Refinishing a pic-a-nic table

“I say there, Boo Boo, I am in the mood for a pic-a-nic … table!”  -paraphrasing Yogi Bear

Everyone does know who Yogi bear is, right?  If he and his little pal were to take a trip from Jellystone and visit our yard, they would find a nice space for dining with their stolen pic-a-nic baskets.  Here is the saga of sanding and refinishing (and selecting a finish) our picnic table.

When we bought our house, the former owners asked us if we would like to keep their picnic table.  It was purchased circa 1952 from gypsies for two cans of peaches, two cans of tomatoes and five dollars.  Considering its rich history, its perfect fit to our porch, and the fact that it is in good condition and will probably seat 12 people, keeping it was a no brainer.  It might have even been made of a giant redwood that wasn’t protected by government yet, so all the more reason to keep it in service.  We found ourselves eating there a lot while we were doing some renovation before moving into the house and we like have dinner out there when it is still light.

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Yes, that is our kitchen table sitting behind the picnic table.  It was hanging out on the porch during the kitchen renovation.  And, if I ever finish tiling our bathroom, I have plans for it too!

There are two benches, but you get the idea in the photo.  The surface was worse for wear and pretty dirty – but since the surface was so rough, we couldn’t get it clean either.  After going in this circle a couple times and forcing guests to eat at it, I decided it was high time to refinish it.  Besides, nobody needs a splinter in their tush either.

Once again, sanding was the first step of the refinishing process*.  After my sanding experience with the bathroom countertop, my goal was to only sand this project once.  I fired up my little plug-in hand sander and went to town.  The light area on the left in the photo below is sanded and the other area is unsanded.

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First lesson: I have this 1/4″ sheet Ryobi hand sander.  It comes with two surfaces: a foam meant to soften the blow of sand paper that is clipped on, and a hard plastic piece that is for sticking adhesive sand paper to – at least I think that is the point of the hard plastic.  I can tell you that you should NOT stick adhesive sand paper to the foam pad, because it will remove the foam, especially at the corners.  And then your hand sander will cut nice circular groves in the wood, even if you cover the exposed hard corners with painting tape.  Fortunately, you can replace this assembly (or almost anything else you can figure out how to break) for about $1.00 by buying the spare parts here.  The fix took me all of 5 minutes and led to much higher quality surfaces.

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See how everything is kind of orangey?  That’s this dust AFTER I shopvac’ed the whole thing.

Anyway, I digress.  When I started sanding this picnic table, I really had no idea what type of wood it was even made from.  After removing the first couple layers, I concluded that it was redwood.  It seems that not all approve of using power tools on redwood, but I had a lot of damage to erase and a lot of area to cover so I just sanded away.  I actually didn’t have any of the issues I read about online – once again, there is no right answer for home improvement.

Lesson #2: Soft wood is much softer than hardwood.  🙂  I sanded the oak bathroom countertop in the garage for one of the repeats and didn’t generate noticeable dust.  My wrath on this picnic table, however, left piles of dust all over the drive.  I actually had to shop vac the driveway after the top AND the bottom of each bench and the table.  My clothes were also pretty gross.  I definitely took off a good 1/16-1/8″ of wood and damage in practically no time at all, which could be why folks don’t use power tools on soft woods.

I always wear a respirator and safety glasses when sanding since dust masks don’t fit my face well and I don’t like to breathe wood dust (nor 50-year-old gypsy paint dust).  It is surprisingly not good for you, especially in the large doses that this project generated.  This is kind of funny in a way since we visited Redwood National Park the weekend before undertaking this project, which is full of decomposing redwood dust!

