet’s sleep space if you are able? Or should you leave it out because your pet is part of the family? I see it as a personal preference. This should have been a quick job but we ran into obstacles at every turn. It was very dirty. Every job begins with a thorough scrubbing using Simple Green cleaning solution. Inside and out, with sponge and a clear water rinse. A pet’s home should be pristine. Zinsser Shellac came next, exterior and interior, followed by a couple of coats of Annie Sloan’s Old White. We planned to have a white pet bed, but the dark wood and oils kept bleeding through.
We shellacked again over the Old White and opted for a stronger color: Emperor’s Silk, a striking red.
Once painted, David waxed the top. Big Red Flag: he forgot to put down the Clear Wax first; he just spread Dark Wax directly on the paint which darkened the piece far too much. Frustrated, he brought it to me and asked what was wrong. Luckily, I knew a simple solution to this problem. I simply erased the Dark Wax using Clear Wax. The technique is to dip a cloth into some Clear Wax that you’ve put on a palette and go to town. Over and over again until your cloth is brown with Dark Wax. I love Emperor’s Silk and it looks terrifically opulent with Dark Wax, but I always start with Clear Wax. Next, I chose the wrong fabric for the upholstery. The red and white flannel matched the Emperor’s Silk but lacked the stiffness to make the fabric manageable. It took lots of time and patience to get the seams right and everything glued into place. But it looked like snug little home once I finished. Kind of like a logger’s warm flannel shirt. Let’s just skip to the end. David nailed in the faux tacks to glitz it up and we added a new, cushy pet bed. Unfortunately we forgot to take an updated photo of the tacks outlining the flannel on the doors. The Dark Wax really emphasized the exterior carvings, and we used Rub N’ Buff on the hardware. We carted the Luxurious Pet Bed to our shop at Avonlea Antique Mall and, within 48 hours, it went home to a lucky kitty or pup — just not this curious kitty. Her name is Starbuck and unlike this table she will be staying with us.
Ann Marie and David
If you’d like to follow along with our further adventures, sign up for our blog.
This mahogany Serpentine from the 1940s tested us. We knew it needed work when we bought it, but we had no idea how much.
David has written about his woodworking efforts on this piece here and here. Remember her Before photo? Sturdy, but unassuming.
Four of the handles didn’t match the original brass hardware. I pored over vintage hardware websites and finally found a good match in Canada, our friendly, frozen neighbor. FYI, I found a disconnect between web listings and the in-stock product. More than once I heard, “Oh, that set has been sold. We need to update our webpage.”
This sophisticated beauty is now ready. Her drawers glide so smoothly thanks to David beeswaxing all the runners.
She looks elegant. Here she is in a different vignette, and yes — azaleas are blooming in northern Florida. If you were here, I’d give you a bouquet of azaleas!
We handpainted her with Annie Sloan Paris Grey. I outlined the upper drawer trim in Old White and painted the twelve handles. Annie Sloan’s Clear Wax covers the exterior. Louis Blue, on the drawers’ interiors, gives a lovely pop of color.
As I eased into the homestretch I received a free Lotus stencil (African Protea Flower) from Royal Design Studio. It looked delightful and I needed to use it . . . immediately. I surveyed our in-progress projects and landed on the Louis Blue drawers.
Using Royal Design’s Antique Gold and Orange Ice cremes, and Annie Sloan’s Antibes Green, I stenciled a lotus on each side panel and waxed them. They offer a bit of whimsey.
This Serpentine lovely has emerged from her spa treatment rejuvenated and looking more radiant than ever. She’ll be on sale at the Rustapalooza Spring Market at the end of the month, our very first market.
This is a continuation of my enlightenment, thanks to the Serpentine Chest. Part 1 is here. Poet Robert Burns said, The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men. Gang aft agley . . . Right you are, Robert.
As you can see, the underside was cracked warped and needed to be removed. I made the perimeter cuts from the top side. I had a nice straight edge in place and didn’t need to cut so far back from the edges to find the cavity. The veneer on this side still adhered to the wood.
I removed the top cabinet and the damaged veneer panel, collecting lots of splinters along the way. With both veneer shells gone I knew that the back edge tongued rail needed to be removed. I wound up hacksawing the nails and screws on the underside of the rail to free it from the cabinet. This was a far simpler approach than trying to get at the heads in a space with 6″ of clearance. I also reasoned that sawing through the nails would leave the case inside the drawer below undamaged. A small gap between the top rail and the bottom case allowed the saw free access to all four of the retaining nails/screws.
