Finishing the Radio Cabinet
The avid reader will have noticed I started this project just under a year ago. It's been one of those projects that I would squeeze in time on where I could, then set aside while other jobs were tackled.
Most of the repairs have been finished in earlier episodes, save for one - the fragile appliqué at the bottom front was broken in a couple of spots and missing a small piece at one end. I have to get these pieces whole again before I can proceed on to finishing the cabinet. It's deceptively simple task to do - there is a lot of patience involved.
Piecing back together the broken pieces is an easy task, and one that hot hide glue is truly best suited for. I simply used some glue on the broken ends and held the two pieces together while the glue cooled then when the glue was cool enough where it wouldn't fall apart and still soft enough to "roll" in between my fingers to make it easy to remove.
The broken end was the tricky part. As fragile as the appliqué is, the broken end is complicated by the fact that it the grain orientation is in the short direction, making it very, very prone to break.
I started by gluing (with hide glue, of course) a small piece of matching wood onto the end of the appliqué after squaring off the end with a block plane. Using the other side as a pattern, I cut the piece to shape on a bandsaw, after which I carved, filed, and sanded the new piece to match the existing.
Of course, I had to do this 3 or 4 times because the old, dried out wood in the appliqué would simply break a hair further down each time. There is no real simple way to do it without risking some do-overs... I've tried gluing them to a substrate only to break it when removing it later. Paper can work in some instances... It didn't here, but I have gotten lucky before. In the end, it just took a very, very sharp carving gouge and a whole lot of patience.
Once I had them in decent enough shape, I used some brads to tack them back into place using the original holes, with just slightly larger brads than were used originally so they would hold. No glue - the brads will be sufficient in combination with the varnish. They lasted 80 years without glue, so they should make it another 80 without any problems. The best picture of the finished pieces assembled is probably the fourth one from the bottom below...
Normally, I would use a light wash coat of blond shellac to even out the color before using a stain or dye on the project. On this project, I was a bit concerned about the wide variety of different species of woods used. The original was mostly a mahogany veneer over a poplar base. The poplar was exposed in several spots, the most obvious being the edges of the top. Also the feet and the two "columns" on each side of the front seem to be of a different wood type yet again, but I just wasn't sure of what species.
The veneer on the doors was a crotch or otherwise similarly distressed wood veneer, and then I added new mahogany veneer on the top and a luan of some sort (wood recovered from some old door jambs) for the new interior.
I could not get the color to match evenly enough when I tried a wash coat, however. The salvaged luan I used for the interior pieces is absolutely horrible stuff when it comes to finish, too - thankfully that wood will be hidden behind the doors.
So, I made the plunge and decided that I would dye all of the wood raw, using a Transtint dark brown dye (mixed w/alcohol). In the end, the cabinet ended up just a bit darker than I would have preferred - I maybe should have used a very, very, very thin wash coat on the raw wood first, but it's still OK. The different woods matched up pretty well in the end. The original finish, I believe, was a colored nitrocellulose lacquer, something fairly new at the time of this cabinet's construction (late 1920's) and popular with factories that made such items at the time (even guitars were finished with nitrocellulose lacquer). I don't have a decent spray booth (yet), nor a clean place to do the work, so a more forgiving finish was in order.
Dye is a nasty thing to get on your hands - it doesn't come off for nothing, so have disposable plastic gloves on hand when you use it. I buy those 100-packs from the dollar store, they work for a lot of this stuff. The latex gloves you can get are not always so handy - petroleum products will quickly degrade latex, making them break easily. They will work for shellac and dye, however, as those products do not contain petroleum products.
The door has it's own appliqué of figured maple on it. To make sure I didn't get any dye on it, I used a good coat of paste wax on just the maple to protect it. Don't use paste wax in this manner if you are using a synthetic or poly finish on top such as lacquer or polyurethane, as it will mess up the finish. I'll be using a combination of shellac and Waterlox varnish (a traditional oil-based varnish), so I'll be OK. You can see the freshly dyed door in the picture just above. The color differences are quite stark - that will be less so in the finished product as both the shellac and the varnish have a slightly brown tint to them.
I think the hardest thing about finishing isn't the finishing itself - you know, avoiding fish eyes, dirt specks, runs, brush marks and all that... It's envisioning what the finish will look like on the finished piece. There's no substitute for practice here - and almost always there is a surprise waiting for you at some stage. Such is the blessing (and curse) of working with a natural product. You can see in just the photos here how much each stage affects the final product - at the left the doors are just-varnished and some very brilliant reds are coming through the mahogany. These tone down quite a bit when the varnish dries, changing the appearance of the wood yet again.