After sanding, quite a bit of this dust clung to the table.  I did not have tack cloth, plus there was a complete coating of dust so I think it would’ve been futile.  Instead, I hauled the stuff into the yard and hosed it down with a jet attachment.  Again, I’m quite sure that I violated the many Rules of Handling Soft Woods, but it was very fast and efficient.  I have noticed that logging companies hose down the piles of logs, presumably to prevent fires, so one dose of water can’t be that bad.  I then toweled down the pieces and let them dry overnight.  The furniture seemed no worse for wear afterward. Here is a before (right) and after (left):

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Lesson #3: Redwood discolors after sanding.  The difference in the photo above is a dead giveaway, but that is 50 years.  What surprised me is that the sanded surface actually discolored slightly after only the week between sanding and refinishing.  It wasn’t too noticeable so I just plowed forward, but I did make an effort to sand and refinish the other bench and the table on the same weekend.

Lesson #4: There are many types of finishes that one can apply to wood.  I’m not an expert by any means, but here are the options I considered (read more here):

  • Polyurethene – oil-based coating, hard finish that goes over the wood.  Protects from scratches, hardens by cross-linking polymers (which means an actual chemical reaction leading to hardening), nasty to deal with
  • Poly-acrylic – water-based coating, hard finish, dries quickly, required sanding between coats, protects from scratches, hardens by cross-linking polymers
  • “Varnish” – this word is a general name for clear coatings, but also means a specific finish based on resin dissolved in solvent.  It dries and hardens as the resin evaporates.
  • Shellac – similar to varnish, but the resin is specifically derived from a insect’s secretion
  • Drying wax – hard finish, ingredients seem to vary – maybe like a drying oil?
  • Drying oil – naturally derived oil, dries as reacts to oxygen.
  • “Exterior wood finish” – typically oil-based (above), soaks in (won’t peel off), semi-transparent stain colors or no colors, weathers a little and protects the wood.  I am not totally sure what falls into this category or how they all work, but think naturally-colored porches.  I have found one water-based version.

My goal for finishing the table was to give it a durable (remember Tilley, who has no idea what is and is not hers?  Everything in our home must be “durable”) and water-resistant finish.  The table is under a covered porch so it will not see rain, but it does see pollen and want to be able to wipe that off with a wet cloth.  The durability was also important since I don’t want to redo this project anytime soon.  Along the same lines, I did not want to apply more than 2 coats of my chosen finish; while I’m sure tung oil looks nice, I was not up for 12 coats with a month of dry time.

I also wanted to try out a finish that is environmentally friendly.  Water-based products have more environmentally friendly options (and you don’t have to deal with flammable, hard-to-clean oil-based products).  I have come across two options of water-based sealers through searching around the web.  The first, Safecoat Acrylaq,  I found out about here.  I couldn’t tell how well this would weather.  When I emailed the company, I expected that I would be staining this wood (didn’t know it was redwood yet).  They were very helpful but they actually recommended another of their products, WaterShield, for outdoor furniture.  I couldn’t find this product locally so I can’t comment on it.

Instead, I used the other option that I found, Polywhey ExteriorWood Finish by Vermont Naturals in Caspian Clear.  I also found it to be a good sign that Vermont Naturals had a picture of folks finishing a picnic table on their website!  This product I COULD find locally in a paint store, except I think their stock was out of date so my can looks like this:

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On the website, it is labeled “Exterior Wood Stain”, which is perhaps a bit confusing since stain is not usually clear.  I emailed Vermont Naturals to ask about the discrepancy and they assure me that it is the same product.  It is actually made from whey, a cheese-making by-product that is usually waste.  So, we get double environmental points for repurposing waste AND not harming the environment with toxic chemicals in a paint finish.  For this surface area, I used two quart cans completely.  I applied it with an angled Purdy paintbrush in the middle of the afternoon.  I mention the time of day because it was HOT in direct sunlight.  The finish dried quickly on the furniture but it also left my brush a little tacky, even after cleaning, since it was drying at the top while I was finishing.  I would recommend using this finish out of direct sunlight for the comfort of your paint brush.

The finish went on purple and even milky in some places, which was a little scary at the time.  After drying, it had a nice clear color.  The wood looked a little darker than right after sanding, but this is standard for clear finishes.

