Jerry’s Table

You might have heard the expression: “If it’s worth doing once, it’s worth doing well.” My dad likes to add a twist to this phrase. Whenever he has to redo something, he shrugs his shoulders and says: “Well, if it’s worth doing once, it’s worth doing twice.”

I definitely inherited my dad’s optimistic attitude. The most recent example was a piece of furniture which I wanted to fix up.

Picture a long farmhouse table with thick metal trestle legs, so heavy that I can barely lift one side by myself. This table came into my life last summer, when Sung and I were living with my grandparents.

Every week last summer we would go visit my grandfather’s friend Jerry. Jerry is a retired veterinarian who loves animals. On his property he has a mini farm with goats, sheep, pigs, ducks and chickens. He also has a giant barn filled to the rafters with dusty furniture. Walking through it felt like being in an antique store. Some of it spilled out into the driveway where it was getting sunbaked. 

Jerry wanted to get rid of some furniture, so he let Sung and I pick out whatever we could fit in our truck. That’s how we ended up with this enormous table. Of course, it did not fit in our cozy rental house. So for the past year it stayed outside covered with a tarp.

Now that we have moved into a larger house we have space for more furniture. Last weekend I decided it was time to tackle Jerry’s table.

I dusted off a year’s worth of cobwebs and scrubbed everything clean. But the wood surface of the table remained rough with dents and scratches accumulated over several decades. It was also blotchy from sun damage.

So I thought I should refinish it. But, I did zero research. At the hardware store I grabbed a sheet of sandpaper and a can of oil-based stain. Back at home, I quickly ran the sandpaper over the table and removed a few molecules of varnish. Time to stain! I poured most of the can on the table, let it sit for a few minutes, and then wiped it off like the can instructed.

My head was pounding from the fumes. And the table looked horrible. It was still scratched to hell and back, but now the scratches had soaked up all the dark stain. I was furious with myself for rushing the process.

Sung tried to make me feel better. “It’s weathered,” he said, “it has a nice rustic vibe.” 

“No!” I told him, “It looks like I just colored in all the cracks with a black sharpie!”

Back to the hardware store I went, this time with a shopping basket and some humility. I asked a store employee a question about sandpaper and he got the sense I really didn’t know what I was doing. 

He very kindly walked me through everything I needed, even the right gloves so I wouldn’t get chemical burns on my hands. I purchased everything. No skipping steps this time. A chemical varnish stripper, a wash to clean that up, then mineral spirits to clean that up. Pretty much the only thing I didn’t need to buy was a mask since we already had plenty of those lying around the house…

I spent the next two days undoing my mistakes and refinishing the table properly. I’m glad I bought all the required supplies because removing all the varnish and stain was messier than I expected. And I’m glad that I took “adequate ventilation” seriously because those chemicals are no joke.

After a lot of sanding and half a dozen coats of polyurethane, Jerry’s table finally has a nice smooth surface. The color of the wood is (mostly) consistent, so I don’t feel the urge to cover it up with a tablecloth.

Next time I get the opportunity to refinish a piece of furniture I will be more methodical so I only have to do the job once. But in this case I didn’t mind the process. When you get something nice, it’s alright to work on it twice.

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