Furniture project part 6: the pain of stain.

I thought I was going to be glad I had finally finished the mosaics and could move on to staining. I was wrong.

Until yesterday, I’d never used a water based stain before. Now I know why. Normally, for bright colors I prefer to use aniline dye, using alcohol as the solvent. But I was in Home Depot at the time and minwax had a water based stain that came in purple. I figured “hey, I’m already here. I don’t have to order online for this.” and brought it home.

Yeah. There’s a reason I order online. I am sure that realistically, there’s wood surfaces this works well on. This just wasn’t one of those projects.

The first thing I did was once again, clean my surface thoroughly so it was free of dust, dirt and any residue. However be careful of your pencil lines, so you don’t accidentally erase them.

After that, I applied the purple stain to where it needed to go. Before anyone asks, yes I did this freehand- no tape.



I left the stain on longer than I should have (I am used to oil based stains and alcohol dyes) so I had to fight to get it off. It stuck like paint. This is what it looked like after that first coat came off:



So…not great. Not terrible, but not great. I was less than impressed with the stuff, to be honest. So I went back and tried another coat.





To be honest, I wasn’t sure if this result was better or worse. I put the problem aside and decided to work on the background. I taped off all the stained and mosaic areas first, so I could, in theory, avoid getting stain on them.


I then gave up on water based stains for the moment and went back to an oil based stain for the background.


This is where you can see any unevenness in the sanding process. I wasn’t too concerned, since I knew I would be doing multiple coats anyway.



That got me this result, once the tape was removed:


So I realized I hated that, and tried again.


I realized I hated that too, and finally realized that because of the veneer I was never going to get the kind of saturation of color I wanted without running the risk of breaking through the veneer entirely. I painted all the purple parts and the mosaics with a thin coat of shellac to act as a resist, and then I went back with the stain and instead of just wiping it off as normal, I ragged it off with a paper towel, creating a mottled appearance (which was at least done purposely.)


I was finally happy with this, and so I left it alone. At this point, I am going to leave this alone to dry, and in the meantime, work on one of the doors. By the time I’m done with that, I can feel safer about moving the case so I can get to the other side to work on it. I won’t start finishing it until the whole thing is done, so it can dry thoroughly. I also have to decide what I’m finishing it *with*, and what level of sheen it will have.

But next up, I’ll work on one of the doors.

Furniture project part 5: Grouting.

So after many hours, I did finally manage to finish the mosaic work on that large circle on the left side of the case.


I really do want to stress that what you’re looking at takes hours. You can only put down so many pieces until you have to wait until the glue firms up so you can continue, and that number is much smaller than you think; usually fewer than ten pieces. The glue I’m using is water based, and is honestly not too much different than plain old Elmer’s. The only difference is that this has a slightly longer open, or working time, so you can get the pieces exactly where you want them before the glue sets up. That also means you’re waiting longer for the glue to firm up enough so that you can continue working. Remember, this is only the first side of the piece- I still have five other pieces in which I have to install tile.

Once it was done though, I masked off all three tiled areas. Normally I use blue low-tack painter’s tape but I’m low on it, and so I used ordinary masking tape. I *WOULD NOT* use masking tape for anything involving paint. It’s *terrible* for that purpose. But for this, it’s fine, and when it gets wet, it doesn’t lose its’ grip.


Once everything was masked off, I mixed up some grout. Yes, you can buy it premixed and pre-colored. I have a box large enough to tile a swimming pool in my house, and so I just used what I have (which is kind of a very light gray) and I tinted it using ordinary acrylic paints. To be honest, using powdered pigment would be better, but also more expensive, and I don’t have any in the house. I mixed up just enough grout of each color (really, I just winged the colors- there’s no science here.) and applied the grout with my hand (I was wearing a glove at the time.)

The important thing about mixing grout is it’s sort of like cooking. It has to have the right consistency or it falls apart. You’re only looking to add enough water to form a smooth paste. If it’s the consistency of cream, you’ve gone too far. If you want to know what it should look like, put a bit of toothpaste on a plate and smoosh it around a while. That’s it. You then let it sit out in the bowl for about 15 minutes, stir and *then* apply it.

