Furniture Project part 8: The finish and the finish.

I know this has been a very long time in coming.  In truth, the cabinet was finished before Gothmas, but until recently it had things sitting on top of it, preventing me from getting good photos of it conveniently as a finished product. Then when I finally did get photos, I was also working on eggs(still doing that, btw) and  this post loomed in the back of my mind.

But I’d like to finish it up, so here goes.

When last we left the cabinet, I was babbling on about perfection and how ultimately boring it is.

I had finished all the mosaic work and the only thing really left was to put finish coats on it.  This is where I get frustrated and threaten to shave all the cats.  But assuming you can manage to do this without losing your sanity, here’s how it goes.  I’m only going to show you how this works on one side of the cabinet, because it’s the same process for all of them.

So first off, the cabinet’s been rotated a number of times while it was worked on.  It’s been handled, touched, jumped on by cats and generally abused throughout this entire recycling process.  So it needs some touchups.




Ok, with me now? You can see from these various shots that there were areas where the stain needed to be fixed up.  Not difficult to understand.  But before I can do that I need to get all the accumulated dust, cat hair and other random detritus off of the surface I’m about to work on.  That takes a tack rag.

For those who don’t know what a tack rag is, it’s a piece of cheesecloth (lint-free, yo.) that has been impregnated with a small amount of finish (usually a very, very weak spit coat of shellac/alcohol or poly/thinner) so it’s just sticky.  You run it over the surface of your piece and the dust and other assorted crap stick to the surface of the rag.  You can make them yourself. It’s really easy.  Frankly, I find it also really easy to grab one for 79 cents, too, which is what I did. You open it up, wad it into a loose ball and gently go to town on the surface.  If an area gets full, rewad, and find a cleaner spot.

It’s a lot better looking once it’s clean, even when you haven’t done anything else to it. You can see how much ick and overstain comes off onto the rag.



Once that’s accomplished(and don’t wait too long cause it will only get covered in crap again…) I touched up the areas that needed more stain with a small brush. Fortunately, I’m not too invested in how even the stain coat is.


Let it dry as you would with any other stain coat. Once it’s dry enough to finish over, you need to decide what kind of finish you’re going to put on your piece.  This is not always an easy choice, and I’m going to divert here to explain that.

Folks, not everything in the world needs to be covered in polyurethane.  As happens *THIS* piece is, but again, there’s choices to be made here.  However this is something you should understand, and I will put it in big, bold letters:

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Repeat as necessary.  Polyurethane is a lovely thing. However it’s not a reversible thing, and as such it’s NOT SUITABLE for fine antiques.  Polyurethane has problems. There is no way to repair it if the finish breaks. It’s impossible to actually remove.  It’s problematic and if you bring your fine piece in later for repair the restorers will give you That Look, and for good reason, since you’ve largely handed them Mission Impossible.  Polyurethane is a cheap, all purpose coating that is very hard wearing. But it’s not, not, not to be used for fine furniture.  Fine furniture does quite well with shellac and a bit of wax for protection, or a natural varnish or other resin finish.  Those things are reversible and repairable.  Poly? Forget it.

THIS piece is covered in poly because it’s from fucking IKEA and made of MDF. I got it for *free* and cats are going to leap all over the damned thing.  THAT is why *this* piece has poly on it.  However my good carved 1918 chair in the back room?  Wax.   With me now?


But you still have to decide how shiny you want your piece to be, no matter what you use. Matte? Semi-gloss? Gloss?  A gloss like a bowling alley in the sun?  I chose the latter, because most of the room it’s in is at best a combination of dead matte and a light gloss (the walls are venetian plaster, but they only have light wax- they’re not really glossy) The floor is a semi gloss.  The ceilings and floors are *black*, and on its best day this room doesn’t get a ton of light.  (in the winter it’s ridiculous since the windows face west, it may as well be a cave.).  So anything that will reflect light around the room a little? That works for me.

I used a foam brush (no brushmarks) to apply a first coat of finish.  It’s not very impressive looking afterward, honestly.


Ok big deal.  That’s one coat down.  Four zillion to go. But what is important is what happens between the coats.   See, your furniture has flaws. It’s not dead level. You’ll have missed spots.  It looks like HELL and now you can see just how uneven it all is, because the light bounces off the surface differently highlighting each one.

That’s okay. That’s why we have 400 grit silicon carbide wet/dry sandpaper to the rescue.  Also, apparently, a pink plastic cup of water.


The whole thing with using wet paper is that there should be a “suction” that happens where the paper meets the surface that keeps the paper flat.  Remember to rinse off your paper often to unclog it. Now, I’m trying to eliminate anything resembling grain, so I’m using an orbital sanding motion.  Don’t worry about the water on the surface.  It’s going to show you something important in just a few moments.