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The purplish tint only lasted about 10 minutes before drying away.

I liked this product.  It was quite easy to work with, did not smell at all (no respirator needed for terrible fumes!), dried quickly and left a nice coating.  More like an exterior porch finish than a polyurenthene, the polywhey soaked into the wood (that’s the “penetrating” part) and left a subtly shiny finish.  This particular finish is not supposed to be as “hard” as a polyurethene finish, but it is perfect for an unassuming, outdoor picnic table with a history.  As to appearance, the coating isn’t as reflective as the Minwax polyacrylic that I used on the bathroom countertop.  I did not sand between coats like I would’ve with the hard finish and had no issues.  In fact, this finish did not bubble at all.  The can says to wait 2-3 days for the second coat to dry before using, but we put a water glass down after 5 days and it left a ring 😦 .  I would recommend waiting a week to avoid any issues – water glasses do not leave marks anymore.  Spilled water even beads up, as advertised:

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Here’s the finished product:

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Much nicer than the before.  (The kitchen table moved back in and now there’s backerboard there…)  Here’s a direct before and after:

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*Want to read about my first experience refinishing and appreciate what is possibly the ugliest piece of re-finished furniture in the blogsphere?  Try here, here , here and finally here.  I’ve published every mistake I’ve made so you can get off scot-free.

Chalk one up for repurposing.

This is the story of how I made my own chalk paint, painted a (free, re-purposed) nightstand, learned a great secret for stenciling and finished it all up with wax.

It is not necessary to justify an end table purchase, but the piece of crud that showed up in our house deserves some explanation.  Our dearth of furniture became obvious after we moved into our house last November.  We actually had never owned an end table because our couches could both access the coffee table and since we moved literally every year for 7 years, end tables (especially those grad students could afford) were pretty much dead weight.  However, our new house has a rather long living room so only one couch can use the coffee table conveniently.  Plus, I have spent way too much time looking at blogs and I see that end tables help make a house feel homey.  And Tilley seems to chew the furniture less*.

Anyway, time to buy an end table.  I tried to take one step up from Ikea and bought this little number from a fairly large store online:

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Lesson #1: Cheap furniture not from Ikea can actually be much, much worse than that form Ikea.  It doesn’t look so bad in the store’s photo does it?  [Because I’m not saying very nice things about this store I don’t want to name names.]  However, when it actually showed up, the white part was yellowish, creamy MDF and the top was veneer that was about 1/16″ thick.  The whole thing smelled worse than cheap Ikea furniture and wasn’t easy to assemble.  But, the worst part was that there was a 2 inch chip out of the front of the veneer and the stain was splattered all over the top.  I do not have a picture of this tragedy since I didn’t really expect much to be come of it.

Fortunately, the large store has a phone line that is manned 7 days a week and has an excellent return policy.  Phone call #1 basically went as follows:

Me: My thing arrived.  It’s messed up, as in blah blah blah.

Customer rep: Can you fix it or would you like another one?

Me: No, definitely not.  I don’t know how to fix veneer.  I don’t really need another one since this has been disheartening. [Read: because it is a piece of crud.]

Customer rep: Ok, that’s a bummer.  We will give you a full refund and send you a USPS label so you can send it back.  Just package it all back in the original box, then schedule a pick-up when you have the label.

Me: Great, thanks.

I guess they must do this a lot.  Anyway, after about 10 days, the label hadn’t arrived so I called the store back and asked.  It turns out they had already refunded my credit card and weren’t going to pay for me to ship it back.  The lady this time said, “Just donate it.”  Ok then.  So, to donate it, I had to put the thing together.  Next time I want to assemble furniture, I am going to Ikea.  It was much more logical and the crummy pressed wood doesn’t completely fall apart.  Eventually I got it together and queued up to donate, but then, I remembered that I knew someone who needed a nightstand.   And a car-themed gag nightstand would be a great gift for this person…but you can’t buy those so what better way to use this stupid thing than for a gag gift?!  I filled the gap in the veneer with wood filler, let it dry a day and evened it out with a sanding block.  This removed the as-received hill-billy styling of the piece after I got some paint on it.