When you do large areas of tile, you should use tools to apply grout. In areas this small and when the pieces are irregular, your fingers work just fine. Just be sure to wear gloves.



After about 40 minutes or so, you can start to clean off the extra grout. **BE GENTLE**. Both the grout and the glue you’ve used on your tiles are water based. If you scrub too hard, you will pull tiles up as well as grout. If this happens, just re-glue the tile in place, being careful not to drop grout in the hole. I use a little pad and some water. Don’t use too much water. Just enough to dampen the pad, and rinse the pad (and change your water) frequently. You will be doing two cleanings, so it’s not imperative to get all the extra grout off in one shot. Also, remember your grout color will lighten as it dries, so if it looks super dark, don’t worry about it.




About an hour later, I do my final cleanup. On the second pass I just use a paper towel or a rag. You can use even less water- you want to make sure all the grout and haze comes off your tile and not remove much if any grout from between your tiles.

Once this is all done, you can remove your masking tape and clean up any final bits.



Once everything is cleaned up, you can get things prepped for staining, which is our next step.

Furniture project part 4: A different kind of frustration.

Thank goodness, I’ve stopped chiseling.


I finally was able to finish all the chiseling a few days ago. I’ve still not reattached all the door and drawer fronts, since the rest of the project is easier to do when the pieces are lying flat.

So I went back to ye local hardware supply and picked up a few more needful things. Total: $27. I grabbed a can of semi-gloss spray clearcoat and as promised, hit up the hardware for three coats, since it’s going to be touched. It basically looks the same as it did before, so no need to photograph it especially. I also got some stainable wood filler, some more sandpaper, and a container of lightweight spackle, for those areas that were chiseled too deeply.

However the next steps are going to be done in a “one side at a time” fashion, since it’s easier and will require I move the piece around less. So I’ll be working with each section of the project for a while now.

The thing about MDF is that in essence, it’s made from sawdust and waste wood chips. And while it’s got some great advantages (It’s not wasteful, it’s perfectly flat and smooth and it’s dimensionally stable) when you cut into it it’s well… sawdust and wood chips. And that isn’t really the greatest thing to glue things to, because in the end it’s not much different than gluing things to dirt. It’s not really going to adhere well and it will shift. So the first thing we have to do is kind of glue all the carved out bits together so they form one stable surface.


The fastest way to do this is with shellac. Shellac is alcohol soluble (so no grain raising issues), quick drying, and is essentially just sticky as all hell, since it’s a resin. I make my own, but you can buy it premixed in a 2 pound cut (2 pounds of shellac per gallon of alcohol) at the store. You don’t really need to use it at that strength, but that’s a pretty standard ratio that you find in a can in the hardware store (I have that, too.)



If you use shellac flakes, bear in mind that it takes several hours to dissolve the shellac flakes in the alcohol, and you want to be sure to store it in a tightly sealed glass container that you swish around every once in a while. If you use it from the can, you might want to cut it with some additional alcohol. You don’t really need a super strong formula to achieve what we’re after here, just enough to coat all the parts so they adhere to one another.

I just used a small brush to paint the shellac onto the carved parts and then let it dry. If you’re careful it honestly only needs one coat. Just be careful to only put the shellac into the carved areas. Beyond that, there’ no real method to this. No one is going to see it and it’s just there to provide stability to the MDF so you can glue tile onto it.



It takes maybe an hour to dry completely. You’ll know, since it stops being sticky. At that point I started on the tiling.

This part would, I admit, get pricy were it not for the fact that I have *so much tile* at my disposal already, as well as adhesive and good tile nippers. Everyone has their own style for doing mosaics. That’s just an aesthetic decision. I’ve decided to just do each circle in its own two-color scheme. There’s no real method as to which color combo goes where. They’re just essentially multi colored polkadots anyway.




