A Blast from the Past

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Project by oicurn2it2 posted 02-28-2011 02:27 PM 2628 views 0 times favorited 20 comments Add to Favorites Watch

as a rule i don’t take on refinishing work, however when an previous client ask me to refurbish this piece
i was stuck that the relief carving was so deep and intricate , whencing as i descended the slope of reason ,knowing what a challenge this request represented {what on earth did they glop on this as a finish paint,pitch,tar ?,not to mention the time its going to take to get that off if it will come off} and at the same time uncontrollably drawn to have something to do with this fantastic show of craftsmanship underneath whatever they obviously applied with a mop. Reluctantly i agreed to “see what i could do” naturally i instantly started ruing the decision and set it off ,all the while it called to me with a nagging ”....i’m waiting…..” and as so many other projects that i wounder what was i thinking…
well it was quite the conversation piece in the shop and all i knew was that the client had told me it was a 17th century carving from Europe that he had bought at an antique dealer and when i questioned 17th century?
he was adamant about that fact and knowing he was no fool concerning his purchases-es ,the piece was obviously old but 1600’s okay..
so the day came where i was going to sink or swim and i went ahead and bit the bullet setting it on the table
the relief carving was amazingly 1 3/4” to 2” deep and the entire piece was 1 slab off wood hand hewn on the back and clearly a component of a bigger piece of furniture(the rest of which was long gone ) due to the crudely cut tenons running down both of the vertical ends which lead me and my shop mates to conclude. at some point in time some one decided to give this piece a new lease on life and convert it to a wall hanging
affixing two vertical pieces of molding to conceal the crude tenons on the ends and due to the crosshatching on the heads of the nails that had to have been done much later ,those along with the 3 hand wrought nails that held the horizontal carved detail breaking the pattern ,were the only fasteners present
the client wanted all the black gone and he wanted to see the wood so it feel to me despite my feeble mention that sometimes when you clean a piece you drastically devalue an antique,that was of no concern
to him so.. i started experimenting with this mystery goop .mineral spirits didn’t even touch it , it laughed at lacquer thinner ,but denatured alcohol seemed to dissolve it quite well
turns out that by flooding the surface with DNA and using a toothbrush as well as various picks i was able to remove the finish fairly easy as i was doing so i frequently noticed small chunks of wood embedded down in the valleys of the carving ,i don’t know exactly when it dawned on me (i’m not to bright as you probably can see )
but a eureka moment did occur….....these were the remnants of the bits removed as the craftsman carved this….meaning that this mystery finish was THE ORIGINAL FINISH …whooo that means that the last person of persons to have seen this clean and with out all the detraction that mystery goop masked was the craftsman who carved it ….....400 years ago….i had to sit down
at this point i started getting really curious and threw up a challenge of identifying the wood i was thinking mahogany and a shop mate felt pretty confident that it was south american and if that be the case {enter a recognition that we are just a couple of hillbilly’s with more tools than sense}
i imagined the journey this particular piece of wood had been on ….....
could it be that a armada of Spanish conquistadors sailed from Spain 400 years ago under the rein of Charles ll
1661-1700 to south america and somehow acquired an undetermined amount of mahogany for trade along with the silver that they took back to their country that crippled their economy in decreasing the value of their silver. trading the wood to a noble
who then having a craftsman in his employ quite possibly as a indentured servant under the feudal system
who then created this in a primitive work shop or not and judging from the tool marks knew how to sharpen a chisel more than likely having a working relationship with a village blacksmith and because of the dire straights
of his meager life hastily failed to remove the chips and just slapped on the black pitch type finish so he could get his pay which may have only amounted to a chicken to provide a meal for him and his family …..........

WOW…. history does repeat itself

-- "when you think youre going to slow, slow down just a little bit more" .... Pop's

20 comments so far

View tinnman65's profile


1419 posts in 4702 days

#1 posted 02-28-2011 02:37 PM

What a story!! You did a great job on this, who cares what the Keno brothers say a like it better cleaned up :-)

-- Paul--- Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. — Scott Adams

View steviep's profile


233 posts in 3935 days

#2 posted 02-28-2011 02:56 PM

Great job on both the carving and the story! Great way to start a monday.

-- StevieP ~ Micheal Tompkins - you were not here on earth long but left a giant mark on us. RIP Brother

View CharlieM1958's profile


16292 posts in 5506 days

#3 posted 02-28-2011 03:34 PM

Great job and great story!

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Bluepine38's profile


3393 posts in 4373 days

#4 posted 02-28-2011 04:52 PM

Great story and theory, but sneaking a look at your shop, I hope that client included a little bit of that
400 year old silver with your chicken, so you could feed your tool habit along with your family. Now if
I could just figure out how that craftsman really did get such a nice sharp edge on his tools, I might have
a chance of getting mine a little sharper, LOL. Thank you for sharing.

