We’ve had a Blu Dot Buttercup walnut veneer rocker for about five years now—it was a birthday present to me from my dad (yes, we do give good gifts in our family). Blu Dot, a lovely little industrial design outfit in Minneapolis, used to manufacture all of its pieces right there in Minnesota, but since the company got bigger, it’s moved some of the work to Europe, and quality control is sadly not what it used to be. I wasn’t satisfied with the finish on my sweet little Buttercup when I first got her, but ignored the problem because I love the chair so much (plus, as you can see, it’s the perfect complement to our walnut Eames LCW). When the poly covering the veneer started to craze about six months after I got it, though, I began to think perhaps something should be done.
I delayed, of course, actually doing anything about the problem until the store that my Buttercup came from had long gone out of business (sigh; it was a truly excellent little design store in Carroll Gardens whose name I forget, but that started with an ‘M,’ and was run by a lovely Turkish guy, and I think opened about three years too early). At that point, I had very few alternatives for recourse (especially since the manufacturer’s warranty had long expired). Thanks to Blu Dot’s very friendly, very effective customer service, I was able to exchange the shell even at that point (Buttercups are manufactured like Eames rockers, with shells and bases that are interchangeable)—but the replacement I got was equally poorly finished. So, I sent it back, and decided to wait (and wait, and wait) until the day when I either got sick enough of the finish to do something about it myself, or could afford to have the chair professionally refinished.
In subsequent years, the crazing got worse, and the chair yellowed, and we moved three hundred miles away, and the chair looked even more yellow in the clearer northern light, and then yellowed more and more until it looked downright awful, and then one day last week (probably one of the days I had spring fever), I decided that I Just. Could. Not. Take. It. Anymore. Funds being what they are in the self-employment-new-business-too-much-pro-bono-work-world, I decided I should tackle the renewal of my Buttercup myself*—with, of course, some serious help in the form of Morgan’s excellent tutorial on refreshing aging wood and Daniel’s equally excellent follow-up on the same topic. Where my project diverged from theirs was simple: My chair started out with a polyurethane finish. (I called Blu Dot last week just to make sure the finish was, indeed, poly over veneer, and Chad assured me it was.) That meant I was actually going to have to strip. (Daniel was right; projects like this are full of unfortunate metaphors.) I was not going to apply poly to Buttercup again, though—why ruin a good walnut veneer a second time? No, a natural low-luster look for my gal, via a teak oil and wax finish, was what I was after. Hence, the addition of stripping to the refreshing. (This horrible syntax and general language idiocy must stop now.)
Digression: Here’s a before picture of the chair (sort of; I was half way through the job yesterday before I realized that I hadn’t taken any before pictures, and apparently I hated the finish that little Buttercup had ended up with so much that when I photographed the house earlier this year I tried to show as little of the chair as possible). You can see just from the tiny corner showing how yellowed and miserable she was. Poor thing.
What would a project report be without a crazily enhanced, strangely backlit tool kit photo? (I’m embracing the crappy iPhone photo aesthetic!) Let me say also here that this was an excellent project because it allowed me to buy, use, and store in our basement (never had a basement before, folks! Using it all up!) several new products, and also allowed me to send my spouse to the hardware store twice in one day (thank you, spouse, for your help!). I chose Citrastrip for the stripping agent, because it gets uniformly excellent reviews, is (relatively) non-toxic, and has an insanely stupid branding tagline (click here if you don’t believe me)—and because Buttercup is veneered plywood, and I didn’t want to eat through the wood with a stronger stripper. Yes, I know that sentence is offensive, and also conceptually makes no sense. Let’s move on now, shall we? We’ll get to the other products in the picture in due course.
This is Buttercup from the top and then from the bottom, each time halfway through stripping and scraping that particular side. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, I slathered the Citrastrip on one side of Buttercup and waited 30 minutes—at which point I was able, unbelievably, to scrape off the old poly. Boy, does that stuff work fast. At this point I was feeling completely (a little too much, perhaps) like a rock star. This feeling persisted right through the slathering and scraping of side two, and all the way to the next paragraph.