I’m still working on that last circle on this side. It will take me a few more hours. Mosaic work takes time and patience. You can only put so much tile down before you have to wait for the glue to set up so you aren’t moving your work around as you continue to add tile. So you only do a few, wait a while, do a few more, etc. You also tend to get microscopic cuts on your fingertips from the glass.

Once this last circle is done, I’ll get to grouting these.

Furniture project part 3.5: Still carving, still sucks.

I spent the weekend carving away at the circles I’d made last week and griping about the lack of appearance of my sharpening stones (which unfortunately may be in New Jersey, a problem that is big for all kinds of reasons.) But as of right now there’s only two sections left to carve out- the big drawer front on the bottom of the case, and the top. I’m looking well forward to being able to *not* be carving away at this anymore. The difference between doing this by hand and doing it with a power tool is really obvious when you work on the door fronts, since the recessed areas for their hardware were done with power tools.

So here’s photos of the past few days’ work. It should take another two days for me to finish this task (and I *REALLY* hope I can sharpen my chisels), and then, finally, I can move on to the next step, which is still boring prep work, but it won’t bust my knuckles and cause blisters, either.


This shows about how much material comes off the first pass of one of those small circles.


This is the left side of the unit. I put it on its side because it was a LOT easier to work with that way.


This is the same side, once it was completed.


The first door- note the small circle on the left. That’s for the hardware, and it was done with a power tool. One I wish I had. Really.


The first door, once completed.


Beginning work on the second door. You can see the circles have been cut out around their perimeters.


And finally, the second door is done. Look at that mountain of material in the background!

I’m really looking forward to getting on with the next step of this- it gets easier (if no less time consuming) from here.

Furniture project part 3: A flexible shaft is not a sex toy.

So, we have a clean piece of sanded furniture that has a design traced on it. Now what?

Now is when the really tedious, fussy, messy part begins. Some people may call it fun. I don’t, because I truly dislike working with wood. This is the one part of the job that for me, is just a right pain in the ass.

I went around the piece and determined which circles, or parts of circles I wanted to recess. In those recessed spaces is going to be mosaic tile. Some of the circles will remain flush with the surface, and only get a different finish treatment. I know this sounds very confusing right now, so let’s just take one step at a time: some of the circles are going to be carved out to make room for tile. We can discuss the rest of it later.

I marked all the parts of the circles that I wanted to carve out with a big X.

But how are we going to carve all this material out?

If you have a plunge router, this becomes a lot easier and far, far less time consuming. Then again, if you have a plunge router you don’t need me to tell you how to do this project, either.

I do not have a plunge router. I don’t do enough woodworking to really need one. (Metal and ceramics tools? Those, I got.) But what I *do* have (I actually have two) are flexible shaft machines.

No, they aren’t sex toys.

Flexible shaft machines are usually thought of as tools for jewelers, and in fact that’s who uses them most often. However they’re invaluable for restorers as well, which is why I own two. (I used to have three, actually.) They are operated by use of a foot pedal, allowing you to control the speed at which the motor spins while being able to use both your hands. They are perfect for delicate fragile work (I should take photos of the box of micro drill bits I have. Most people have never seen bits that tiny before.) but also can do larger jobs as well.

For larger jobs and general household use, most people don’t bother with a flex shaft, since there’s a tool that will do many of the same jobs, just not as delicately or finely controlled.

A Dremel. While I find them to be more convenient than flex shafts, they aren’t nearly as controllable, and if your hands are small, they can be awkward to use.

I don’t own a Dremel, cool as they are. I also am having problems finding the chuck keys to my flex shaft machines, but fortunately, I can fix that for $4. But anyway, I busted out the flex shaft and some separating disks and got working.


I tapped a temporary nail into the wall and hung the machine up (I’ll fix it later.) , and got the machine going.

While you probably *could* remove all the material you’re looking to be rid of with a flex/dremel, That’s seriously a long time wasting electricity making noise. All I was interested in doing was defining the perimeter of the area that needed to be carved out. I carefully defined the area I wanted to remove with the tool and then set it aside. I then used a *sharp* 1/4″ chisel to carve out the hollow inside.

