Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism


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Refinishing tables

First, apologies for the long hiatus. Spring is always a very busy time at my job, so I fell behind on both house projects and updates! A lot of the up and coming projects require some ventilation, too, so they had to wait for spring weather. But I’ve had this one in the queue for a while and finally finished the project, so now I can finish writing it up for you!

Backstory: I acquired my dining room table for cheap from craigslist about five years ago. It’s a heavy, cherry dining table (with two leaves!) in a classic, elegant design. Soon after purchasing and precariously driving it home tied to the roof of my parents’ car, we repaired a dog-chewed table leg foot (my dad used wood putty to reform the foot and then stained it to match the table) and rewaxed the top surface. I also scrubbed it with a nice polishing wood cleaner several times over and successfully drew out any cigarette odors remaining in the wood from the previous owners. (Really, owners of wood furniture, do you have to smoke indoors? And then resell your furniture?)

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The dining set, in my old apartment immediately after I bought it.

Anyway, the furniture wax polish never seemed to do a great job: wet rings from bottles and glasses, hot items placed on cork trivets or cloth placemats, spilled liquids, warm cat prints, and cat claw scratches all seemed to go right through the wax and damage the finish. I was thinking of rewaxing it again someday soon, but the timeline was accelerated when I spilled half a bowl of near-boiling chicken soup through and under a plastic placemat and created a big white rectangle in the finish.

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One side of the table, with assorted moisture stains and rings. Some of the rings predate my ownership of the table.

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The newest chicken soup stain, with some older white stains and scratches.

I didn’t entirely understand what was going on at first, so I initially tried stripping the wax with various products: a white vinegar solution, 409 surface cleaner plus a serious scrubbing with a scrubby dish sponge, a commercial wax remover with mineral spirits. The 409 did the best job of removing all the existing wax from past polishing coats, but it did not remove the scratches or white rings/spots/(rectangular placemat shapes). Further research revealed that the wax wasn’t the culprit (though stripping it was not a bad idea): the underlying finish was old and no longer performing its job, so the damage was to the finish itself.

My research had showed that I needed a restoring oil product and ultra fine steel wool. Unfortunately my local hardware store was out of the shade I wanted for the refinishing oil, so I did some dry removal of the damaged finish with the steel wool while I waited for my internet order to arrive (note: it was cheaper to order the refinisher online, anyway!). The dry sanding revealed that the finish was indeed extremely old and damaged: once exposed, I could clearly see hairline cracks throughout the finish. I was able to remove most of the damaged/stained white marks.

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Dry sanding scratches and white stain marks. Action shot!

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Same area, rotated and after sanding out the stain (but not the scratches). It’s gone!

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The whole table after dry sanding. The chicken soup stain was on the front right side. (Note that this picture was taken in the evening, with just artificial light and the shades closed. That is why the lighting looks yellower.)

The product I had ordered was Restor-A-Finish, in cherry (the walnut was not warm enough and a little too dark, but the cherry was probably a smidge too red. This did not end up mattering). Once it arrived, I had to wait for a warm enough day to have the windows open for several hours while doing this job, because this is an oil-based, fumy product that is not safe to breathe in enclosed spaces. But it is worth the fumes. I went back with the steel wool and gently worked the refinishing oil into the whole table, first working in a circular motion with particular focus on visibly damaged areas, and then working in the direction of the wood grain over the whole table to restore the entire finish. I then went back over with dry, lint-free disposable rags and worked the oil into the table and wiped it clean. Then I left the fan on and windows open and took a nice long nap.

After my nap, the table was fully dry (and looked excellent!). The instructions on the refinishing product said to wait half an hour before adding a wax polish, and I ultimately waited an hour or two before starting the waxing step. I used basic old furniture polishing wax, nothing fancy. I put a little bit of the wax in a microwave-safe bowl and microwaved it for five seconds at a time until it was just slightly warmed and softened (but not melted, not even a little. I recommend being careful doing this: waxes are flammable and should never be overheated. It also would not work very well for waxing furniture if it was fully melted!). I did this because the temperature was a little chilly with the windows open, so the wax was quite stiff. I am also a petite person, and I figured that a warmer wax would penetrate nooks and crannies and coat the table more evenly without requiring a lot of physical strength. Having waxed this table once before, I do think it was easier to apply this way. For the application, I used a clean, dry paper towel to scoop out a little bit of wax and a time and rubbed it into the table, alternating between circular motions and working it in with the grain. I removed any excess, wiping with the grain of the wood, and then took the dog for a nice long walk around the neighborhood.

