I have refinished quite a few pieces of old furniture, and an entire kitchen full of oak cabinets. Every time I go through the process of refinishing a piece of wood I am struck by the parallels that can be drawn between the lives of people and the lives of wood furniture. Okay, so this might take some explaining, so bear with me.
Take this old bookcase for instance. It had been abandoned when we acquired it, dirty, neglected, but Carli and I saw so much potential in this piece. Its life was not over by any means, so I set out to discover what it should be doing with its life now.
When I start refinishing furniture, it usually begins with applying a chemical stripper to remove the old paint and varnish. I always use the mildest stripper I can find so I do as little damage to the environment and the wood as possible. Perhaps it’s silly, but it’s always hard for me to wait for the stripper to work, I am anxious to see what is hidden under the years of old finishes and paint. I never know what the wood will look like.
Uncovering the wood gives me the first glimpse at the life the piece has lived. There are usually scars, worn patches, sometimes haphazard repairs made by previous owners. The scars tell stories of how the piece might have been used, worn spots where a child might have pulled a beloved storybook off the shelf night after night, asking their parent to read it just one more time. Or maybe the scuff marks are from heavy repair manuals for a car that has long since been hauled to the salvage yard. The gouges on the top where something sharp and heavy may have been dragged across the surface by someone who had little concern for the well-being of the piece. Until I remove the layers of paint and old varnish I can’t see these scars and wear. They are hidden from view but they remain, ever present. We may not see them but the piece of furniture feels them every day and cannot forget about them because they have contributed to what the piece is today.
Isn’t this how people often deal with their own scars and perceived flaws, cover them up so the world thinks they are undamaged? Don’t we often filter what others see out of fear of rejection, caring more about not hurting other peoples’ feelings or not being a disappointment than about our own well-being? Rarely do we embrace our scars because they remind us of the pain we felt in acquiring them, but they are a part of us and they helped shape who we are today.
So I set about uncovering the true nature of the bookcase, the varying shades of wood, differing grain and textures. Every nuance that makes this piece unique. I sand as gently as I can, not wanting to cause any more damage, just bring out the natural beauty of the piece. This bookcase was obviously made to be a work horse, utilitarian, with no intricate details. Much of the piece is easy to clean, but it has patches that need extra stripping and sanding. Isn’t this, too, like people? Sometimes our sadness or pain can be wiped away with a hug and a gentle touch, and other times it takes a lot of work. We have to go back again and again, facing our fears and scars over and over because they run so deep.
My philosophy with refinishing furniture is always to let the character of the piece speak out loud. With this bookcase, I didn’t even use stain, the color variations are so beautiful and the scars and watermarks make it come alive. All it needs are a few coats of protective finish. Speaking for myself, I could use an extra coat of protective finish from time to time. Sometimes mine wears thin in places, too, leaving me vulnerable to cracks and dents and chips from whatever life drags me through.
I always use the best quality brushes and finishes I can, giving the furniture layer after layer of protection from further damage and extending its life. The brushes I use are expensive and it takes a lot of time to care for them properly. It can take 20 minutes or more to clean a single brush, and it must be thoroughly cleaned in between each of the three coats of finish but the investment is well worth it. People need the right tools, too, when learning to live openly, embracing their vulnerabilities. In this way, I see health care providers, mental health providers, friends, and loved ones as analogous to the tools I use on my furniture. They are critical to our continued health and well-being, but they, too, must be treated well. They must have their own protective finish that helps prevent them from being scarred themselves in the process of helping others. Your friends and loved ones need your attention, just as you need theirs. Sadly, not everyone has access to care they need, or are lucky enough to have understanding loved ones to help them through. They are left to care for their finishes on their own, with few tools and little guidance or support.
And here it is. The bookcase is finished, reassembled, with a fresh purpose. It is ready to hold a particular set of books that make us think about a dear friend we lost many years ago. Each time we look at this bookcase we will think of George, his crazy sense of humor, his loving friendship, the way he challenged us to grow, and we will remember how grateful we are to have known him. We’ve held on to these books literally for decades, searching for just the right piece to hold them. This little bookcase is perfect, with its true nature on display for all to see, with all its flaws, proud of the life its led and ready for more.
Carly has shed 50 years of old paint and varnish, uncovering the beautiful person she was always meant to be. I tried to help her through this refinishing process, using the right tools, alternately handling her with kid gloves and elbow grease. She continues to reward me each day for the time we’ve invested in each other, sanding, protecting, polishing, and always letting each other shine in our own beautiful, dented, scarred, wonderful way.