Why did I bother with the flexi? Because this would make it easier for the chisel to stop at the border of the area I wanted to carve. It minimized the possibility of going too far and ruining the shape of the circle.

Here’s an example of how it looked after I used the flexi to define the perimeter of an area:


So as you can see, all I’m doing is following the lines I drew, cutting into the surface of the case in order to define the shape of the area I am going to carve out. On the one side of the case I did today, that was three areas total. You could get this all done in one day if you pushed it, but it’s important to take your time and be patient. Also? Wear eye protection, always. Sometimes the disks shatter and fling themselves pointedly (pun intended) at very high velocities. Yeah it stings if you catch it in the arm, but you don’t want one of these little projectiles hitting you in the eye.

Once all the circles on this side of the case were completed, I began carving out the material that needed to go away. You have to be careful here not to go too far, or you’ll punch through to the other side and then there will be no base on which to lay your glue later. Use a sharp chisel(I need to find all my whetstones…) and take your time.

I wish I could say this were the fun part. It’s not. It sucks. But if you rush you’ll screw up. Here’s what the first circle looked like when it was finished:


You can see, there’s another circle to the right of that with a big X on it also. I began working on that one next. I just repeated the same process- define the perimeter with the flex shaft, and then carve out the middle with a sharp chisel:



Eventually, all three areas designated for removal were carved out. Now, I have the other side of the case, and the three door/drawer fronts that I removed earlier, and the top. I decided to do the sides first since those would be seen the least, in case of an error. So far, it’s okay. Any imperfections will be fixed up in the next few steps. I’ll keep updating this process as it goes on, but basically, it’s just the same thing over and over. I may reattach the drawer and door fronts for the sake of stability while I’m working on them, since it’s convenient, and remove them again before the next step.

So be on the lookout for more carved out circles, me trying to find the damned chuck key, and me wondering where the hell all my whetstones have fucked off to, so I can keep my chisels sharp.

Furniture project part 2- Sanding and drawing.

Okay, so the case is as taken apart as it’s going to be, and all the spray painting save the clear coating is done. What’s next? Sanding.

Here’s where I tell you I own both a palm and a detail sander and yet, I sanded this piece by hand. Why?

Because wood veneer is very thin. How thin? Try about 1/42 of an inch. No, seriously. Now, if this were a solid wood piece, then screw it- you can afford to pull out power tools. But not a veneered piece, because once you break through the veneer, the only thing behind it is MDF.

Okay, so why are we sanding at all? Why not just clean it and leave it alone? Because the veneer has a clear coat and once again, we are trying to remove the clear coat in order to work directly with the wood surface itself. So we’re back to hand sanding.

I’ll state up front I hate working with wood. It’s my single least favorite material to work with, period. But I was taught by the best how to do it. Here’s some tips-

  • For this kind of job, I wouldn’t use any grit more aggressive than 220. If you’re not experienced, I’d even go with a 320 or a 400(but make sure it’s dry- don’t use water soaked sandpaper on wood. It’s entirely counterproductive as it will raise the grain, which is what you’re trying to avoid). Remember, all you’re trying to do is remove the clear coat, not the wood veneer under it.
  • Sand with the grain only (it’s really tempting in corners and on upper and lower edges to not do this. Don’t give in to that temptation- you’ll regret it later.)
  • Be gentle. Go slowly. Unfortunately, if you go too fast you will go through the veneer and then you really have problems.
  • If you don’t know how to sand evenly by hand, use a sanding block.
  • Change your paper often. It’s not gold, it’s just sandpaper. You can use a new piece, I promise. But clogged paper gets you nowhere.

This takes a little time but creates not as much dust as you’d think (it does create a little), because again, you’re not trying to remove wood- just the clear coat sitting on top of it. You will notice a difference in sheen between sanded and unsanded parts, like this:


See how the bottom square has a matte finish and the top is still shiny? The bottom has been sanded and the top hasn’t. What you want to do is sand the whole piece. Now, I didn’t bother sanding the inside because frankly, I’m not going to alter the inside. If i were doing this piece for a commission, I would- but my apartment is so dark that having a light inside makes the things in there easier for me to see in the long run, so I’m leaving the interior alone. YMMV. You decide what you want to mess with.