What you’ll start to see is where your high spots are, because they will now be matte.  Your low spots will still be glossy.  Ideally, the entire surface will be the same. But that doesn’t really happen on the first coat of finish.  You’re trying to cut the high areas, and build up the low ones.  Since I have no grain to care about , I can use an orbital sanding  pattern, which you can see in the photos.  Folks, don’t use an orbital pattern on bare wood- go with the grain.  Finish coats COVER grain- you’re trying to make a flat surface, which is the critical difference.


What will also happen is a white residue will appear on the surface. Don’t panic, that’s supposed to happen. It’s the powdered finish you’ve removed, mixed with the water on the paper to make a paste. It will come off with a tack rag. Promise.


Speaking of tack rags,  use yours and clean this mess up again. Now it looks like piebald shit. Great. You’re by now cursing my name and wondering why you listened to me.  Patience, padawan.

What comes next is a whole lot of lather, rinse, repeat.  Same steps over and over. What is important to know though is to brush your finish on *in the opposite direction* from whichever way you started.  So if you went the long way the first time? Go the short way the second.  All your odd numbered coats go one way, and all your evens the other.  You are trying to avoid ridges and get an even coat.  Generally one uses an odd number of coats.  Normally 3 will do it, but it really, really depeneds on the piece, because again, ideally, as you’re sanding the last between coat your piece should be a uniform gray all over, indicating a flat surface.  You can tell when you’re getting close. Once that happens, switch to a 600 grit paper rather than a 400.  If you really want to have a glass finish, go to a 1200 after that. I don’t need to for a piece like this. 600 was as far as I got.   But as to the whole lather, rinse, repeat thing:


With each coat you’ll see a more uniform surface. But it takes a while to get there.





You can see here, after several coats, that the finish is starting to become much more level and even.


In the end, though, it’s really about where you say “Okay, good enough.”  Which for me, was here:

Finally, finished.

Once the top was finally done, I put on a coat of wax. Honestly? It’s plain old garden variety Turtle Wax, like the kind you’d use on your car.  Works just fine.  I waxed the top because it gets foot traffic from the cats and needs more protection. I wax it whenever I can feel it starting to tack up as I dust(if you’ve ever gone bowling regularly, you know when this point is, because you get stuck and practically kill yourself as you try to release the ball when your shoes stop and the rest of you keeps moving.)

So, this is it:

To remind everyone where this piece started…


And now, it looks like this:

So that wraps this one up.

What’s next? I have a table design I need to work out, I’m still working on eggs, and I am also trying to get a built in bookcase ready for finishing.

That should keep me busy a while.

Furniture project part 7: The pursuit of perfection.

So here’s the thing.

I finished the top of the case a couple weeks ago. The only thing I have to do now is the finishing part and putting it all back together. I haven’t yet because I need a tack rag (which I know yes, I can make myself..) and I need a couple of foam brushes (no brushmarks, yo.). But I’ll get to that. What I wanted to talk about really, is this point. This point in any project where all that’s left is the finishing. and once the finish goes on, you’re kinda stuck with what’s underneath it. So you’re looking over your project and NOW, this moment, is the one where you’re looking at it with a super critical eye to see if there’s anything you should do over again. You’re looking for something that needs fixing. You’re looking for flaws.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when things really should be flawless. Those times certainly exist. If you’re making a new piece of furniture, custom, from scratch, for sale. Flawless is good. But recycled furniture is not about flawless(neither, btw is restoration.) It’s just as much an art project as a design project, if not more so. You need to be able to see those flaws, own them, and for the most part, unless they’re minor touchups, be able to let them go.

This is really, really hard for some people- self included, though it’s even harder for people who are very detail oriented. They get lost in the bark of the tree, when the forest is all around them waiting for them to get on with and over themselves.

“Oh SURE, it’s easy to say that- it’s not your project with all these errors and mistakes in it… You’re a professional!”

But it is. And I am. And I’m going to prove it.

So we have this project, right? You’ve watched as it’s slowly come together over the summer. Okay, great. And now we’re at this moment. The one before the finish, where if you’re going to fix something, now is the time. Other than minor touchups? I’m not fixing the following things:


I’m not fixing the fact that this mosaic circle is cup shaped, when it should be flat. This is the result of the chisel not being sharp enough.


I’m not fixing the fact that this “circle” is supposed to be round, and isn’t. (see: chisel.)


I’m not fixing the evenness of the grout on the right top quadrant of this circle.


I’m not fixing the fact that this circle isn’t flat.


There’s nothing wrong with this one. Actually, it’s near perfect, which illustrates how imperfect those others are.


I’m not fixing the fact that the purple circles are splotchy, and the black is darker and less painterly than I’d like.


I’m not fixing the fact that that drawer up there? Looks different than the door front below:


Or that this side:


Is not like that side:


Because perfection simply isn’t necessary here. Flawless isn’t really important (though I would love to get a flawless *FINISH* on these, I know better. I have cats.)

So I’m going to get some brushes and a tack rag and forgive this piece (and its maker) their flaws. No one else was ever going to care about them anyway.

