Before and After: A Forum in Hell

Whenever I tell people that I buy furniture from Craigslist often, they get kind of squirmy and ponder about the weird things I might encounter or the probability that it will end in some kind of shirtless, toothless Cops-style drama. It never has. Even the strangest places I’ve ever gone to buy something have turned out to be fairly benign. So, I never think much about answering an ad and hopping in the car. At least I didn’t before I bought this:

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And I bet I know what you’re thinking, “Why did you buy that?” Let me  paint you a picture. The scene, as I pull up to a not-so-great house in a not-so-great neighborhood, is a running truck with two dudes parked in the driveway and a woman hanging out of the front door screaming back and forth with an unseen man inside the house. Cool. I wait by the front door, in the rain, until the screaming stops and the woman leads me to a garage behind the house—followed close behind by the man from the house and the two dudes from the truck. Oh…cool. But, I’ve made it this far, I’m either going to buy a credenza or get murdered in what appears to be a shed built for that purpose. I was informed they had just painted the floor and that’s why there was paint on the legs. And painty foot prints on top. Because why wouldn’t there be? Despite the ready-for-death condition of the piece, I decided to pity buy it—because there’s not a single other person on this entire Earth that would. One of the guys from the truck helped me carry it—informing me along that way that he could carry it by himself if I wanted because he had spent 25 years in prison power-lifting. Not terrifying at all.

At the end of the day they turned out to be OK people with a really beat up credenza. But I knew this credenza was from Stanley’s American Forum line and I knew that, despite appearances, it would clean up nicely. So how did I pull this off? Sanding, to start. Lots and lots of sanding. I had just bought a new random orbit sander that I had been wanting to try out. I figured this nothing-left-to-lose credenza was the perfect guinea pig.

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I’ve always used a quarter sheet palm sander and I’ve always been annoyed by the little swirly marks it leaves. The random orbit sander is supposed to do away with that issue, and it did to a significant degree. But it can also chew through veneer pretty quickly, so be careful. Fortunately the sanding went well, but there were some ink and water stains that I knew I couldn’t strip or sand out and normal stain wouldn’t hide. My next resort was a major color shift to a darker tone to hide any minor flaws. For this I like to use General Finishes dye stain.

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Dye stain is amazing. It’s water based, has no odor and imparts a deep, uniform color in one coat on practically any type of wood. No splotching. No resistance. Just even color. It takes a little technique though. Pro tip: work wet. Flood an entire surface and then wipe it all off with a rag—quickly. Dye stain dries fast and lap marks will show and can’t be corrected. It’s also worth noting that dye stain is permanent, like permanent permanent. So test on a scrap first. I was pretty happy with the results on this piece.

After sanding and one coat of dye stain.

After sanding and one coat of dye stain.

The dye stain helped, but there were still little nicks and flaws that needed some coverage and the color overall wasn’t quite right. My next go to is General Finishes gel stain. If you remember my post on refinishing Broyhill Brasilia, then you may remember that this product is a key step in that process. I used antique walnut because it’s what I had on hand (and was about the right color for this piece anyway).

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One coat of this. Wipe it on and off evenly with a cotton rag. Then on to topcoat. My favorite product is General Finishes Arm-R-Seal satin urethane. It’s a strong finish that goes on like a poly but looks more like lacquer or a finer finish. And it’s super easy to apply. Wipe on evenly and thinly with a folded cotton t-shirt rag. Sand to 320 grit between coats. Usually three coats.

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After the last coat, I used a 3M 7445 white polishing pad to knick off any specs of dust and give the finish a super smooth feel without scratching it. And with that…voila!

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Sadly the super cool original American Forum pulls were long gone when I bought this, so I used some replacement porcelain knobs that I keep around for Drexel Declaration pieces. I like the contrast, but it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

IMG_8891 So often I hear people say, “the finish was beyond repair so I painted it.” And I can just about guarantee that whatever “beyond repair” means to them is not nearly as bad as this piece was. I’ll be brutally honest that I don’t like most painted mid-century furniture when restoration is viable. Aside from professionally applied, commercial quality paints, most hand applied latex and chalk paints don’t produce long lasting finishes. They build up thickly and chip and peel and repainting only builds up thicker and nastier. Paint also changes the original design intent of a piece of furniture. That’s not always a bad thing—but it’s almost always a bad thing. The beauty of quality wood—in this case gorgeous American walnut—is as timeless as a tree itself and the effort required to restore it properly isn’t much worse than painting. And it looks better. And it lasts longer. And that’s the end of my rant.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted June 16, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Love the restoration, refinishing work, everything except the knobs. Would have really liked to see matching wooden ones.

    • Austin
      Posted June 16, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Thanks! If there was anything I was sure of when I posted this, it’s that there would be two camps on those knobs—love it or hate it. I wish I had the correct pulls American Forum which are chrome and walnut beauties. Sadly those were lost to the ages and I had the porcelain knobs on hand because I use them for restoring Drexel Declaration pieces (one of my all time favorite mid-century modern furniture lines), which originally came with white porcelain pulls. Although I love them on Declaration and even here, there are definitely a lot of people who don’t like them anywhere. Not sure how I’d feel about wood on this piece, but I think small, shapely brass or aluminum pulls would look great as well.

  2. Rena
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I absolutely love what you’ve done, Austin! You were a huge help to me with my Drexel Declaration china cabinet. I think the knobs looks just as good on your new piece as on the Drexel!

    Your blog continues to be a great source of ideas for me. Thanks so much!

    • Austin
      Posted July 5, 2016 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Rena. I’m glad we can be of service!

  3. Posted October 22, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    This piece has me blown away and given me some major hope for a piece I rescued and want to bring back to close to original glory. I am about to order the products you have listed in this article and stat work on it. It is a Kent Coffey Perspecta piece and someone allowed a child to, um, personalize it. *sigh*

    Thank you for this! I am about to look at your Brasilia redo too because I have one behind me right now that I want to restore.

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