Once the piece has been totally sanded, it’s time to clean it off. You can do this with a tack rag, which will remove the dust, but it won’t clean the surface. No, for that you want to use alcohol. Denatured is cheap, isopropyl (the kind you keep in your bathroom) works just as well, but it’s more pricy(this piece was cleaned with isopropyl because i seem to be out of denatured.). Frankly, you can do it with vodka if you really wanted to but I can’t imagine why you’d waste the vodka that way. But what’s really important here is this: DO NOT USE WATER. WATER IS BAD.

Water causes wood to swell and raises the grain above the surface. Since we just spent however long sanding this thing, this is the last thing you want, especially when the wood is only 1/42 of an inch thick to start with. Alcohol will not raise the grain and it dries almost instantly. It will clean any surface dirt off your newly sanded wood just fine. But you *have to* clean the wood. First of all you want to get all the dust off the piece that remains from the sanding, and second you want to make sure all the surface dirt is gone from the piece because stain doesn’t have any more intelligence than paint does. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves by a few steps. Clean all the parts of your piece thoroughly.

Now comes the first bit of actual creativity- you have to decide what kind of design you want to put on your furniture. You can draw it out on paper first if you want to, or use a CAD program to design it or do whatever you want. In the end, all you’re going to need is a sharp pencil (I use a .5 mechanical) and whatever guides you’ll be using to create your design.

In my case, I am using circles. Sure, there’s compasses (I have at least two), and you can make a compass out of a thumbtack and string (but why would we push a thumbtack in this thing now?). Me? I wandered around my living room and collected circular items of various diameters and traced them on my piece. I didn’t put any on the back of the case since who the hell will ever see them? (Don’t bother with shit you can’t see- it’s a waste of your time and energy.), but I drew circles all over the sides, the top, and all the door/drawer fronts. Here’s an example, along with some of the things I used to trace them:


I also used spray paint caps and some other stuff. As you can see, some of the circles overlap and some don’t. That’s true all over the case. It will become an important design element in the next step, which is mapping out the design itself and busting out (dum dum DUM….) power tools and chisels.

And now for something completely different- a furniture project.

For those who haven’t known me for very long, before I got my design degrees and before I got my restoration degree, I was an artist full time. I did a lot of murals, and paint f/x and mosaic work. But I also did a lot of “recycled” artwork, particularly on things like glass and furniture.

I haven’t done one of these in years, because I simply haven’t had either the need, time or inclination, but as happens I’m working on one now. This one isn’t a commission, though- this one is for my living room. I’m posting it here mostly because I knew my friend Marianne would get a kick out of it, but then it occurred to me that other people love this kind of DIY stuff too.

Back in April I was at the birthday party of my good friend John Montagna out in Brooklyn. He and his wife Jill were expecting a baby soon (she’s here now- three weeks early, but happy and healthy, thank goodness.) and he had a couple of pieces of Ikea furniture he was looking to be rid of in order to make room for stroller parking in their apartment. They had been listing them on Craigslist but had gotten no takers. I told them that they should try to sell them by all means but if it came to a point where they just wanted them out of the house, to give me a call- I had a use for them.

Z. Time passes.

The baby arrives three weeks early, no one buys the furniture, and John shoots me an email asking if he can drop them by on Monday. Sure- absolutely.

Right now we’re only going to be talking about the large piece, which is a cabinet in Ikea’s “Effektiv” office line. This is a photo of it when it was still at John and Jill’s place:


Now, the reason I’m showing you a photo of it there is because it went well with its surroundings. As you can see it’s got a clear finish over some birch veneer, with some gray legs, and in J&J’s house, those warm colors all blend together very well.

The thing is that in *my* house? That look doesn’t work:


What was perfectly harmonious out in Brooklyn sticks out like a sore thumb up in the Bronx. My floors are black (so are my ceilings, for the record), the wall that it’s sitting in front of is covered in a medium violet Venetian plaster… You get the idea. That’s okay, though… We have the technology to solve this problem. Oh yes. Yes we do.

