Ripping and Stripping

So I ended up with this cabinet. A client of mine wanted to sell it and it was clear from the condition (major water damage from sitting in a damp garage for years) that she would not get much for it from either dealers or junkers. I first offered it to a friend of mine, who passed because while it would fit her needs, she had nowhere to refinish and repair it. So I took it.

The cabinet in original condition

The cabinet is old, but has been taken apart and repaired and refashioned several times over the last hundred years or so, so I didn't feel too bad about my intentions (tear it apart and rebuilt it from a solid base).

The door used to be solid

The glass front is a retrofit -- at a previous point the cabinet was a wardrobe with a solid door, but the two top door panels were removed and replaced with this sheet of glass, and shelves installed.

With added shelves removed

You can see in this photo, after we removed the added shelves, that there is an upper shelf that was semi-original (more on that in a moment) and a rail with hooks for clothes. That's how people hung things up before hangers.

Mr Kitty and Dash help me examine the interior of the cabinet

As is usual for indoor projects, I had lots of helping hands and interested noses. Well, you can see Goldie staring into the kitchen in this photo because Noel was making bacon for lunch, but at least I had two cats to check the inside of the cabinet for mice. (Declared mouse-free.)

We started simply for taking the cabinet apart: knocking out the added shelves first, then peeling off the back, then the front, then the sides. As we worked, we found lots of evidence that the cabinet was made of pieces of other furniture and had been taken apart many times. The nails used to hold the exterior on were easily twice as large as they needed to be, and the job of nailing the thing together was very rough.

The upper shelf was used for cutting something

Also, the upper shelf, which was nailed in so well that we had to remove all the exterior to get it out, looks like it was originally used as a cutting board in a kitchen. Since this side was facing down and five feet off the floor, I'm pretty sure the cutting marks happened before it was nailed in place.

Large square nails

The bottom of the cabinet is in pretty dire shape. That white stuff is mold growing on the wood, which is pretty much the end of its useful life as a piece of wood. Fortunately, we have enough of it that we can copy the pieces that survived and make enough to have a whole cabinet. See those gigantic square nails? Those were what they used to nail this cabinet together, a cabinet that had no piece of wood thicker than a half inch.

Side panel with rotted foot and buckling panels

The side panels have taken the worst of the beating, with rot at the bottom and buckled and cracked panels (where they are not outright missing). Noel knocked out the nails and we set the panels aside to repair.

Laying out the front for stripping

I decided to start my refinishing with the front. Sometime in the 1950's, somebody stripped a portion of the finish off the front and redid it, leaving the older stuff on the edges and tough carved bits. The front was also scuffed and scarred, and needed repairs from the nails used to attach it to the carcass.

Front panel with Safest Stripper applied

I used the large bottle of Safest Stripper a neighbor gave us, and applied it liberally. Half an hour later, the majority of the finish came off (mostly the stuff applied in the 50's).

The learning gallery

Usually I would do this sort of project outside, but since I've been working inside, the cats are fascinated and have been watching from the sidelines as I work (well, Mr Kitty and Dash at least; the other two could not care less).

Applying the second coat of stripper

The rest of the evening and this morning have been spent working on those cracks and crevices that are gunked up with both the original finish and the later refinishing (which also went over a layer of dirt, awesomely enough).

Revealing the wood underneath

As you can see, I still have some work to do removing chunks of finish, but the wood is showing itself and looks really nice under there. The side panels are going to be super-fast because they don't have any curved trim on them. Now I need to decide how I'm going to re-do the trim from the crown, and then how I want to finish it when I'm done.

posted by ayse on 07/10/11


What a great project - I really like the English A&C-inspired incised decoration, and I love seeing things rescued like this (as opposed to, say, quickly sanded and sprayed heavily with white lacquer to produce a "perfect," all-obscuring finish). Plus, a great fit for the architecture of the Casa.

BTW, I have found clay-carving tools to be useful in getting into those awkward rabbets.

What is it about this piece that makes you want to rescue it? It seems like it has had a long, useful life and has few salvageable parts left. I'm not denigrating the project; it's just not clear from the photos why you'd want to go through all that trouble.

Ooh this is super fun to watch! All of the gratification and none of the work. My set of 100-year-old chairs are still only half refinished... I finished the 4 we needed and the other 4 have stayed in the basement for a year now. :P I can't wait to see what your finished product is like. :)

Rae, I like the quality of the wood that is intact (quartersawn oak), the carving is nice, and the general size and shape is a useful one for us. We'd been wanting a china cabinet but nothing really caught my eye; this will be a nice cabinet -- nicer than I could build myself -- for slightly less work than starting from scratch.

And it keeps most of the cabinet from going into the landfill, which matters a lot to me.

p.s. Aren't you worried about the kitties getting their paws in the stripper, etc.?

I was pretty worried about the cats and stripper, because our cats seem to get into any trouble they can find, but that was not a problem. Apart from Dash trying to steal the roll of paper towels I was using to clean the stripper off, they've stayed at a safe distance the whole time. I think they don't like the smell (Safest Stripper smells like banana flavour).

But yes, I stayed around while the first two coats of stripper were at work, making sure they didn't go near it. Once I'd seen them behave reasonably for an afternoon, I felt safe leaving it uncovered overnight (you can also put plastic wrap over the Safest Stripper, so that was always an option).

Thanks for the answer. I agree about the carving on the door panels. I guess that the parts that you are rebuilding are less visible and what will show the most is those carved panels. Kudos to you for taking on this project. And, truly, it fits in with the general theme of your house--a decrepit cabinet for a decrepit casa. ;)

What a great find for you!I love old furniture. this peice seems to have passed it's monetary value except for someone who likes it like you. Does it seem to you that it needs to have a bottom finish support? Most of the ones I have seen have some sort of bottom rail for lack of a better discriptive word. It will be lovely when you finish having seen the quality of your work. Lots of fun. Thanks for showing it to us!

Nice project. It looks like all the important pieces are in good shape for their age - definitely worth saving in this age of mass-produced, particle board junk furniture.

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