When I got back to my stinky house, I started buffing off the excess wax. I don’t have a buffer or buffing attachment for a power tool, so I did this by hand with clean, dry disposable rags. Because of my lack of enormous physical strength, this was the hardest part of the job. Instead of doing one really hard buffing job, I instead came back to the table to keep buffing it incrementally over the course of a couple days, until the rags were coming out clean. I did a final buffing with a cloth fleece rag, which did a great job for the final touch. I touched it up with a polishing cleanser (I like the Method wood cleanser), and voilĂ : a refinished table!

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The refinished dining table, with dog for scale. (Note that this picture was taken midday on a sunny day with the shades open, so the lighting is different than in the last picture.)

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That chicken soup stained area.

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How to install a salvaged wrought iron fence

So, I mentioned a few posts back that over the summer I was lucky enough to acquire a wrought iron fence from craigslist. It was about 80 feet of three-foot-high fence, not including gates; I later managed to find two of those separately on craigslist, too. They didn’t match the design but it’s a simple enough fence that they look good with it anyway.

The fence had been installed previously on a slight incline, so most of the sections were also slightly inclined. It had been removed by cutting the sections apart from each other at the posts, and then by cutting the posts off at the base. I had ten ~8-foot sections, with effectively no posts to mount them.

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Closeup of one of the gates I found, in front of the stack of fence sections.

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Two and a half sections that I actually didn’t end up using.

To get the parts I needed to actually install this fence, I wandered around hardware stores, chatted with store employees, measured things over and over, and shopped online for many, many hours (two recommended parts sites are here and here. The Metals Depot site was particularly great for pricing and raw materials).

My township restricts residents of corner lots from installing fencing forward of the front edge of the house, and in my neighborhood, the road right-of-ways extend beyond the sidewalk a few feet into our yards. I had full freedom to extend the fence as far back on the property as I wanted, but I decided to stop it at the edge of the driveway, beyond which the yard is much narrower. After acquiring the township permit and marking the measured fence dimensions with marking paint, I confirmed with the state’s dig service that there were no buried lines to worry about.

Once I knew where I wanted it, I installed the fence over the course of several months using the following method:

  1. Buy plain steel rebar of the same dimensions as the existing posts (1″x1″ square). I purchased them wholesale online–much cheaper than, say, Home Depot, which didn’t have enough posts for me anyway. The one caution I have about using steel is that it’s more flexible than iron, so it might feel a little flimsy when it’s in the ground. It is actually very strong, though–some flexibility is okay.
  2. Paint the new posts black, just well enough to keep them from rusting during installation and through the first winter.
  3. Measure fence section intervals and dig post holes with post hole digger. For a 32″ fence, the goal was to get 18-24″ deep, with deeper holes higher priority at the corners. Where the ground was really clay-rich, digging was extremely difficult, though, and there were also a lot of big stones in my yard fill that were very hard to remove. An iron digging bar was probably one of the best investments I made for this project: it loosened the soil faster than anything else during the post hole digging, and it came in handy later when I had to pound a few extra posts directly into cold ground to finish the last pieces of the job.
  4. Mount painted steel posts in the post holes, using the last of the leftover gravel and concrete. This took a few bags of concrete overall, some good measuring technique, a plumb bob to ensure the posts were vertical, and some bricks to brace the posts for a few days while they dried (to be on the safe side). Once I got the hang of it, I was able to mount most of these on my own with no help. The trick was to place the post exactly where I wanted it (I was a little off for some of these, so the fence is a little uneven, but it’s not really a structural problem so much as a minor aesthetic one), hold it with one hand while dumping some gravel in the hole to brace the post, then pouring cement until the hole was mostly full. I found it easiest to mix up about half a bag of cement at a time, using a watering can while stirring to get to the right consistency, and then to scoop it into the hole using a big plastic scoop. I’d make sure the cement was wet enough to fill in crevices pretty well after pouring. That way I could use the plumb bob and adjust the post orientation to get it just right, then the cement would flow with it to hold it in place, then I’d carefully brace with bricks until it dried a few days later. After they were all dry I filled them back up with dirt left from hole excavation. Note that I always had to spray down the wheelbarrow and plastic scoop really well with the hose as soon as I was done so they didn’t permanently have cement stuck to them.
  5. Purchase large steel bolts long enough to extend through a coupled pair of an old iron post alongside a new steel post. For strength and appropriate length, I ended up settling on 3/8″ wide, 3.5″ long carriage bolts, despite the square part for wood.
  6. Line up each fence section in its appropriate location and mark both its height on the new post and exactly where it needed to be trimmed to fit perfectly between mounted posts. This takes several people: wrought iron is heavy, and you need a free hand to make the marks.
  7. Trim the edges of the fence sections to marked lengths so they fit perfectly. Because of mounting on a slope, in one area we also cut a section into multiple pieces to step it down the slope (I had installed extra posts in that area to make this possible). Trimming and cutting were done with an angle grinder. (Always wear safety goggles with full coverage when cutting metal with an angle grinder!)
  8. Drill 3/8″ bolt holes through new and old fence posts at appropriate heights to ensure fence stability. I put two bolts through each post pair for strength and stability. This was the hardest part of the job: the holes needed to be lined up very well for the plan to work, and the drilling was physically difficult, even with cobalt bits, which dulled quickly. It took weeks and several helping hands. To ensure the holes lined up reasonably well and for stability during mounting, the top sets of holes were drilled first. It is easier and safer to stabilize a section from the top down.
  9. Drill additional bolt holes through new fence posts in places where a neighboring section did not have an old post (each section had an old post on only one side, due to how they had been cut). Each of these locations would get two holes (one top, one bottom), and each hole would receive a bolt, some of which needed to be trimmed with the angle grinder to fit the fence geometry. The neighboring section would be balanced on top of the two bolts using the top and bottom horizontal fence bars (and tightened up later: more stable than you might think!).
  10. Mount all sections. This had to be done in sequence: to make sure the drill holes were lined up, all bottom holes were drilled after a section was mounted and bolts tightened up at the top. It took several weeks of working (around my full time job!) to finish mounting the sections. Use the angle grinder to trim down the new steel fence posts to match the height of the old iron ones. I then hammered in simple, black plastic caps designed to fit the steel fence posts.
  11. Where sections were balanced on bolts because there was no old post to pair with a new one, U-bolts were added to stabilize and tighten the joins and make sure nothing could accidentally knock the fence down. All of the U-bolts were purchased wholesale for cheap (after some intense online shopping). This is probably the most amateurish-looking part of the final product, though it’s helped considerably by a black paint job. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a way to bolt these areas with something that makes a slightly snugger fit, so it is less noticeable.

By then it was so cold that I could no longer do the finishing touches. So once the weather is warmer, here is the plan:

  1. Install the gate latches. They could not be placed until the rest of the fence was in place and gates mounted, because the latch has to be carefully positioned. One of the gate latches also requires mounting a piece in the ground, and I’d like to do it with concrete. It’s been either too cold or too wet for concrete (if not both), so this is on hold.
  2. Paint the bolts black. I did a quick and dirty job of this so it was nicer to look at for the winter, but I’ll be redoing it once it’s warm enough for paint to properly set.
  3. Remove all rust and repaint the whole fence black, too. It’s really in reasonably good shape for a salvage iron fence, but there are rusty areas and it needs touch-ups and a fresh coat to look done.
  4. Finish edging around the bottom of the fence, so there aren’t big gaps and holes. I have started this process but cannot finish until the weather is warmer and the ground has thawed for real.
  5. Reposition the stones I used to shore up the slope, because many of them had to be moved during the installation of the fence.
  6. Plant/replant areas that were disturbed by the fence installation.
  7. Finish the whole side yard project: remove the little strips of grass from the slope that are difficult to mow and replace them with plantings that are easier to maintain.

In the meantime, it looks pretty good, if I may say so!

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It snowed right after I finished most of the installation. So pretty in the snow!