I decided to try out chalk paint on it because I like flat finishes, as I learned from my last furniture painting attempt.  I understand that chalk paint can typically be used without sanding or priming, but since this was sketchy, smelly Chinese MDF, I opted to prime before painting.  Sanding wasn’t an option for this finish.  Off came the hardware and I primed the now-nightstand with Zinsser BIN primer, which I have been assured is an excellent odor blocker by a Kelly-Moore rep that I met in Home Depot.  A Benjamin Moore store employee also told me that it is a good bonding primer, meaning that it should stick to shiney stuff.  It is shellac based, so it needs special brush cleaner (or disposable brushes).  Truthfully, I haven’t seen anyone else on the internet use this stuff – they all seem to prefer the oil based.  I have yet to find out why since this seems pretty stuck when I tried rubbing or scratching or sanding it off.  I already had a can on hand and it also cleaned off my hands without mineral spirits, so that was appealing for me.

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Painting the end table with primer was already a step up.  Again, no photos, but just imagine the ugly thin in the photo up there all white.  I primed everywhere, including the inside of the drawer.

Since this is a low-budget project, I refused to buy full-priced, hard to find chalk paint and decided to make my own after cruising the internet.  I found my favorite list of recipes here and went with a calcium carbonate option, but created my own recipe.  I had no trouble finding this on Amazon.  This site used a 2:1 Paint: Calcium: Carbonate, which I assume is by volume.  I never follow recipes and this seemed a little thick to me.  I opted for about 8 tablespoons of the calcium carbonate, then added just enough water to stir into a paste.  The total volume of this mixture was roughly 4 oz.  I then poured in 16 oz of Behr Premium Plus Flat Enamel in Polar Bear White and stirred with a mixer that attached to my drill – probably meant for cement.  This type of paint said acrylic, not latex, on the can which may be useful for making homemade chalk paint.  The paint was a nice consistency, fairly close to what actually came out of the can.  All in all, I was very pleased with this recipe.  It went on smooth, did not dry with brush strokes and covered the primer with a single coat.  I did opt for two coats on the top for durability.  After it dried, the paint felt chalky, but not loose.  I was not interested in sanding the edges.  Now picture a white nightstand.  The photo is coming below.

I was interested in putting a stencil on top of this car-themed nightstand.  This is the emblem found on first-generation Pontiac Firebirds:

firebird

Whether or not it is politically-correct today is NOT the point of this post.  Let it suffice to say that the recipient of this nightstand is a fan of the first-gen Firebird, so I had an appropriate stencil made here on Etsy.  I was using previously-owned Martha Stewart metallic paint in Thundercloud, which may or may not be good paint for stenciling.

Lesson #2 (very important): Not all sponges for stenciling are created equal.  Typically one dunks the sponge in the paint, then blots off the excess paint until the sponge is basically dry.  I first tried a piece of just a plain old sponge, but couldn’t get it dry enough to not leave bubbles without making it so dry that it would not leave paint at all!  So, I drove over to Michaels and bought something like these.  These worked just as badly as the plain ol’ sponge!  But, I decided to plow ahead with too much paint on my brush…and got this mess:

photo 1

All of the bumps are because of the bubbles that formed in the brush.  The edges were also pretty far from clean since the paint leaked over.  I still had to do two coats to eliminate actual holes form the bubbles and so the whole Firebird logo was raised off of the nightstand.  Technically, it got the job done, but it bugged me.  Surely, there is a better way to do this!

I used my trusty friend the electric sander again and erased the Firebird from the top.  Then I put 2 coats of chalk paint back on.  The paint has kept perfectly for 2 weeks now in a plastic container with tight-fitting light (think large yogurt container).

