The furniture in my house has a checkered past. Some pieces bear the deformities of their misadventures.
The central attraction is a set of solid birch, blonde 1950s Conant-Ball casework. It must have been pretty expensive, back in the day. At least, I think it was.
After 10 long years in Saudi Arabia, living with metal Company-issue furniture (yes: metal bedsteads, metal bureau drawers, metal nightstands, metal everything. Anything that wasn’t metal was something they’d scrounged second- or third-hand from other Americans in camp), my parents decided that my father would quit and we would come back to the States.
How my mother pulled this off, I do not to this day know. Left to his own devices, my father wouldn’t have quit at that time. He was earning a lot of money as a harbor pilot in Ras Tanura, where petroleum products were loaded from the refinery onto American and European tankers, earning far more than he could have made Stateside. He salted every penny of it into investments (mostly ill-advised, but there’s another story), because his life’s goal was to retire at the earliest possible moment. To that end, the couple lived, shall we say, ascetically.
She must have told him she was going to leave him if he didn’t quit. If she did, it was pretty daring, because he was fully capable of saying “fine!” At any rate, she persuaded him to quit prematurely; after 10 years, he still didn’t qualify for a pension from Aramco. I expect for that he probably would have had to stay on for 15 or 20 years.
She and I came back to the States several months before he did — again, the “why” of this was never explained to me. But I can imagine.
We took a train across the country and arrived in San Francisco, where she set up housekeeping in a very pleasant apartment on the sixth floor of a very pleasant high-rise in a very pleasant lily-white middle-class apartment development. The first thing she did was to take herself to Sloan’s, a very nice (all very nice) downtown furniture store, where she engaged a designer to furnish the entire rather large dwelling.
The effect was amazing, unlike (I’m sure) anything my mother had ever had. All the sofas and chairs were stylishly color-coordinated, and all the wooden casework in every room but mine (she put dark maple pieces in there, for unknown reasons) was this mid-century Danish modern stuff, heavily influenced by the Shaker style.
What makes me think it was pretty good stuff is that it’s lasted 60 years despite a fair amount of abuse. And the abuse is what makes me suspect my father could have had no idea on God’s green EARTH how much she must have paid for it.
This was a guy who thought Levitz was upscale and a bit rich for our blood.
When he finally did accumulate the hundred grand he thought he needed for retirement, he moved her and himself to Sun City, then a development out in the cotton fields west of Phoenix, Arizona. The little house they moved into didn’t have enough room to hold both a dining room set and a television, as well as the living room furniture. Given a choice between furniture and the TV, my father’s choice would always be the TV. Hands down.
They had a screened-in back porch, and my father decided that he was going to convert this gorgeous set of furniture — a solid birch table, four spindle-backed side chairs and two captain’s chairs — into outdoor furniture.
My mother must have been devastated! But even then, she must have been afraid to tell him what she’d paid for it. He couldn’t possibly have had a clue.
He coated all seven pieces with layer after layer after layer of shiny polyurethane. By the time he finished, the stuff looked like yellow plastic.
He did a good job of slathering varnish (he loved polyurethane!): it was impervious to water and heat. His idea of cleaning the porch was to haul the backyard hose in and squirt everything down. And in a good monsoon, rainwater would blow through the screen and douse the set. By the time I inherited it, fourteen years later, it still had no water damage.
It was pretty horrible-looking, though, with all that polyurethane shit on it.
My then-husband and I had a friend who was seized by a passing desire to become a furniture-maker. He proposed to strip and sand off the varnish, and then I would refinish the table and chairs with Danish oil.
This came to pass, more or less. And the result actually was not bad — certainly not compared with the high-gloss polyurethane. He stripped the table and the four side chairs, but drew the line at the captain’s chairs, the project having proved to be more difficult than he expected.
The sets of cabinetry and chairs replaced the old bargain pieces and the bricks and boards with which my husband and I still furnished our home after fourteen years of wedded bliss. I took them with me when I fled.
