Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Depression Era Tool Chest Conversion

(Part 1 of 2)

With many years of use, love, and wear, this tool chest will need a sound refinishing before put to work as a blanket chest. This blogpost will cover my preferred method for stripping, repairing, and refinishing furniture. 

 1. Determine Type of Finish

The first step before diving into this refinishing project was to determine exactly what type of finish with which you are dealing.  Most finishes from Depression Era furniture were multiple coats lacquer.  To check for this finish, I put some lacquer thinner on a rag and tried to wipe away the old finish.  With no such luck, I realized this finish is varnish or very tough to remove.  My best option at this point would be to strip and completely refinish.

2. Remove the Hardware

Before stripping, I removed the eight brass corners, three hinges, and the locking mechanism.  Keeping as much as possible of the original hardware is important for any refinish job. I put these in a small plastic zipper bag, such as these, and stored them in a safe place.

3. Replace Broken Pieces

On the side of the tool chest, a piece of trim was split near the corner.  Replacing this piece is critical in getting the finished product to look great, so I re-created the piece with some red oak.  I concluded the tool chest was white oak, but decided to use red oak since it is easier to come byand I had some lying around the shop.  It is more important to the match grain pattern of the oak rather than color, since I can always stain or dye the replacement piece.  To ensure the proper thickness of the new piece, I used my thickness planer to thin out the replacement part and cut it to size.

The original piece was split.
I made a copy to look like the original.
Here is our tool chest with the new piece added.

4. Remove Old Finish *

After replacing the damaged piece, I stripped the entire outside of the tool chest using a chemical stripper.  It is important to work the residue from the stripper onto the replacement part, matching the patina from the rest of the piece and hiding your repair from the casual observer.  A final wash of lacquer thinner or other post-stripping cleaner should be used to remove all leftover residue and give you a clean surface for staining.

* BE SAFE - Always use chemical strippers, stains, paints, and topcoats in a well-ventiallated area. Wear safety protection, as chemical burns can be a real Debbie Downer on your skin and in your eyes.  Always have a plan ready in case of skin and/or eye contact, and ingestion.

5. Apply a New Stain and Finish Coat * 

I prefer to stain with a rag instead of a brush.  Woodworkers traditionally use both methods, but I feel staining with a rag gives me better control over the amount of overlapping and results in a much better finished product.  Remember to follow all instructions and wipe away the excess stain after a few minutes, or your stain will completely dry and leave a a thin layer of unsightly scum which will not take a final finish very well.  Finish with a few sealing coats of your choice.  I chose a semi-gloss lacquer to visually bring out the depth of the scratches and dents on the surface.


Are We Done?

Now that we have this great new finish and protective coat, what next?  In Part 2 of our project, we will learn how to properly polish 80+ years of brass tarnish, finding proper replacement hardware, and adding the aromatic cedar.

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