Lesson #3: Makeup sponges make EXCELLENT stenciling applicators, especially when there is a lot of fine detail.  I actually learned that from here.  These are phenomenal and far and way better than anything else I tested.  Fortunately, I have a package of these for the foundation that I never wear.  The holes are so fine that the paint doesn’t bubble up and I could blot off the paint until they were dry, but still stencil paint with clean lines and no bubbles!  I end up going over the pattern 3 times to get the color to my liking.  Here she is:

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Lesson #4: Bleed through can be sort of cleaned up.  For those areas where I was impatient and didn’t blot of enough paint, there was still bleed through.  This was a particularly persnickety stencil since it had a lot of connected pieces, as you can tell.  It slipped around a lot and I was nervous about adhesive over my chalk paint.  If I did it again, I really now understand the importance of blotting FULLY EACH TIME no matter how annoying it is.

I used paste wax to seal the paint.  I used CeCe Caldwell‘s wax since it is all natural and I had to drive someplace special to get either this or Annie Sloan on the day that I wanted it.  I didn’t really want to pay for this for this project, but I have another project queued up that will benefit as well.

Lesson #5: Minwax paste wax in “natural” is not acceptable for white furniture.  I’m not the first to say this and I won’t be the last.  Fortunately, I tested it on the bottom just to see what would happen.  1) It was hard and didn’t blend well and 2) it was orange.  It is much much cheaper though, so I still would use it on a darker furniture item.

I painted the handle (spray Zinsser BIN and the Martha Stewart paint again) and screwed it back on.  Here is the whole thing in a room:

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Yikes, iPhone photos are not good for decorating photos.  Note my clever off-set positioning of the stencil so the lamp wasn’t smack in the middle of the stencil.

Fortunately, I already owned a lot of the supplies (and those which I did not are mostly reusable for other projects), otherwise this would have been quite expensive to dress up a free nightstand.

Anyway, the project was fun, the recipient is happy and I learned that homemade chalk paint is great and there are some tricks to stenciling.  The end table shall have a lovely new life as a nightstand!

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*This totally looks like a sane dog who doesn’t chew furniture, right?

The Scarlett method

I found myself assembling a shelf of ‘old friends’ when I recently unpacked our book collection onto our new shelves**.

On my shelf of old friends, I found myself placing the books that I can’t put down when I read them, and I can read them over and over again.  I don’t only read these books, but  they are there if I need motivating, relaxing or just entertainment.  One of these books is, I am almost afraid to admit, Gone with the Wind.  Yes, yes, it’s intriguing and exciting and tragic and a top ten love story of all time, but really…I’m married so who needs Rhett Butler ;)?  This book is about “people who have gumption and people who do not,” in the words of Margaret Mitchell herself.  Scarlett O’Hara may not be kind or selfless, but she definitely has gumption (and good looks).  Before we go too far, I acknowledge that we may not approve of her methods or even her goals as the book goes on – but this post is about attaining goals, not making them, so the reader is fully responsible for any sketchy goal setting!

Throughout the book it is clear that Scarlett is undeniably going to finish what she plans to do.  She is able to effectively set goals and follow through.  Despite this, when she is about to undertake another act of self-preservation, she feels guilt that lingers from her antebellum Southern upbringing.  When she realizes she has no alternative that still allows for survival in her war-torn world, she exclaims, “Oh, I’ll think of that later!” to put her guilt aside until she has attained her goal. 

Now, bear with me, the next book I have chosen to read is Espresso Lessons by Arno Ilgner (that was on the ‘outdoor adventure’ shelf).  Arno Ilgner is the founder of the Warrior’s Way, a method to improve the psychology of rock climbers to enable them (us?) to evaluate and tackle challenges effectively.  The reason I have this particular book is because I took a Warrior’s Way clinic last year.  While the class occurred at our local Planet Granite and focused on rocks, the underlying principle is equally and heavily applicable outside of the rock gym: the most effective actions, thoughts or plans are those on which we have consciously and actively focused our full attention.  Attention is the key word.  If you are climbing, climb.  If you are resting, only rest.  This is the time to plan.  Once you start moving again, just keep moving how your body flows without letting your thought distract you.  In other words, if you have fear of falling, think of it later and focus on falling itself now.