-- As ever, Gus-the 82 yr young apprentice carpenter

View woodzy's profile


418 posts in 3967 days

#5 posted 02-28-2011 04:57 PM

Beautiful. Love Love the piece, and the story. It must have been a really pleasure to work on such a piece. It really does look fantastic all cleaned up. Great work

-- Anthony

View shipwright's profile


8760 posts in 4086 days

#6 posted 02-28-2011 04:57 PM

Nice job. You may also have a career in creative writing… good story.

-- Paul M ..............the early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese!

View sras's profile


6433 posts in 4417 days

#7 posted 02-28-2011 05:30 PM

That is an impressive piece. I doubt that it ever looked that good since the original finish went on. Nice story to go with it as well.

-- Steve - Impatience is Expensive

View Ken90712's profile


18082 posts in 4476 days

#8 posted 02-28-2011 05:32 PM

Really nice job and great story! Looks great I would have been nervous with such an old peice. Well Done.

-- Ken, "Everyday above ground is a good day!"

View oicurn2it2's profile


146 posts in 5126 days

#9 posted 02-28-2011 08:19 PM

thanks guys,

bluepine- that shop has been dissolved im now in a 30×30 renovated goat shed ,guess i need to up date that and no doubloons here,

-- "when you think youre going to slow, slow down just a little bit more" .... Pop's

View daltxguy's profile


1373 posts in 5202 days

#10 posted 02-28-2011 08:30 PM

That’s why old pieces are so much fun – it’s as much fun discovering the piece as imagining the history. The craftsmen that did the work did have to eat and I’m sure a lot could be learned from them and a lot of surprises. I wonder what the finish was – it must have been some kind of shellac, which is dissolved in alcohol in the first place.

-- If you can't joint it, bead it!

View Bearpie's profile


2601 posts in 4306 days

#11 posted 02-28-2011 08:50 PM

Exquisite carving there my friend! It looks like this was done by a master carver and the finishing by a novice!(the original finish I mean!) Hope he didn’t pay you with a chicken! ;-) Loved your story and agree with Shipwright!

Erwin, Jacksonville, FL

-- Erwin, Jacksonville, FL

View oicurn2it2's profile


146 posts in 5126 days

#12 posted 02-28-2011 08:53 PM

you are probably right on the money ,mixed with some soot ,that being a common black pigment in those days

-- "when you think youre going to slow, slow down just a little bit more" .... Pop's

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


22848 posts in 4964 days

#13 posted 02-28-2011 10:35 PM

Fantastic story. Good job of stripping the finish ;-)) That may be the oldest project on here??

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View Stephen Mines's profile

Stephen Mines

226 posts in 3978 days

#14 posted 02-28-2011 10:43 PM

Really enjoyed the story! And I may be able to shed a little light on the finish you removed. When I started offering reporductions of American and country French furniture, I just couldn’t get that ‘old’, rich look I liked on the really old furniture. Every time I got close to the ‘look’ I was after it was only after build after build of commercially available stains and related products, which amounted to a complicated glaze, and after finish coats of lacquer it never passed the spoon drag test…would literally flake off.

Then I ran into an old timer that used to finish for the ‘industry’ around rag row in West Los Angeles. The solution is really simple: he did exactly what was done long ago, truly in ancient times up to the 1980’s (when a misplaced health reform in the work place program was put into effect). Coal Tar. Out of the ground. This old guy actually got some of his raw goo from the LaBrea Tar Pits digs, he knew a worker there that brought him throw away stuff in buckets…for a small fee. He desolved it with lacquer thinner; richness of the finished stain was determined by the ratio of thinner to coal tar. I didn’t know anyone (then) at the tar pits, but I had worked as a hot-tar roofer helper in high school and went down to the lumber yard and bought one of those big old cardboard tubes of tar. I hacked some up with an axe, desolved some and begin to experiment.
First thing I found out was that naptha worked just as well as lacquer thinner (though it desolved the tar slower), cost half as much as lacquer thinner, kept the solids in suspension longer, and was totally compatible with the lacquer sanding sealer and lacquer finish coats. For about 15 years that was one of my secret weapons. The competition couldn’t come close to that look. And for sweeteners, the fella taught me how to make ‘black wax’ an old deep fryer. Raw candle and carnuba waxes and lamp black (the soot mentioned above) mixed super well, and fast cooled gave us a virtually free (really cheap) supply. That helped to fool the wannabes that just couldn’t figure out how I was doing it! Check out BOOKCASE in my projects for a sample look. Mid-late 70’s brought the banning of the roofing tar product I was using (hey, Henry’s Roof Cement cost a lot more, was made out of plastic (they said, they lied!) and could be used if the real thing couldn’t be found. Still works. Try it, you’ll like it! Maybe this isn’t the same ‘black goo’ taken off of the carving here…but, gosh, it even smells the same! ”:-)

-- Stephen Mines ([email protected])

View Monty Queen's profile

Monty Queen

1600 posts in 4540 days

#15 posted 02-28-2011 11:49 PM

Wow, a awesome job on taking that tar off. Looks realy nice.

-- Monty Q, Columbia, South Carolina.

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