Our Restoration Process
Years of experience assured us, even before we removed any paint from this 100 year old built-in cabinet, that it was most likely made from a superior grade of oak. And the wood had probably been quartersawn, thus displaying a stunning surface of intricate grain structure and the “dance” of vibrant medullary rays. The initial scope of the project, then—paint removal, revitalization of the natural patina, and saturation with varnish—was a wise investment of restoration dollars.
In fact, one wonders why anyone in their right mind would have painted this gem in the first place! We get asked this question so often we’ve come up with a few reasons we think beautiful, antique wood elements such as this built-in cabinet have so often been, astoundingly, slathered with many layers of paint.
Not only would the process of paint removal recover a rich natural patina. It would also restore the crisp profiles of the intricately figured moldings: the acanthus-leaf embellished corbels, the dental and egg-and-dart moldings, and the fluted pillars with scroll-work capitals.
As this photo reveals, our intuition was right! Beneath those many layers of paint lay this complex and vibrant, quartersawn oak surface with intricately detailed moldings. So lively is this wood that one can understand why the Greeks thought the majestic oak was inhabited by wood nymphs.
But we know better than to celebrate too soon!
Why repair it when you can cover it up?
Paint fits alongside caulk as the most common, “brush it under the rug,” quick-fix tricks for covering up, rather than correcting problems in building interiors. (I’ve even seen guys use caulk to bridge cracks in plaster corners!)
Just as we suspected, then, removing the paint from this cabinet revealed a number of other issues, both structural and aesthetic, that also required attention, including:
- A structural problem with the frame holding the heavy beveled glass mirror in place.
- Degraded decorative moldings, some needing repair, others needing replacement.
- Ugly stains from spilt liquids on the countertop that needed to be bleached, neutralized, and selectively re-colored.
Let’s look closer at each of these repairs in turn.
Issue #1: Mirror Frame Failure
Most alarmingly, the support frame that held the original (and heavy!), beveled glass mirror had separated from the cabinet which had also separated from the brick wall, resulting in the mirror dangling precariously between the brick wall and the cabinet.
As often happens, the nails which held the frame in place had failed (and/or the wall had shifted) so that there was now a one inch gap between the cabinet and the wall. But the solution needed to accomplish more than just nail the mirror frame back tight against the frame. Given the weight of the mirror, and the fact that the cabinet no longer fit snug against the brick wall, such a repair would eventually fail.
Issue #1: Mirror Frame Fix
Our solution started with pulling the framing back tight against the cabinet and securing it in place with finishing screws and adhesive.
We could have stopped there and achieved a “makeshift” repair that would have lasted for a few years before failing due to the weight of the mirror. We opted for a more permanent solution, filling the gap between the mirror frame and wall with shim material to keep the frame snug against the glass.
One might think such a repair, while admirable and necessary, remains invisible. But, in fact, these kinds of repairs contribute to the strong sense of presence one experiences in a well-built piece of furniture. Even a repair that is invisible contributes to a stability that sustains both structural and visual integrity.
Issue #2: Degraded Moldings.
Another problem we encountered was degradation of the decorative acanthus leaf motifs fitted over the corbels that line the top of the cabinet and which contribute to the strong presence this piece makes when properly restored. As an enhancement for these corbels, acanthus leaves made from composition had been applied to the scrollwork on the bottom edge of these brackets. Unfortunately, as the picture below demonstrates, nearly all of these acanthus leaf decorative moldings had degraded and/or were broken off.
Here’s a sample of what the composition acanthus leaf looked like before and after it had been applied on the corbel, then stained to match the rest of the cabinet.
Issue #2: Moldings Fix
Twenty-plus corbels later, the cabinet is well on its way to recovering its dignity.
But there was still more work to do!
Issue #2: Degraded Moldings and Fix
One of the beauties of wood, and a reason it has been favored as a material for building architectural elements, is its malleability.
Here, for instance, is one of the scrollwork capitals on top one of two pillars on this cabinet.We’ve used tinted epoxy to repair this scroll, as we also did for a few of the “teeth” that got knocked out of the dental moldings.
Sometimes we have to replace whole items, like the acanthus leaves made from composition. We use tinted epoxies for less extensive repairs, such as in the repair this scrollwork. We have repair kits of various materials we can use to fill small gouges and scratches in wood. Having a variety of materials to work with and a whole bag of tricks to draw upon enables us to repair a lot of things most people think are beyond repair!
Issue #3: Stains and Blemishes and Fix (Final Finish)
As might be expected of a 120-year-old cabinet in a dining room, there had been a lot of abuse hidden beneath layers of paint—stains, mostly, but gouges and deep scratches as well. The countertop had suffered a lot of abuse with various odd-shaped stains and round drinking glass marks, scratches, and gouges in the wood. We repaired the gouges, rings, and scratches, bleached and neutralized the entire surface, and recolored the wood to make it blend with the patina on the rest of the cabinet.
After all this careful attention to detail, I think most people would agree it would have been a mistake had we then wrapped this cabinet in plastic kitchen wrap! But, in fact, something close to that kind of fiasco happens all the time when historic and vintage wood furnishings get finished with polyurethane, a form of plastic coating. Click here to learn about the importance of making period-sensitive choices of finishing materials when restoring historic and vintage architectural elements.
The paint on this cabinet robs it of its dignity. It looks more like a wedding cake than a beautifully crafted built-in credenza. See the finished project below.