I can’t seem to get over how striking it is that these books, a century apart and worlds different in context, lead to the same place.  In Scarlett’s case, her goals are survival-based and distraction is her guilt.  In the Warrior’s Way, the goals are self-improvement/achievement and the distraction is fear.  In my case, I’m still not sure on the goal and perhaps the distraction is the internet…  To attain the goal, invest fully in moving toward it or invest completely in devising the plan.  If the movement doesn’t match the plan completely, it’s ok – just get to a stopping point to reassess honestly.  And perhaps, when we’re not sure where to put our inevitable fear or guilt or anger or other distraction and we aren’t able to put it in the past, the indefinite future is just as good. 

**A note on the bookshelves: since one of our old Ikea shelves literally collapsed under the weight of our library,

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we decided to upgrade by buying 3 of the Klassik bookshelf from Scandinavian Designs.  I guess they are actually discontinuing this bookshelf, which is a bummer since it’s not terribly expensive and it’s much more structurally sound than the Ikea bookshelf since the shelves are supported by a bar rather than little tabs.  I guess these Scandinavians like to read more than the Scandinavians who work at Ikea…

End table 101 pre-req, part IV (The end of the end table!)

When we left off, the silver “antiquing” on the end table was left to dry.  When I returned 4 days later, it was much better than my previous attempt in that there were no stripes.  I did note that the end table was a bit glossy from the semi-gloss Behr paint that I had used.  To see what I could do about this, I lightly went over the table with a 220 grit sanding block.I did recall my 8th lesson, which is why I had to wait for 4 days before doing this.  This did dull out the finish slightly making things more tolerable but impossible to photograph a different.

This is latex semi-gloss paint and I’m not planning on giving the table a serious workout, so it probably would’ve been find to just bring into the house at this point.  But, this was a practice table and we do have a crazy dog so I decided to put some finish on.  I found that this post by Centsational girl had a lot of good tips along the way, so I decided to take her advice and use a wax finish.

Since I’m lazy and was just going to Home Depot, I didn’t buy any fancy waxes, but I went with $10 Minwax.  While I question my ability to buy paint, I will say that I like this product.  I haven’t used a varnish or polyurethane, but this dried quickly, was super easy and wasn’t messy or terribly smelly.  Most surprisingly, it actually seemed to reduce the shininess!  The natural color didn’t affect the orange at all.

Minwax® Paste Finishing Wax

To apply, I cut an old t-shirt in half along the sides, leaving two full sides as cloths.  The t-shirt happened to be magenta, in case you were wondering if I used a nice white cloth – I did not.  I rubbed one into the Minwax to pick up a small blob and then rubbed the blob on the legs of the table.  I waxed a leg, then wiped it down with a clean part of the same cloth and moved onto the next leg.  I then waxed the surface by rubbing in circles.  I had to rewax my cloth after every leg and a couple times working on the surface.  I made sure to wipe off extra each time leaving no stickiness behind.  Afterward, I walked away from the project for an hour.  Upon return, I used the other half of the t-shirt to buff the wax.  I repeated this whole process a second time.  After the second buffing, I moved the table into the house:

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ta-dah

This table will no doubt look better with a purple rug when we add it.  Here’s another image, with photobomb:

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This photo is more representative of the color.  I give myself a 6 for execution and about a 4 for design on this project. The low rating in execution is for poor choice of paint and the fact that you can still see some of the brush strokes (both with and against the grain – shudder) in the silver.  The heavy duty, thick latex paint kind of makes the whole table look like it is made of plastic since it’s nearly impossible to see the wood texture underneath unless you look carefully.  I might raise the 4 if it looks better with it’s future decor.

But, things are going to get worse before they get better – stay tuned.