IMG_9373The way I see it…

Who would ever have thought that current furniture trends would be driven by packaging? Big box furniture manufacturers have gotten quite adept of making furniture that can be packed flat in a box and assembled by a screwdriver. Slick marketing campaigns has convinced a whole lot of people that furniture with simple flat modern designs is the way to go. Not for me. I still like Grandma’s brown furniture for a multitude of reasons so let me explain.

The reason Grandma’s furniture is still around is because it was built by an American craftsman, from quality woods such as maple, cherry, walnut or oak. It used screws and proper joinery techniques so that it would not fall apart on its first move from one house to the next. Grandma’s furniture was also heavy and rightfully so. Full wood interior panels and solid cabinet materials helped establish the quality of the early years of furniture making in America.

Skip ahead….Between 1997 and 2005, the manufacture and shipments of non-upholstered furniture (i.e., wood furniture) actually fell 7 percent. The reason for this disparity was attributed to competition from cheaper imports, which continues to impact the household furniture sector, particularly wood household furniture.

Further, our country has seen employment within the furniture manufacturing sector fall 36 percent and payrolls by 19 percent despite the fact that demand actually grew by 27 percent in the United States. In essence, imported wood furniture from offshore sources, particularly China, captured most of the growth in the wood furniture market. Demand was driven in large part by the phenomenal growth in residential construction over this same period, but domestic manufacturers did not share in the “good times.”

Unfortunately, like many mass-produced consumer goods, household furniture became more of a commodity, sold and marketed on price rather than quality and craftsmanship. Consumers are mainly interested in furniture that looks good and appears on the surface to be a good value. No longer do they look at furniture as a long-term investment, like Grandma did, when she saw her family furniture as something to pass on to her children and keep as an antique. As a result, the consumer is spending less and less on furniture. Because of this emphasis on price, profit margins for U.S. furniture manufacturers have fallen, while the costs of manufacturing continued to rise. As a result, many U.S. furniture manufacturers are now having their furniture made in China and other low-cost countries rather than produce their own products.

Slick marketing has fooled the buying public again. Day in and day out, I see poorly designed and constructed furniture that has no chance of any longevity. The use of poor quality materials, sloppy painted faux finishes, lack of proper joinery and a lack of proper assembly are easy to spot and in most cases, this furniture is not worth the money to repair. Part of the throw away society we live in I guess.

But what have been the real costs to your finances and to the country as a whole? What you thought was a great purchase at the time, turns out to be a big hit in the wallet when that original cost cannot be amortized over a long period of time.

So this brings us to the story of this amazing seven-drawer chest that I have just completed some work on. Pennsylvania House Furniture originally in Lewisburg Pennsylvania manufactured this chest and it happened to be an original American built Pennsylvania House furniture piece.

Originally founded in 1933 as the Lewisburg Chair Company, Pennsylvania House later became part of the Ladd Furniture Group in 1989. At that time, Pennsylvania House was known as a manufacture of high quality residential wood and upholstered furniture for all rooms of the home. Pennsylvania House furniture was sold through retailers to consumers throughout the United States and abroad. A decade later, Ladd Furniture moved to industry giant La-Z-Boy Inc. However, La-Z-Boy took over just as competitive pressure from abroad reached new levels and Asian manufacturers, once relegated to making Asian-themed designs, stepped into the American market with more popular furniture lines. Lower labor costs allowed them to beat American makers on price as well. Bowing to pressure, La-Z-Boy closed the Pennsylvania House factories and shipped manufacturing of Pennsylvania house furniture to Asia. In a sense, taking the Pennsylvania out of Pennsylvania House. Over 450 manufacturing jobs were lost. In September of 2007, La-Z-Boy sold the Pennsylvania furniture line to Universal Furniture.