I would like to remind you that, at present, I do have a day job and 50-60 hour weeks are the rule, not the exception. This project started in July and by October I finally had a free weekend. My wife and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful Florida weather and work outdoors. While she prepped another piece for painting, I planned to sand, fill, repair and replace the damaged and missing veneer. Unfortunately, the bright October sunlight revealed far more damage.
This is the point where a rational person, capable of critical thought, may have entertained the idea that perhaps, just maybe, the damage to this piece was more profound than appeared on previous cursory examinations.
I saw lots of veneer damage: missing, gouged, or with glue no longer holding, which allowed the thin material to crack and splinter. Originally the left rear leg appeared to need only slight repair work to the veneer but face to face, in the light of day, the damaged area wasn’t pretty. I can only assume it sustained a very hard drop at some point that shattered the rear leg.
A fine line separates a fool from a visionary, or so I like to tell myself. Showman P.T. Barnum boasted, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” If that’s true, then my next action becomes very important. Sure, I felt like a sucker, but I knew I could repair this piece so it would be better and stronger than the original.
The upper cabinet’s surface needed a few cosmetic repairs. I applied Elmer’s Wood Filler to nicks, gouges, scratches and a little TiteBond Cold Press for Veneer glue to reattach the loose veneer areas that appeared ready to break apart. Easy repair, or so I thought. Scratches not deep enough to retain wood filler predicated the use of an orbital sander. I spent most of a day sanding the entire cabinet to get rid of scratches.
I also used some of the veneer I cut away earlier to repair missing pieces on the edges of the upper cabinet.
The leg, composed of a solid 1″ x 3″ mahogany piece and the solid cabinet sidewall, became my second major reconstruction on this chest. What had shattered and come apart was a 1/4″ piece of cabinet grade plywood overlaid with veneer that formed the outer part of the facing leg.
I removed the veneer and made a 1/4″ deep cut above the highest cracked material. I then chiseled out the broken material down to solid surface. I had a scrap piece of 1/4″ cabinet grade plywood in my wood bin which I then used to shape, cut and replace the missing surface.
The guys at our Woodcraft store recommended using Titebond III Cold Press for Veneer glue for cabinet work and I have learned not to argue with the pros. The shaped piece got glued, nailed and clamped into place. Once that dried I used the original scrap veneer to replace the missing exterior veneer on the leg. The new layer of veneer brought the surface flush with the rest of the cabinet face. The next three weekends saw me sanding and filling to even out the surface.
There is a relief moulding on the lower part of the cabinet, but both ends of this moulding were broken or worn off.
Luckily, I had made casting moulds with my son for craft projects when he was a child. I bought Crayola Air-Dry Clay to make moulds of the existing wood moulding. One week and three attempts later I finally had the casting for making a prosthetic repair. Bondo was my material of choice for this. Once it forms and hardens I can shape and fit to areas as needed. I use silicon to coat the interior of the clay mould. This allows the hardened Bondo to release from the mould without breaking. I can then recast the mould for the second piece.
Bondo, you may ask? I am not a real car body repairman, I just play one from time to time. And I had some Bondo on hand from one of my attempts to repair parking lot dings on our car.
Meanwhile, Ann Marie was eager to get her hands on the chest. What the heck. I told her, “Go ahead and paint it.” I’d sand and add the prosthetics later. She jumped at the chance, painting the outside Annie Sloan Chalk Paint Paris Grey with Old White trim. She contrasted the inside drawers Louis Blue.
The replacement panel for the top of the lower cabinet was the last piece of the puzzle to go into place. I knew I had a dado blade kit. I’ve used it to make recessed grooves and the tongues to go into them. Of course, I couldn’t find it. I looked off and on for two months wondering what secret compartment I’d stored it two years ago. I still haven’t found it. I finally wound up borrowing one and a table saw for half an hour at the carpenter’s shop.
The panel has recessed edges, top and bottom, on three sides. The edges are the tongue that fit into the groove of the cabinet side rails. I used a wobble blade, not one that you adjust to a set depth for the width of the cut. This type of blade makes the same kind of cut as it wobbles off center. The difference is that the cut isn’t uniform. I took 80-grit sandpaper and a sanding block to work the edges down so that I had a uniform 1/4″ tongue to slip into the grooves.
The next step was to slide the divider top into place in the grooves of the lower chest. Easy, right? Not so much. The top stopped sliding about 6″ through the grooves. I needed the rubber mallet but after 4 or 5 good whacks the panel hadn’t budged. I had managed to wedge it tight. After some gentle nudging, I succeeded in liberating the stuck piece.