The other day, one of the captain’s chairs finally broke. Its underpinning split, causing one of the legs to come loose.
Well. I’ve always wanted to have those chairs stripped and refinished. This was my chance. A couple of guys came highly recommended on Angie’s list, so I asked them to drop by look at it. Ninety bucks, and they were willing to hand-strip (no dipping!) and sand the crud off the chairs, and to apply a new hand-rubbed oil finish.
But there was more.
Some years ago, back when I had a job and an income, I coveted a Thomas Moser coffee table. Indeed, so much did I covet the thing that I actually ordered one up!
Lovely, eh? Cherry. Hand-rubbed. Nice.
Well before the six weeks required to make this bauble had elapsed, I discovered that Ethan Allen made a coffee table whose design was very similar, and whose price was a fraction of a hand-made Thomas Moser chef d’oeuvre. They were phasing out the model, and if I would come down to their shipping facility I could have it at cut- cut-rate — a tiny fraction of the Moser piece’s cost.
This appealing mightily to my cheapskate impulses, I promptly canceled the order from Thos. Moser and bought the Ethan Allen thing.
When they delivered it, I regretted having done that. It had a shiny finish, and shiny furniture really is not to my taste. It didn’t go with the Stickley side table I’d acquired at a vast discount, nor of course did it go with anything else in the house. Except maybe the polyurethaned chairs.
But…there it was. I thought it could sit there for a few days until I decided whether I could live with it.
That decision, however, was forthwith made for me. The thing hadn’t been lurking in the living room more than 45 minutes before Walt the Greyhound, in an uncharacteristic flash of exuberance, reared up on his hind feet and dropped one massively clawed paw on the brand-new shiny tabletop. Dug a big scratch into it!
At the time, I was too dumb to know that my credit card likely insured it. Matter of fact, I probably was too dumb to have put it on the card. Chances are I paid cash.
Whatever. I figured I couldn’t send it back with a scratch my dog had put into it less than an hour after Ethan Allen’s delivery guys had carried it into the house. So I’ve lived with it for lo, these several years.
And I still covet the Thos. Moser coffee table.
Turns out the Ethan Allen finish was so fragile the mere force of your eyeballs staring at it could inflict a scratch. Over time it picked up many more dings, some from unfathomable sources.
Lately I’ve been thinking, what the hell; life is short, a train of thought tending toward a possible purchase. A Thos. Moser purchase. But I’d look at the table and think its wood didn’t look all that bad, and under the layers of dark stain and shiny varnish its construction looked much like the Stickley’s. And it occurred to me to wonder if I could strip and refinish it myself. But…I’m past my handyperson days.
So when Gustavo and Manny were here I asked if they thought they could refinish it.
Gustavo speaks mostly Spanish and has the look of an old-country craftsman about him. He may just be a campesino, but he puts on a convincing show of knowing what he’s doing.
He said he thought the table was made of maple, and he pointed out that the top was not veneered — he showed me how to tell. He proposed to refinish it to match the Stickley piece rather than to apply a hand-rubbed oil finish. However, he will make several test pieces for me to approve.
He was taken by the Thos. Moser continuous-arm chair and the Thos. Moser New Gloucester rocker, particularly by their amazing joinery. And he also noticed the table that I’d paid $300 for at the model-home furniture clearance store.
I allowed as to how I thought it was junk — particle-board with a veneer — but it looked pretty good. He said it wasn’t fine furniture, but it wasn’t actually junk, either: he pointed out that the veneer is unusually thick, thick enough to withstand one sanding and refinishing. Not bad, he thought, as veneer goes.
Well, what it all boiled down to is that Gustavo will repair the broken captain’s chair, hand-strip both chairs and the coffee table, and refinish all three pieces for less than half the cost of a new Thos. Moser coffee table & shipping. They also propose to level the annoying eight-foot bookcase in the living room.
It’ll pare down the diddle-it-away fund, but I do believe I can afford it.