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Pieces with Polish
If you have ever gazed at a piece of your furniture and thought, "It's okay, but it would be fabulous if only it had...," read on. (If you haven't, I hope you'll read on anyway.) These days, we're so conditioned to throw things out. If the finish is outdated or the fabric is ugly, we think it's done for. But there's almost always an opportunity to do something sensational with an old piece.
The oak pieces (a desk and chair set, left, a large dining table, and an armoire) were stripped and given a ceruse finish, which forces wax into the grain, creating a salt-and-pepper effect. The dining chairs, left, also found new life. Velvet cushions made the 1930s design feel just modern enough. The bench, once covered in a dull gray, went from dreary to classic, thanks to a linen fabric with just a hint of sheen.
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Expert refinisher Christophe Pourny, far left, worked with Kevin to create a fresh look for his vintage finds.
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A Fine Finish
After meeting with Pourny, I decided my wooden desk and armoire lent themselves best to a ceruse effect (see the process description on the following slides). White wax (originally, ceruse referred to white lead) was rubbed into the black-stained wood, adding dimension by highlighting the grain. The white layer keeps the pieces from feeling too heavy. For the dining table, which I found in an antiques shop in Maine (it was covered with transferware that Martha was thinking of buying, but I could tell that it had a great shape), I chose a deep black-brown stain and an oil finish. I knew immediately that it would look better really dark and super shiny. It was cool, but I wanted it to be elegant.
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First, Pourny strips the finish from the desk.
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Next, he fills in small holes and chips with wood filler.
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A light torching begins to open the filaments inside the grain.
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Before staining, Pourny goes over the surface with a wire brush to further open the grain.
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He then applies a black alcohol-based stain with a bristle brush and uses a rag to smooth it out. The number of coats varies across the desk. "With old pieces, parts react differently," Pourny says. When the stain is dry, he rubs in a transparent water-based sealer that locks in the color.
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Finally, it's time for the wax. Pourny rubs it on by hand and then forces it into the grain with a bristle brush and terry cloth. He rubs off the excess with steel wool.
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"You're removing the white from the surface, but it stays in the grain, so the pattern remains and you get a beautiful contrast," he says.
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"Because they have an open grain, oak and ash are ideal for this process. Tightly grained woods don't work as well. If you want to ceruse, do a lot of testing before starting on the actual piece. Try a range of waxes. They all partner differently with the black stain," Kevin says.
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The Dark Side
It's hard to believe that the table at right is the same as the one in the picture at top. Pourny applied an espresso stain and five coats of oil finish for extra polish. The feet were painted silver and rubbed with a brown wax to simulate an antiqued-metal edge.
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When choosing upholstery for furniture, it's a good idea to profile the piece mentally. Think about how you'll use it: everyday seating or special occasions? Will it be in direct sunlight? Direct contact with animals? (Bullion fringe plus puppies is not a good idea.) A good upholsterer will offer suggestions and not just take marching orders. Expert reupholsterer Luther Quintana and I have been working together for 20 years -- he does all of Martha's pieces -- and he really guided me. We decided to cover my vintage Warren McArthur dining chairs in light-colored velvet so the table could take center stage. For the bench, which sits in front of a big window in my living room, we chose a neutral linen blend and changed a few key details.
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Quintana replaced the bench's button tufts with crosshatch stitches. "My goal was to pare the bench down to its absolute simplest," he says. For that reason, Quintana swapped the fat welting for an ultrathin border in taffeta. "Thin welting is like haute couture for upholstery," Kevin says. "It's glamorous in a quiet way."
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To counterbalance the dining chairs' cool polished steel, Kevin wanted a fabric with a warm, luxurious texture. The velvet complements the polished table with its subtle sheen. And the champagne hue echoes the wall color.
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Choosing a Palette
"Over the years, I've learned from Martha that if you stick with a single color or a very limited palette, you'll have more flexibility with textures and weaves," Kevin says. "She'll pick one color for a room and explore it in every possible iteration: linen, velvet, taffeta, et cetera."
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Topping It Off
Paint and faux finishes aren't the only ways to amp up wooden furniture. Lots of little things, such as different handles or hardware, can make them feel special. Martha taught me a trick: Put on a new top. (No, I don't mean change your shirt.) She has many tables, new and old, that she has covered with stone or galvanized steel. For my dining room, I had a dark marble slab cut to sit on top of a black wall-mounted credenza, left. As soon as the marble went on (with glides under the stone to protect the surface), the piece felt finished.
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The surface reflects light so beautifully that I gave the nightstands in my bedroom, left, the same treatment. Back-painted glass would have looked great, too. This is an easy technique that can turn a simple store-bought piece into something that really stands out.
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