Monday, October 11, 2010

DIY Files: A Nighstand With Imagination

So, recently I've discovered that I can actually refinish wood furniture. For a while I went through a phase where I wanted to paint everything, and I certainly still think paint has its place, but there are certainly plenty of cases where it's nice to be able to see the grain of the wood you're working with. Wood grain from actual trees is incredibly intricate and each piece of furniture is bound to be unique in this regard -- no two trees are exactly alike, after all.

For some reason, though, until I actually tried it, my conceptualization of refinishing furniture was that it was this weird esoteric thing that only professionals with very specialized tools could do. But this is far from being true...really, it's just a lot of work to refinish something, and the majority of that work is in getting the old finish (or old paint, if someone has painted the piece) off. Which is sort of the un-fun part for a lot of people, I guess.

But I can now say that refinishing is, much to my pleasant surprise, not actually THAT difficult. It just takes persistence to get through the old finish and get ALL of it off so it doesn't interfere with whatever new treatments you plan to apply to the wood.

Anyway, the very first thing I refinished (a few months ago) was a night stand I got at Goodwill. I was tired of not having anywhere to put my glasses or water at night and the bedroom just looked kind of spartan with only the platform bed and the two Ubiquitous Ikea MALM Dressers in it.

Thus began my quest to find a nightstand that would (a) fit nicely in my bedroom, (b) be interesting-looking, (c) be durable (as in, hopefully made of actual wood rather than that pressboard stuff that eventually just seems to disintegrate), and (d) not cost a lot (given the fact that I'm both currently between jobs and a cheapskate even when I AM employed).

So, I checked at various thrift stores in the took something like four trips to find something that fit all my quest criteria. Below is a "before" picture of the piece -- this was taken when I first got it home, before I'd done anything to modify it:

I am not a furniture historian, but based on the shiny finish, curvy brass handle, and construction style (solid wood with veneers) I would place the origins of this thing somewhere between mid-1970s and mid-1980s. It also gave off a sense of being "hotel furniture"...something about the reverberation of the drawer when I opened and closed it, as well as the fact that the drawer had obviously been repaired several times in a manner that was sturdy but ugly.

The things I saw in it that I liked were the fact that it was indeed solid wood. Veneered solid wood, but the veneer was actually decently thick and the wood underneath looked to be in good shape overall (there was some water damage but it was superficial and sanded out easily). The picture below shows the piece from the back -- I ended up removing that thin piece of paneling (which was rather weakly nailed on) over the back, as I discovered it wasn't really adding anything structural to the unit.

The veneer thickness is also visible in this photo...and it's another aspect of the unit that made me think both "hotel furniture" and "1980s construction at the very latest", seeing as it's a fair bit thicker than what you're likely to see these days in comparable pieces. I was also lucky it was as thick as it was seeing as I ended up doing a heck of a lot of sanding!

The finish was in terrible condition (you can't see it easily from the "before" picture above, but the shiny stuff was really dinged up in places). I can't stand that really shiny finish anyway (at least not on wood). though, so I was prepared to deal with that.

Here the unit is after full stripping and sanding (and after I removed the back panel). I used mineral spirits, two different kinds of paint scraper, and lots of coarse sandpaper (attached to a sanding block) to get it to this point. Personally I think it already looks better here than it did when I brought it home!

Here is the first iteration of staining/decoration. I used Dark Mahogany gel stain over the whole piece, then sanded it off the top and bottom shelf. I then painted some stripes on the drawer...mostly to hide the wood filler I used to plug up the holes where the old handle used to attach.

At this point it looked...tidier, but still not quite what I was after, visually speaking. It didn't feel like something that would fit in my house yet. Plus the color still looked slightly wrong somehow.

For a while I was stumped as to where to go next...but then my imagination kicked in, and I found myself making up a story about a nondescript little night-stand which had somehow fallen through a dimensional portal from an alternate-history timeline (where it had been owned by a sort of grandfatherly astronomer sort of guy) and ended up in a mid-grade hotel, where it had sat for nearly 30 years enviously listening to the travelers who came through and stayed in its room chattering about their interesting trips throughout the world.

With that in mind, I now had a bit more of an aesthetic plan...that is, I wanted some sort of astronomy motif worked in, and I wanted to add some distressing to the wood, and I wanted the overall effect to be somewhat amusingly anachronistic. (If that makes any sense. The art module in my brain isn't exactly very well wired to the language module, in a manner of speaking, so this stuff might be coming out oddly).

Anyway, this (above) was my first attempt at realizing the imagined biographical aspirations of the Little Nightstand That Could. While the result was...heading in the right direction, my (first ever-in-my-life) attempt at decoupaging the top of the piece failed pretty miserably. I failed to add enough glue to the back side of the paper (on which I'd printed out, via Google Image Search, an old drawing of an armillary sphere) so when I added glue to the top it got all wrinkly and I couldn't get rid of the bubbles...and then things started tearing, so I had to rip everything off and start over.

I also tried painting a border around the top panel (where the decoupage was)...this again was kind of like what I was imagining, but the execution wasn't quite right. And the bottom shelf just looked terrible completely covered with opaque grey paint.

Finally, my third decoupage attempt came out sufficiently neat-looking -- no bubbles this time, and I managed to seal the edges pretty well.

I also reduced the size of the decoupaged area considerably from my original plan, which allowed me to sand off some of the finish on the top again (to what I think was a pretty nifty effect...sort of a streaky/blotchy but not overly haphazard look when combined with a few judiciously placed grey painted bits).

I also sanded the front of the drawer to fade out some of the reddishness of the mahogany stain and was VERY happy with how that turned out.

I don't know what kind of wood this drawer is made of but the grain is very pretty and the way it managed to sort of "hold on" to little bits of everything I'd smeared on it led to something even cooler-looking than I'd anticipated.

Then I sanded off a bunch of the grey paint on the bottom shelf too...and that completed the look. A few coats of polyurethane later, the new-old nightstand was in my bedroom, where it now sits quite happily, holding water glasses and other typical bedside miscellany, and generally looking as if it belongs exactly where it is.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Looks fantastic!

(The light colored cat seems to be trying to get as far away from it as possible, while staying on the bed.)

Anne Corwin said...

CPP: Heh, the light-colored cat would be Nikki, and my guess is that she's trying to stay as far away from Shadow (the black cat) as possible as opposed to any furniture. :P All the cats seem to like nightstands...they're a good stepping stone when one's goal is to step on the humans' heads!