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Turning to a Pro For Help

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.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011 by Chris
This post was written by - who has written 849 posts on styleNorth.

5 Comments For This Post

  1. shescomeundone Says:

    What a marvelous piece. Good job, old chap! Getting it finished must have popped the cork on a bottle of stress! Will definitely being paying a visit to Emanuel in the new year, my mid century brazilian rosewood credenza in tow. With a sun bleached front and unsightly watermarks from those madmen cocktails, I have been waiting for a sign and bazinga! here’s Chris with the goods – again.

  2. Liza Says:

    Hi Chris – Great post! When I picked up the table, you were very modest about how much time and effort you had put into getting it fixed up. Thank you SO much for all your help. We love the table. As a passionate re-user and recycler, I’m delighted to have been able to rescue this lovely piece of furniture, not to mention spending far less money on the purchase than I would have for a new “wood product” piece from a catalogue. Thanks again!

  3. Bev Says:

    Chris: The table is lovely and so much better and more interesting looking than something you would find new. Super job!

  4. Cathy Says:

    Thank you Chris for all of the information… my iron is heating up right now. Wish me the best as I am going to try and get white marks off of a chest.
    You are such a wealth of information. I have learnt so much from you. Also thank you for the great pictures.

  5. Tina at Spot On Organizing Says:

    So glad more people are discovering Emanuel! I had the pleasure of working with him this time last year when I was helping a client pack to move to Ottawa. She had various (read ‘a lot’) of antique furniture pieces – all of which needed some kind of TLC. Of 3 refinishers I spoke to, Emanuel was so knowledgable and passionate about his craft. He managed to re-finish/repair all of her peices in a short time line, offering a great price and fantastic customer service. He made personal pick up and deliveries in order to fit into our crazy snowy day move schedule and offered up great suggestions for re-upholstering a pair of 1940′s chairs.

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