The finish process I went through is as follows: I sanded the bare wood up through 220 grit, spending extra time at the end of each sanding "cycle" sanding with the grain to remove cross-grain scratches. Normally next I would apply a thin shellac wash-coat, but because the color was dark and to make sure all the different woods stained the same, I used Transtint dye mixed with alcohol directly on the raw wood.
From there, I sealed the dye in place by padding on some thin shellac. Once I had a sealer coat of shellac in place, I filled the grain on the top (just the top) with Behlen's water-based grain filler. Grain filler has come a long ways since I first started - back then you needed a burlap sack and Popeye arms to work the stuff into the grain, or you just used pumice (which can sometimes have an odd, glassy effect especially if used in conjunction with dark woods or stains). Today's fillers are basically just squeegeed into place. Once that was done, I let it dry overnight and lightly block-sanded the top with 220.
To finish sealing the wood, I chose amber shellac - the color helps even out the color differences of the finish between the different woods. You have to take care when using a colored finish like shellac that you get it evenly applied, as when you don't the color differences will be painfully obvious - so don't try this blind on your first refinish job without a little practice first, or if you want a lighter color, use a blond shellac instead. Once I had 3 coats of shellac on, I sanded it with 220 (with the grain) again, just enough to smooth out the roughness and not enough to go through the shellac. I let that dry for a week.
The next week, I block sanded the shellac with 220 (again with the grain), cleaned it with a rag lightly soaked with alcohol, then wiped on a good, even coat of Waterlox original varnish over the entire project. Not too thick, as this is the base coat for the main coats of varnish and I want it to adhere well. Then I set the project aside for a week to allow the base coat to dry.
Once dry, I block sand the varnish with 220 again and use some extra fine steel wool to get in the corners, then give the entire project 3 coats of Waterlox over a day, then 3 more the next day using a good brush. None of the coats are heavy, and no sanding is done in-between coats - that one of the beautiful things about Waterlox. Now the finish had to sit for a minimum of 2 weeks before proceeding (longer would be better) to harden, otherwise buffing it out will just make it a fuzzy, blurry, mess.
One could actually stop there - there are many who believe that you should be able to use the final coat of varnish as your final finish. I've never been satisfied with anything but a few sprayed-on finishes for that though, and unless you have a spray booth and professional spray equipment - and the experience to use them - it's difficult to get a good finish without doing at least a little rubbing out. The high gloss varnishes look too "plastic", and the finish from the satin finish varnishes are so often too dull.
So I use a high gloss varnish with the full intent that I will rub it out later to get the sheen just as I want. But as I mentioned, it does add time to to the project as the varnish must be sufficiently hard to be buffed out.
There is another benefit to letting the finish harden, buffing it out, and waxing it, too - it will give the finish time to "off-gas", getting rid (or at least greatly reducing) the smell coming off of the furniture.
While we are "virtually" waiting for the finish to dry, let's go back and examine some of the repairs made to see how well I faired.
The bottom of the sides were in the roughest shape. The veneer had broken away from the edge, making it look quite bad. In the process photo at left, you can see the progression from how it was, to fixed, to finished. Veneer repairs such as these, which I went through in a previous article on the cabinet, are much more forgiving when using a dark finish such as this as it allows you to bury the new veneer patches under the finish. So long as the grain and pores of the patch are similar to the original veneer, the patch will fade into the background. Lighter finishes require more time matching the color and texture of the patch.
On the simple repair on the front (as documented in this previous article) you can definitely see the line of the veneer and the slight color difference in the comparison photo at right, but it's only noticeable if you are looking directly at it with a good light - so I think I was fairly successful at it.
Color is one of the toughest things to match when you are repairing something as old as this cabinet quite simply because they don't make veneer the same as they used to. The wood used then were of far higher quality than what is available today, even on a factory production unit such as this. But it can still be done, and likely better than I've done it here, if you are patient and willing to experiment. This is where having one of those "sample" packs of veneers can come in handy, as that will give you a range of choices to make when matching something existing. You don't even have to use the same species all the time, so long as the color and texture of the veneer matches sufficiently.
The feet (repaired in this previous article) were one of the more obvious damaged parts of the original cabinet, and most difficult to repair. In the end, you can see the color difference if you are looking straight at it, but from eye level it's not so obvious. At least it much less obvious than when big chunks were missing as in the comparison shot at left...
I don't know if you'd call it a "design flaw", but what happened was the original makers wanted some ball-type feet that were wider in width and in depth than the post they were a part of. So to minimize waste, the manufacturer simply tacked blocks onto the bottom of the posts. It was this glue line that failed. I don't know what the original glue used here was, it was likely hide glue - but it wasn't done correctly as the glue should have been stronger than the surrounding wood.