And so this series will show how you turn one of these pieces into something that no one will recognize later. It’s time consuming and occasionally messy and frustrating, but not really *difficult*. But since I got the furniture for free, I have nothing to lose.

So far, I’ve spent $22. Now, I should mention that’s because I have a lot of what I need already here. But still. $22.

The first thing I did was start to deconstruct the piece. Now, the thing is that sometimes it’s not worth trying to get pieces like this apart totally, because they often are fitted with glue covered dowels, and you risk cracking the MDF taking it apart. But some things are easy to take off, and if you can, you probably should.

I removed the legs, and the bottom piece (all the parts that are gray, essentially) and the door fronts. The basic case of the piece was left alone- again, more trouble than it’s worth.

The key to this piece of furniture is that it’s not covered in laminate. This one has, as I said, a clear finish over some birch veneer. You can’t do this with laminate- you need to do something else, so if you have a laminated piece, uh… Don’t do this.

The biggest thing you need when tackling a project like this, is patience. Ironically, I am *not* a patient person with projects like this, but I understand that I have to be. This is not a “we can do this in a weekend!” kind of thing. Well it might be, if you do nothing else with your life, but you get the idea.

Secondly, the one thing you *CANNOT* skimp on is your surface prep. You will (and I mean will) pay for it later if you do. Yeah I know it’s boring, but do it anyway. There’s a reason these steps exist, I promise.

Anyway, the first thing I did was clean all the gray parts. I washed the legs in the tub with soap and water, since they’re entirely made of plastic. I cleaned the bottom piece (which is mdf covered in plastic) with some cleaner on a sponge and a rinsed it with a damp cloth. Even if these things look clean to you? Wash them anyway. This is important because when you paint something, the paint will stick to whatever is on the surface. All you want the paint to stick to is the thing you’re trying to paint, not surface dirt. Paint isn’t intelligent and can’t tell the difference between “that thing you wanted to paint” and “dirt.” So it is important to thoroughly clean and dry (don’t forget about drying) whatever it is you wanted to paint.

I then built a little ghetto spray booth out of cardboard boxes. If you have a garage, that’s a good place. Outside is a better place, but I don’t have a house, so I don’t have a backyard. The two things you need are a clean, dust-free surface and ventilation. In my case, I also had a respirator, because I’ve breathed in more toxic solvents over the years than you can imagine.


I then proceeded to spray paint all the gray parts with chrome spray paint. I then painted the bottom piece the same way, proceeding to overshoot my spray booth and get the wall above it. Oops.

though the round part is just a lamp reflection, that stripe above it? Isn’t. It’s okay. I’ve already fixed the wall. You can’t even tell anything happened. But see? These kinds of mishaps happen to everyone. It’s fine so long as you have a way to fix it.

Once all of that was done, I removed the door hardware. It was also that battleship gray,but it’s metal, and covered in a clear coat. Lesson #2- spray paint doesn’t stick well to smooth surfaces. Paint needs something to adhere *to*. So if something has a coating on it, you need to roughen that up in order to provide “tooth”, or something for the paint to stick to. In short, I sanded down all the hardware pieces with some 150 grit sandpaper and cleaned it all very thoroughly. With metal you can use either a tack rag, or, more conveniently you can give it a wipe with some alcohol on a cloth. Alcohol dries very quickly, and won’t cause oxidation.

This is what they looked like when they were all prepped and ready for paint:


And how everything looked after it was all painted up:


If you really want to play it safe, you can hit the hardware with a couple of coats of clear coat. I may do that before I reassemble it- I just don’t have any in the house right now. The feet and base don’t need it because they won’t be handled, but you may want to give it the extra protection on the parts that will be touched regularly. Next time I’m by the store I’ll grab some clear coat and hit the hardware up.

So, what’s next? In the next segment I’ll talk about sanding and sketching out the design. Good times.. Good times.