I needed . . . a bar of soap. All our soap is in dispensers. Liquid soap. Can’t use that. Where to locate a bar of soap? Camping supplies! Sure enough, we had a couple of travel bars still in their wrappers. Confession time: the soap was from a hotel. Yes, a hotel. The perfect size for camping and hiking. I rubbed the tongue edges liberally on both sides with the bar of soap. The next attempt was a smooth ride into place.
The back rail needed a double layer of veneer to bring the surface level with the rest of the chest. Once again, I dug into my bag of veneer scraps. I found the original veneer that had peeled away easily during demolition. Most of the length still had double thickness. The missing part needed to be fitted, glued and clamped before the rail went into place on the back of the chest.
At what point would a sane person have called it quits? Cut his losses and walked away? Went to the pub, had a pint or three and sang sea shanties? I’ll never know because I am definitely not that person. The male of the species does have character flaws. The brain is hardwired to dig big holes that are very difficult to climb out of.
The Serpentine Chest is now a strong piece of furniture remanufactured, reimagined and recycled for another generation to use and enjoy. I put a lot of work into this piece but the original bones were good. The construction had to have been sound to hold together as well as it did over the decades.
Humbly, I submit that the chest is now better than new. It was made from native American timber by U.S. craftsmen in an industry that has largely gone offshore to Asia. New furniture is usually made of particle board or MDF. The life expectancy of these cheaper, imported pieces is measured in a few short years, not decades. And certainly not generations.
This project gave me insight. I now check the entire piece before purchase. I move it away from the wall, tip it over, try to rock it, flex the drawer joints. If I had known then what I know now, I would have walked away from the Serpentine. But I don’t regret buying the chest because it allowed me to practice new techniques, sometimes multiple times. This was my learning piece, something I studied and worked on with caution and diligence. You and I both know that we won’t shrivel and die after being suckered. But we learn from our mistakes, get stronger, and move on.
I came home one evening and my wife said she had an idea that would be fun, interesting and maybe help with another stream of income after I retire as Director of the Student Union from our state university.
The local Craigslist bacchanalia began. Ann Marie spent hours studying wooden furniture posted under Furniture and Antiques. She’d show me her daily finds, but it’s hard to judge age and quality from a dark and often blurry photo.
Eventually we came across the 1940s mahogany serpentine 6-drawer chest pictured below. Upon inspection the piece had a few cosmetic problems but nothing I couldn’t repair. I was sure we’d easily find matching hardware for the top two drawers and then the whole thing would be ready to paint. That was in July.
As of late December I am close, very close, to having my wife finish it up. I’ve learned what problems to look for since then.
We got the piece home and I inspected it for repairs. That’s when the flaws jumped out at me. Every drawer needed to be glued and clamped together. Meanwhile, the dovetail joints had lost adhesion over their lifetime. Worse still, the dings and scrapes on the exterior veneer multiplied with every new inspection.
Even the top finish needed to be stripped off as it was too damaged to leave. Annie Sloan Chalk Paint has a thick skin but it will magnify really uneven surfaces.
Once the drawers came out of the cabinet, I noticed water damage on the top surface of the interior of the lower lower cabinet. The veneer was buckled and cracked across the entire surface, and I soon discovered the damage extended into the first drawer of the lower cabinet as well.
Nothing to do but separate the upper chest cabinet from the lower cabinet. I can do that. Easy. If getting a half dozen slotted head wood screws removed from 50+ year old cabinet grade lumber in awkward positions can be described as easy.
I decided that regluing and clamping the original veneer wasn’t possible so I began using a utility knife along the interior edge of the cabinet structure to cut away the top veneer layer. I discovered that the center of the veneer coverings was hollow. The manufacturer had only used a thin 1/8-inch veneer panel on both surfaces, leaving a hollow 3/4-inch cavity between the two surfaces. I was shocked. This short cut was going to cost me some extra sweat equity.
The rails of the cabinet were grooved on three sides. Why hadn’t the manufacturer shellacked the surfaces of the veneer? Better yet, why hadn’t they put a solid piece inside the opening? Dado cutting and rabbit edging a solid piece could add structural strength as well as being the solid divider used between the drawers.
Dave’s Fine Furniture, my imaginary company, could have done it exactly that way. Iris Abbey, our new company, would do it this way. I purchased a laminated Aspen panel at Lowe’s. The Dado cuts came later, much later.