Two weeks pass, and it's time to rub out the finish. Two weeks is a minimum - the finish is simply not hard enough before then. 3 or 4 weeks would be better. The products I use are displayed in the photo at right: 0000 steel wool, 2F and 4F Pumice, Rottenstone, mineral oil, and felt. This is all followed by a coat of paste wax.
The process I use for rubbing out is to first very lightly go over the entire surface with 0000 steel wool, taking care to always go with the grain, something you no doubt have noticed I make mention of several times. Straying from the grain will show up very obviously on subsequent steps, and cause you much headache later, so I've learned over the years to go with the grain as often as possible during whatever process I'm doing. It results in less work every time. I also take care not to overdo it with the 0000 steel wool, as it's actually quite a coarse abrasive for this stage of the game - all I want to do is remove the fuzzies and bumps from the surface.
After the steel wool, I thoroughly clean the cabinet and start with the 2F pumice (and subsequently the 4F pumice), about a tablespoon or so mixed in a cup of mineral oil. If you want it to cut faster, you can use water instead of mineral oil, but I find it's often too easy to go through the finish, so I usually stick with mineral oil Truth be told, it doesn't have to be mineral oil, just about any oil will do - vegetable oil, peanut oil... so long as the smell of it isn't offensive (which is the biggest reason I use mineral oil as it's odorless).
I wrap a piece of felt around an old sponge-style sanding block and lightly apply oil to the felt, working back and forth (with the grain) You can feel the pumice cutting if you are doing it correctly. I work it until most of the oil is gone, being sure to cover the entire surface as consistently and uniformly as possible. As the grades of the abrasive get finer, the work gets more intensive as you are essentially doing more with less... Also, you must take care to thoroughly clean the wood between products and use fresh felt, otherwise you will have to deal with cross-contamination and never quite get that sheen you are looking for.
Generally, I don't do any polishing on unseen parts of the cabinet, I don't go past 2F pumice on the interior of the cabinet, and only use the rottenstone on the top, where the gloss of the finish is most obvious.
When all the polishing is done, it's time to move on to the paste wax. I like to use a simple paste wax like Johnson and Johnson floor wax or Renaissance wax. The Minwax product above I'm not so enamored with - it doesn't seem to dry well, either it's too hard or won't dry for nothing, and nothing in-between.
Waxing is one of the most labor intensive processes of the entire project. It takes a lot of elbow grease to do properly. I never apply to a larger area than I can work at a time, using a circular motion and trying to never let any build up in corners or over edges. Once applied, I let it dry thoroughly - though the longer it dries the hard it will become to polish, so there's a "sweet spot" in the drying process that allows you to polish without as much work. Use a good light source to keep an eye on the finish, and so you can see and work out swirl marks.
Here's where a good, powered lambswool polishing wheel can come in handy, at least for the large surface areas - but if you use one use care that you are consistent and uniform in how you polish the surface and that you do not over-do it.
I wax the interior of the cabinet as well, to give it some protection from the inevitable scratches and just so it feels more the same as the exterior of the cabinet.
Now that it's done, here's a photo of the original "interior" of the cabinet (left) showing the radio dials. It looks totally cool, but unfortunately was also totally useless. The original radio on the interior had been completely stripped of all its parts, so there was no way it would function as a radio again.
Here's the interior after (on right). The cabinet will serve as a stand for a record player, so it now has storage inside for some original LP's and a small shelf on top to hold the sleeve of the record being played as well as some blank CD's that will be for cutting the LP to.
The original finishes used on this cabinet made restoring it a joy - something everyone should consider when building or restoring furniture. Today's glues, epoxies, and polyurethane finishes may often seem like wonderful products, but I can tell you from experience that repairing things that have been "restored" or built with them makes doing it a real chore.
Stuff like this is meant to be repaired or restored eventually. The mindset today is that everything is as it will always be, it should be maintenance free, and last forever. That's just simply not a realistic view. Stuff wears down. Parts go missing, are broken, or become obsolete. If you are building or restoring any furniture, please take the time to take into account future restorers - after all that restorer might well even be yourself.
This project was a lot of fun to work on, and the methods and materials used should all be repairable should the need arise in the future. Is it the model of perfection? Oh gracious, no. I'm far from being an expert, I just do it for the enjoyment. I also didn't bother to fix absolutely everything, as one has to remember that it is old, and there's no point in having it look brand new, as that's really a lie. Some flaws are OK, so long as what shows is from natural wear and not from complete incompetence on the restorer's part. Some might argue my abilities in that regard - but hey! I had fun and the project came out nicely enough for me in the end, and that's what really matters.
Thanks for reading!