I’m a huge proponent of learning by doing. Armed with a book or a Google search I’ll dive into just about any project, provided there’s not too much at stake financially. And so to my latest story . . .
StyleNorth reader Liza wrote to me seeking some help finding a well-priced coffee table (up to $250). Liza lives in North Bay, Ontario, where the Craigslist pickings are slim to non-existent so after discussing size and style, I pulled scads of Toronto-area options for her to consider. Liza found the winner herself, above, but there was a caveat (or two, as it turned out). There were a couple of pronounced, white watermarks on the surface that I was pretty sure I could tackle and turn into a good blog post (this one!).
But unbeknownst to Liza there was also some significant damage to the finish (below). Standing in the seller’s foyer I had to think fast. I concluded that I should make the decision to buy or to walk away based on what I would do if the table was for me since I had no way of knowing how fussy Liza is about such things. I went for it. The design and scale of the table are impressive and it was too nice a piece to turn my back on, especially for $150. So I rolled the dice and took it home.
The watermarks were a challenge but I prevailed. I tried a couple of internet suggestions – slathering the marks with a paste made of vegetable oil and salt, and when that failed, petroleum jelly – but neither had any effect. Then I brought out the big gun, the clothes iron. The advice I read told me to gently press the spots with a dry iron through a cotton towel and it worked! Little by little the white marks faded. Apparently, the heat of the iron evaporates the moisture trapped beneath the finish and the cotton wicks it away. But you have to be careful not to let the table get too hot. The heat of the iron can really mess with the finish, which it did on the second spot where I noticed the finish starting to bubble. I cooled things down with a juice bottle from the fridge. The new damage – slight really – wasn’t as bad as the white spots or the chips and cracks that came with the piece.
With the white marks and rings remedied, I set about repairing the finish and this is where I discovered that learning by doing isn’t always enough. My initial plan was to use Briwax and some extra-fine steel wool to even things out and that went a long way to repairing the bubbling from the iron, but the wax was no match for the cracked and missing finish so I called for back-up.
I sent a detailed photo of the problem to antiques dealer and professional furniture restorer Emanuel Calleja, below, of Old Fashioned Restoration, asking whether I should use wax stick filler or burn-in lacquer sticks. Emanuel asked me to bring him the piece.
His professional opinion was that the top needed to be completely refinished but the expense — he quoted $400 to do the job — was prohibitive and time was of the essence since Liza was due to pick up the table that weekend. Emanuel offered to do what he could but warned me that sometimes a patch job can create other problems. I wasn’t worried: Emanuel is a master who learned his craft in his father’s workshop and has been perfecting his skills ever since.
In the end, he used common wood filler, lovingly tinted with professional-grade stains. Then, with the surface evened out, he applied a few coats of French polish.
The result is fantastic, so much better than anything I could have done on my own. The patch almost disappears into the burl of the wood. My sincerest thanks to Emanuel! If you’re in the Toronto area and have an heirloom in need of some TLC, you could do no better than to take your treasure to Mr. Calleja. Tomorrow, I’ll feature a selection of vintage and antique pieces from his shop at 3068 Dundas Street West.
Here’s how the piece looks installed in Liza’s living room. I think the style of the table is a perfect compliment to some of her inherited antiques.