Furniture project part 6.4- top’s done.

4th verse, same as the first.


Mosaics are done, purple polka dots filled in.


Same thing, different angle.


First coat of black goes on around the spots.


Same thing, different angle.


Again, same thing, different angle.


Top, finished. There’s a lack of light here, so the black looks a little more solid and uniform than it is.


Same thing, different angle.


Same thing, different angle.

So now, all that’s left is the finishing/putting back together part. I’ve decided to use a high-gloss polyurethane. I could use shellac but since it’s alcohol based I decided against it- if someone spills their drink on the thing my finish needs to be seriously fixed. I could use lacquer, which would match my coffee table, but I really, *really* hate working with lacquer. It’s toxic as shit, and the fumes are miserable. Even worse is lacquer *thinner*, which obviously, you need to use as well. It’s not fine furniture, so I’m not going to use another resin based finish. Poly will do fine. I can throw three coats on, finish it out with some pumice and rottenstone, and wax the bad boy up like a bowling alley.

Furniture project part 6.3: Drawer front.

Drawer front is done, as is the front and rear of the case. Only thing left is the top.


I’ll dust the thing off after it’s dry.  🙂

Furniture project part 6.2: the second side of the case.

Long time, no progress. Unfortunately, some rather serious real-world things have kept me away from continuing on this project as fast as I’d like. However I just finished the second side of the case so I figured I’d post a photo.


You can check out either of the previous tutorials on how to accomplish this. I don’t need to rehash it a third time. I do have to blot off just a tiny bit more of the purple stain, though.

While this dries enough for me to set the case upright again so I can get to the top, front, and back, I am going to be working on the long drawer front. I got some new tile, also. $24 worth. Basically I ran out of the two pink colors there on the lower left about 3/4 of the way through that circle, so I needed to grab those. However I have realized that though I own a lot of tile (like, a lot.), it’s heavily tilted towards blues and greens. There’s a lot of under-representation of several other colors, and I wanted to be able to provide a balance on the piece. So I wound up getting six bags. The two pink colors you see there, so I could finish up that circle, a bright red, a sort of a black with white speckles, a metallic blue/copper swirl and a red-violet. I had meant to grab some orange as well, but unfortunately there were no small bags of orange tile to be found- it only was available in 1/2 lb. bags, and I really, REALLY don’t know why I’d need 1/2 lb. of orange tile. I may try to find some online, though.

Right now Im on track for finishing up this project by the end of the summer, since it’s going to need a lot of finishing to make it look nice and smooth.

Oh also, and this is totally unrelated? I want to thank Jennifer from Design Hole (which is a design blog everyone should be reading, because she’s very talented and updates way more often than I do.) , because she really made my day yesterday, even though she probably doesn’t know that.

Jennifer had written a post about (of all things) Motel 6, and their proposed new look. Knowing that I love, love, love hospitality design (really, it’s my second favorite design topic only because you know, there’s no food involved), she shot me an email specifically asking for my opinion on it. Which I thought was really very kind and flattering and made my day, honestly. So thanks, Jennifer. 🙂

furniture project part 6.1: The small doors.

I told you guys, this wasn’t a weekend project. After finishing the first side of the case, I turned my attention to the small doors, because the oil based stain takes forever to dry and I didn’t want to flip the case over while that side was still wet.

Basically it’s the same process- seal the carved areas, do the mosaic, and stain. One of the doors had another additional problem. The carved circles were too deep. This meant I had to fill them in a bit with some lightweight spackle and sand the result to it created a flat base to which I could apply the tile. I also used some stainable wood fill in order to fix some minor problems with the doors.

So let’s review (we’ll be doing this a lot- there’s another 4 sections to go…) how this goes:

Here’s one of the original doors, before I did anything to it.


I then put a thin coat of shellac on the MDF to stabilize it, and then began to add mosaic tile. This has to be done in stages or you keep pushing tiles around on the wet glue. It’s time consuming, and requires patience.




I did the same thing with the other door. This door however, has a layer of spackle on top of the MDF since the chiseled portion was too deep (this happened more and more as my chisels became more dull.)


I then taped off the mosaic work in preparation for grouting. I mixed all the grout colors by hand and applied them as described previously.




That being accomplished, I turned my attention to the stain. It required multiple coats for each color. This was taken after the purple stain had been completed. (It needed two coats.) Once dry, I put a thin coat of shellac on both the purple circles and the mosaic work in order to protect it from any black stain that might get on it accidentally.



I then sanded off all the extra stain that fell outside the perimeters of the circle, and taped off all the areas I’d worked with previously.


I then started working on the black stain, which took multiple coats, with a shellac resist coat between each one in order to layer the rag effect (If you don’t apply the resist coat, the stain will just dissolve when you add another coat- the pattern you’ve applied will disintegrate.)


So one coat, leads to two…


To three…


Then I did the touchups.


Next up is side two of the case.

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.