The chest that I am working on is solid cherry, with a chippendale design. All the drawer boxes are made of high quality maple and have dovetail joints. Each drawer also has a separation panel as part of the drawer slides. This is something you do not see in today’s modern furniture. Essentially for being about 50 years old, the chest was in near perfect condition, less a few typical scratches in the clear coat. This chest was well built and had the weight to prove it. Simply a great find and was purchased for around $200 at one of the local antique shops. But since this chest was heading to a young man’s bedroom, Grandma’s brown and brass pulls were not going to make it. What was going to make it is what I call Retro Pop!

The Process

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Wow, this young man has the best looking dresser on the block!

After deciding on a color, (Queenstown Gray by General Finishes) I began by removing the drawers from the case and removed all the brass pulls. Once I had the drawers out, I could see the case and the drawers were damage free so no major repairs would be needed.

The next step was to begin to prep the cabinet for its new look. Most of these old pieces will have some furniture wax on them. Grandma liked her wax! Before you begin to paint any furniture, or kitchen cabinets for that matter, the piece must be properly degreased and cleaned. I used a 1 to 1 solution of water and denatured alcohol. After giving the piece a good cleaning, I used a sanding sponge to lightly buff up the surface. I usually use 150 grit, especially if the finish has an old shiny clear coat. While doing the light sanding, I also look to see if there are any large scratches in the wood that need to be corrected before painting. Since we would be adding 3-inch stainless steel bar pulls in lieu of the brass drop pulls, some of the existing hardware holes would have to be filled. I used a high-grade furniture epoxy to fill the holes, and when it dried, I sanded them smooth with the surface of the drawer. I then cleaned the whole chest again with another round of my cleaning solution, wiped it dry with several wiping cloths, and just to make sure there was no dust left on the surface, I blew the chest off with my air compressor. In all total about three hours to prep this cabinet.

Once that was completed, I masked the drawer openings off and began the painting process. To get the ultra smooth finish I was after, I used a 1.5 MM tip for my sprayer. I usually use a 2.MM tip for applying my first coats of paint, but I wanted this chest to look smooth, sleek and fast. I guess I am somewhat of a perfectionist when working on something like this, so this was not going to be your afternoon paint, cold beverage of your choice, and ball game kind of day. I applied five coats of paint, and I wet sanded with a 1500 grit sanding sponge between each coat. For good measure I applied a sixth coat to the top. These multiple thin coats of paint are the best way to get a great looking cabinet finish.

While the chest was drying, I masked off the drawers so I could paint both the inside and outside of the drawers. The maple drawer boxes would be getting a fresh coat of clear topcoat, and both sides of the drawer fronts would be painted in Queenstown Gray.

Finally, after all the sanding, spraying, wiping and drying, I was pretty certain I had an amazing finish. Now it came time for the High Performance Top Coat. We selected a satin final finish. General Finishes High Performance Topcoats are water based finishes that dry clear and provide amazing protection for your furniture and cabinets. Plus they do not yellow and dusting and cleaning is a breeze. To apply the topcoat, I used the same 1.5 MM tip and applied the first coat of clear. I got lucky as the garage almost made it to 70 degrees, which was just perfect for applying the clear coat. After the first coat was fully dry, I wet sanded the clear coat with my 1500 grit sanding sponge, wiped down the cabinet and repeated the process two more times. In all total, I applied nine coats of paint and finish to this chest and the outcome was well worth the effort. This cabinet has maintained its vintage lines, while giving it the Retro Pop!

In the final thoughts of this project, don’t be afraid to go on the hunt and find a piece of furniture like this chest. A great site to look at is www.estatesales.net. The quality of the wood and construction methods far surpasses what is being provided to you in a flat box, and with a good professional restoration, you will be many hundreds of dollars ahead in your pocketbook. Today’s modern high quality paints, stains and topcoats allow you to achieve any look you can dream up from this Retro Pop look down to a country distressed finish, while at the same time leaving you with a durable maintenance free finish. Finally, I might also add that you will have a one of a kind piece of furniture that will be ready to go another 50 years or so. I think Grandma would think her old chest really is a gas now!