Sunset was closing in as my neighbor walked up my driveway to take a closer look at what I was doing.
"You're refinishing a table?" Carol stammered, as if I'd said I was flying to the moon. "How do you know how to do that?"
In that instant, my feet left the ground and I soared back through the decades to land in my own childhood driveway. There was my mom, saw horses up and sander at the ready, hard at work on a refinishing project of her own.
She never actually taught me how to refinish furniture. Not sure that we ever discussed it even once. But with a steady procession of old wooden furniture gathered up from this antique market and that grandma's attic, I'd watch my mom go through the checklist so many times that over the years, I readily gathered the confidence to make my own solo flights.
Of course, nowadays I could just Google it, but I'm happy, proud and thrilled to say that everything I needed to know about refinishing furniture I learned from my mom.
Allow me to reveal the mysteries.
* * * * *
1. Remove the old finish.
This step is the most fun and least work intensive because I use a chemical stripper to do all the heavy lifting.
Back in my mom's day, she used a product called Zip Strip which still exists but back then, this stuff caused a nuclear reaction. I mean, that solvent would make the paint would bubble up so fast, Mom's putty knife would have to zoomf to keep up. Of course, the chemicals also singed my nose hair and did God only knows what to my internal organs but goodness, it sure was fun to watch.
In a more carcinogen-aware world, I use a product called Citristrip that makes my work area smell like a blossoming orange orchard, which is sure nice. But the gentle formula also takes at least a half hour to get the old finish to bubble up, which is time that I mostly spend thinking about the good old days. Sigh.
But if I'm patient, I'm eventually rewarded with flaky bits of shriveled up finish that yield to the slightest touch of my putty knife. I scrape happily away till my table is bare, re-coating stubborn areas as needed. So satisfying.
* * * * *
2. Sand until you want to scream. Then sand some more.
Now don't get me wrong. Using an electric sander is a dream compared to sanding by hand, and my post-modern Ryobi offers many improvements over my mom's old 1950s beast with which you better wear shoes because sanding in bare feet (as she preferred) leads to some nasty electric shocks.
But the thing about sanding is that sandpaper comes in different grades.
So first you go over every inch of the table with painstaking precision, using a coarse sandpaper to remove every last scrap of finish. Dang, that takes a lot of time. And many pieces of Number 60 grit. Yep, Coarse.
Then, when the table finally looks stripped down to its birthday suit, you get to start all over again. With Number 100. Medium.
And again with 120. Medium Fine.
And finally, I topped off my project with a good going over with Number 150 Fine.
I skipped the Extra Fine papers because I'm not creating a museum piece. This is just an ordinary kitchen table for knocking about at dinner time and hosting a few after hours crafts and jigsaw puzzles.
Although somewhere in maybe the third or fourth hour of sanding, I reconsidered that anyone would ever be allowed to touch this table again.
Little did I know what was yet to come.
Side note: I didn't completely sand down the under side of the table top because it's a super old table and the wood is all ripply and handmade and I kinda like to treasure those details.
I was ready to move on to Step 3.
* * * * *
3. Apply stain.
What I learned from watching my mom is that stains can be tricky and temperamental and a real Dickens to deal with. But times have changed for the better in that department, and the newfangled stains of the next millennium are great fun to work with.
Simply brush them on, give them a few minutes to soak in, then wipe away the excess and admire the lush grain of your beautifully sanded wood.
Except wait. What the heck. I've got a bunch of weird little dots following one after another to make long and curving circle-y lines of little dots. Before the stain, my eye didn't catch them. But with the stain on, holy moly, they look a fright.
So I did what all expert craftspeople do. I got totally annoyed and stopped working for the day.
Mhmm. Pretty sure my mom would have approved of that call.
By the next morning, I was emotionally prepared to do what I also knew she would have done.
I started all over again.
Yes. Citristrip and patient waiting and scrape-scrape-scraping.
And then with the sander: 60, 100, 120, 150.
Now, on the next day - and I can't even remember how many days we are up to, to be honest - I'm ready to stain again, right?
So, here I go. Brush on and wipe off. Rinse and repeat.
And when I finish, and stand back to look at my table in the setting sun of yet another day spent in my workshop aka driveway, I come to a stunning realization.
I hate the color.
More precisely, I hate the color on the top of the table. The legs look great - exactly the color I'm shooting for - but the top is dark and cold and moody and honestly not a friend I want to hang out with.
So. I went in the house.
And the next day, I started all over again. AGAIN.
This time, as I was stripping and sanding and trying not to scream while running in circles, I made an important discovery. My table is actually made out of two different kinds of woods.
Oh yes, I most certainly can identify basic woods by their color and grain. Thanks, Mom.
The legs and short lengths of the apron (fancy word for sides) are made from pine, which is pale with gold undertones.
But the table top and long bits of the apron are poplar, which reads greenish and dark.
Suddenly, my stain drama was starting to make sense.
That evening, I came back from Home Depot with multiple cans of stain, which hopefully, when applied to the wood, would sing together in a song of blissful color harmony and I could finally be done with this project.
And after multiple test patches, intensive conferencing with several members of the family, and a bit of overlaying one color of stain with another, I nuanced my way into a winning combination.
All was well.
* * * * *
4. Polyurethane for the win.
Three coats of satin finish protect the surface of my table, which by the way is still dappled with a few remainders of those dotty lines. Turns out that there's a rubber pad on my sander that sits underneath the sandpaper, and over the years, that rubber has worn down, thus exposing several tiny screw heads. So, despite my very light touch on the sander - my mom used to have to exert pressure on her sander but I live in a luxurious new world - the screw heads were burning through the sand paper and making jiggly designs on my table top. I've decided to embrace them, and the story of this project will be recorded for all time, much like paintings of prehistoric buffalo in some hunting tribe's cave.
The dotty lines simply add to the original marks and age-old stains that give my table so much character and I'm happy about that. In fact, I'm ridiculously satisfied with the whole sorry chapter, and frankly, relieved that this project finally has its happy ending.
* * * * *
All of those tips and tricks and details and memories zipped through my head as I stood in my driveway with Carol. I considered giving her an in-depth lecture on the topic, as well as a hands on demonstration, but as the clouds faded pink, I thought better of it.
"My mom taught me," I answered, and Carol said, "How nice."