Because we have been working on this old house or another for the last 70 billion years someone will occasionally ask me why I don’t write a do-it-yourself guide on home improvement. Why? Because most people can manage to screw up their home improvement projects all by their own selves, thank you very much.
My problem is that I lack patience. I know patience is a virtue. It just doesn’t happen to be one of mine. I also lack a certain dedication to preparation and planning.
What I bring to any project is an idiotic optimism that any project I dream up can be completed “in an afternoon!” I like my “before” to “after” to wrap up in 30 minutes or less. This is true whether I’m replacing a lamp shade or planning to renovate a bathroom.
Latest project: How to (nearly) destroy a perfectly lovely dining room table without even trying.
Step One: take one dining room table of indeterminate age. We’ll call it “old.” It’s an oak veneer oval pedestal and was in deplorable shape. I have long planned to write a column about how every scratch and scar was an indelible moment in the beautiful collective memory of our family. Maybe I did. I can’t remember. I’m old too.
All I know is that one day I was so over “indelible memory.” I am a vain and shallow woman. I just wanted a prettier table. I decided to refinish the tabletop. My theory was that if I made it look better, we could finally ditch the tablecloth. If I didn’t, I could just put the tablecloth back on. Two tablecloths if things really went awry. Which they did. Immediately.
First rule of thumb. Read the instructions on the can. I did not do this. The can of stain I excavated from the basement may not have been older than dirt but it was certainly covered with it.
Second step was application. I really couldn’t read the instructions on the can very well what with the rust and all, but really, how hard could this be? I had my wits. Cunning. A can of mineral spirits!
They would probably write online reviews on how effortlessly I transformed this piece of furniture. My prowess might even “go viral.” I prepared for greatness. (I planned to be modest: “Oh it was nothing.”)
I carefully brushed on a coat of stain, gasped in delight at the beauty of the gleaming wood shining through. Clearly, I was a refinishing genius. An artist really. I was still gasping 24 hours later when the gleam was still strong and the tabletop wetter than ever. As it turns out, I had applied the wrong stain for the finish. It really was “nothing.” Nothing but a big hot mess.
I couldn’t even revert to my tablecloth trick. The table was tacky (literally and figuratively). Any covering would become melded to the finish. I had managed to take a table that was ugly but serviceable and render it totally useless. I am just that good. Hold your applause.
Step 3, it should be noted, is PANIC.
I did what any self-respecting do-it-yourselfer would do. I gave up on myself. Myself is clearly incompetent. I needed serious professional help. I raced to the local hardware store and threw myself on their collective wisdom and into their capable hands.
There I was in my messy ponytail and work apron with crazy eyes and the smell of polyurethane and desperation wafting around me.
This is where your local hardware has it all over the big box stores. They have experience and know me well enough to know my limitations (many) and ability to follow directions (few).
This is no disrespect to the 12-year-olds currently employed at many big box warehouses. I’m sure they have scads of experienced culled from their 14 minutes of real world adult experience, or perhaps a woodworking video game?
I prefer a mature person, preferably a veteran. I figure anyone who can use the words “when I came back from the war” in a sentence is not going to be bested by veneer or my gnat-like attention span to “extra steps and other nonsense.” And, of course, he was not. I stood there, lightheaded and stupider than usual (I blame the fumes) while he saved my table and the day. I saved face (and the table) but I can’t take any credit for the task.
My lesson in refinishing wood is thus: Choose the proper materials; prepare the finish accordingly, and then stop what you are doing and go directly to your local professionals. There is a good chance that their experience, expertise and a calming presence will get you safely to the figurative — and literal — finish line.
(Kymberly Foster Seabolt loves the smell of fresh polyurethane in the morning. She welcomes comments c/o LifeOutLoud@Comcast.net; P.O. Box 38, Salem, Ohio 44460 or www.KymberlyFosterSeabolt.com.)