One of my current jobs involves adding some cabinets to a kitchen in a 1912 house. Luckily, the kitchen still has its original built-in, which guided the design of the new pieces.
“Hang on,” you may be wondering. “What do you mean, ‘its original built-in,’ singular? Surely there would have been a set of built-ins.”
No, there would not. Most kitchens of that era had just a single cabinet, if they had any at all. (For more – much more – on this, see my book The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History.)
Like many built-ins of the time, this one was made with an integral wooden counter that forms the top of the carcase. The counter was made from the same species of wood and nailed onto the cabinet sides. Wood movement was not a concern because the grain ran in the same direction all the way around the cabinet. The counter was in good shape, largely because the house’s previous owners had <choke> protected it with a layer of plastic. I suspect it was pour-on epoxy, though not having used the product myself, I can’t say for certain.
My client wanted to have the counter refinished, and I was happy to do my part in liberating a lovely original wooden cabinet top from its prison. I arrived with a random orbital sander, Fein shop vac (with a HEPA filter and automatic switch, two features that make it ideal for dust collection), and a variety of sanding discs starting at 60 grit. As soon as I began sanding, I realized that the finish was tougher than I’d expected: Instead of being removed, it was simply getting scratched to the point where it turned white.
In an ironic stroke of luck, the brittle finish had refused to move with the counter through the seasons over its many years, creating some bubbles. These, combined with poor adhesion between the coating and the dark stain underneath, suggested I might have more success if I tried to chip the finish off rather than abrading it. I stuck my old chisel into one of the bubbles and was elated to feel the finish break free. (You can see a video of the process here. A surprising number of Instagram viewers found it “oddly satisfying.”)
After the topcoat was entirely gone I returned to sanding, progressing from 60 through 80 and then 120 grit. Then I sanded to 120 by hand and finished with 180.
– Nancy Hiller
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