At this point I had a chair shell without any patches of poly, and with a much better looking grain, but with a whole lot of what the Citrastrip people call ‘residue,’ which amounted in my case to black balls of poly and Citrastrip all over the shell. I mention this in case you, too, decide to spend a tranquil hour some morning blithely stripping a chair shell and, flushed with your initial success, think you will be done with the entire refinishing project before lunch. If you are ever in this position, know that the worst is yet to come. You will have to get that residue off before you proceed, and it is icky and tenacious. If you are smart, you will already have sent your spouse off on trip no. 2 to the hardware store for mineral spirits (AKA paint thinner) and steel wool. If not, you will lose your temper a couple of times while trying to get the residue off with a scrub sponge and a bowl of soapy water. Then you will send your spouse off. He will be unerringly patient and cheerful while you act like a crazed DIY lunatic on crack (or menopausal hormones). Then he will go off and purchase your supplies, returning with a smile and an offer of help, at which point you will feel even more like an ungrateful moron. You will probably cry a little while removing said residue, which will take you more than an hour and a half and put you very far behind schedule for the rest of your workday, thus ensuring continued good times of feeling bad about yourself. If any or all of this happens to you, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
That’s Buttercup, minus the poly and (thank God, finally) the residue. You’ll notice that she looks a little hazy and, in fact, I had to fight absolute panic at this point, thinking that she would never recover, and that I had ruined her. But I am a rational person (sometimes, the above paragraph notwithstanding). Also, I remembered that Morgan said in her tutorial that the wood would look hazy after cleaning. I figured this was an analogous situation (plus, what was I going to do at this point if it wasn’t?) and pressed on to cheesecloth, and wiping on my first coat of Watco Teak Oil.**
After the first coat of oil, Buttercup was looking downright sleek. The instructions said to leave the oil on for half an hour; Morgan said ten minutes. I split the difference and, after fifteen minutes, wiped off the first coat, and wiped on the second. This I let sit for a good twenty minutes before taking a rag to Buttercup. After a couple of minutes of smoothing and polishing, I began to notice how incredibly different the shell looked already. Just like Morgan said it would be, it was lustrous! And beautiful! It looked like walnut—satiny, smooth walnut—rather than some icky yellowed crappy cheap-ass pasteurized process fake wood food product! I couldn’t stop grinning and petting Buttercup. I made the spouse come ooh and aah with me just for good measure (and so I could take a break and take some Advil). After oohing and aahing some more, I slathered on some Howard Feed-N-Wax (best stuff ever), let that sit for 20 minutes, and then polished. Then I carried the shell inside, and reassembled the chair. And this—this—is what she looks like now:
So much better. I will admit, in this picture, she is not perfect***; there are a couple areas that still look a little sketchy (although some of that shininess is that the second coat of Feed-N-Wax had not entirely soaked in before I took pictures; I could not wait!), and she could probably use a little more polishing. But all in all? In one day, to go from a sad, forlorn little nebbish of a chair, deprived of her rightful place in the pantheon of modernist furniture, to this sexy, gorgeous supermodel chair thing? Va va voom, sweet little Buttercup. You go, girl.
Now, I have a problem. I want to refinish all the things. Let’s start with our beat up walnut Mag table, shall we? And the dining table? How about tomorrow? Or should I actually do some work this week? Like, you know, for people depending on me for things? Actual clients and stuff?
Yeah. Back to work.
BONUS PROJECT! The snowshoes? Spouse got them at our local flea market for $50 Saturday, and I cleaned them, polished them (more Feed-N-Wax; seriously, there is nothing that stuff cannot do) and hung them yesterday. Pretty cool as Scandi-modern American farmhouse midcentury cabin décor, eh?
* Let me digress here by saying that “refinish a chair” should have been on my life list. I’ve never refinished a piece of furniture—before today, that is—all by myself. My mom would be proud!
**This is what Morgan said to use for a super-natural look. She said I could also have used Danish oil, but I wanted the chair to look like walnut and not something else (we’d had enough of that), and so I chose an oil with zero added color. True, I kind of winged it here; teak oil is supposedly for super hard, dense woods, and I wasn’t sure it would work as well on Buttercup’s walnut veneer as it had on Morgan’s and Daniel’s teak pieces. But in for a penny, in for an expensive refinishing job if my plan didn’t work. Also: I should buy stock in Rustoleum.
***Try the top pic. I took that one this morning.