The Lessons of Old Wood

June 30, 2017
Some projects take more time than others. Twenty-seven springs ago, when I knew we were moving into this house, I bought an old, cedar lined, wardrobe trunk, to use as multipurpose furniture.
“It can be a coffee table or a lamp table” I caroled to my overwhelmed husband. “While it stores extra blankets and quilts.”
“What we need is more floor space,” he replied, eyeing the battle-scarred box, “and we’re not going to get it with that ugly thing.”
“Just you wait, once I paint it, this thing will be beautiful,” I said. And, because I was in a hurry, I poured a quart of ivory paint over the entire trunk and hauled it into the house. It didn’t look good or hold the out-of-season linens like I planned, but it served as table and storage container for decades, first in the living room and then on the porch. With the construction of Darling Husband’s garage, the cedar trunk was emptied of its cache of tools and finally ready for the restoration I promised it years ago.
Trunk after years on the porch. This should be an easy cleanup, right?
That process has taken the best part of a week and three layers of skin from my hands. But I also gained some wisdom worth keeping: what I think of as The Lessons of Old Wood
Respect the Product That’s what I didn’t do with ivory paint years ago. Wardrobe trunks were manufactured to be complex, durable luggage made from various woods, metals, cloth adhesives and other materials. As a result, these trunks were durable, one reason there are still so many on the market. But that also meant, no matter how sad my trunk looked when I purchased it years ago, the ivory paint didn’t hide the scars of its use; instead, it added an extra layer I’d have to take off down the line. And none of those layers would leave without a fight.
Respect the Process. After years of neglect and exposure, I expected stripping this thing would be a cinch. So, putty knife in hand and the lyrics to Born in a Trunk in my head, I went to work. And five hours later, the porch floor was covered in layers of adhesive, paint and cardboard, I was a sweaty mess and the trunk looked like it had an incurable skin disease. After that came three days of rubbing, sanding, chemical strippers and removing decades of grime from the details of this box. By the end of the third day, my unconscious had switched from Born in a Trunk to Give Me Something to Believe In and the top layer of skin on my hands was gone. And the trunk still looked sick.
3 days and the boring trunk now looks diseased.
Strong Problems require Strong Treatment. After a little Internet Research, I found Citristrip, a marvelous product that cleans wood and metal without killing your sense of smell. That took layers off the wood of the box and floor below when it dropped (well, I can repaint the porch later.) Notice all the stained wood? Yeah, so did I. Trust me, no chemical stripper or high-grit level of sandpaper will fix that issue. So I went to work with the 60 grit sandpaper and kicked up a huge level of dust. Now that sucker’s beginning to clean up.
Post CitriStrip – Stained but Cleaned
You have to Get Dirty to Clean Something Else Up. This is something the DIY blogs don’t mention. When I reviewed posts on restoring old furniture (and there are thousands of them out there) they all mentioned several things, like chemical strippers, vinegar and water solutions and lots and lots of sanding. None of them mentioned the mess all this creates. As layers of paint, glue, and cardboard came off of the trunk, they reattached themselves to whatever was handy; the floor, my shorts and me. And stripping gel is an ooey-gooey gunk before it gets to work, even worse when it does its job. So have trash bags handy and lots of paper towels if you decide to do this. Expect to wash a lot of laundry during the process. And repaint the porch when you’re done.
Stripped and Sanded – The trunk looks better even if the porch floor looks worse
Perfect ain’t necessarily flawless. When the trunk was clean inside and out and the goo-soaked mess was gone, I took a serious look at the box left behind. To me, the wood was beautiful, but it looked far from flawless. There were scars and pits in the surface that even a good sanding couldn’t touch and the woodgrain had some serious issues. I remembered that, although the interior was lined with cedar, this exterior was a different wood, probably considered inferior and cheap. So had all of my work been for nothing?

No.  I cherish this old wooden box because of the age and events that gave it these scars.  It was probably made somewhere between 1910 and 1940, which means it’s seen at least one world war, a few revolutions, some economic downturns, and a lot of social change.  At first, it was somebody’s luggage with drawers on one side and hangers on the other, which means it’s probably been hauled to a lot of places and had a lot of hands upon it.  As the times changed, it got shoved into unlikely places, filled with crap, and ignored.  And then I dumped my husband’s greasy tools inside and left it out in the weather.  And still, the trunk survives.  
So, this time, I rubbed it down with layers of tung oil, allowing it time for each layer to cure. I didn’t try to mask the imperfections in the wood but I did try to let its golden beauty shine through along with its age.  And then I put it back to work.

Now the Trunk is where I always wanted it to be, holding the quilts and blankets we don’t need right now.  Even Darling Husband says it’s beautiful.  And I think he’s right.

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