I have been so quiet on this journal for so long, which–of course–means I’m dealing with Big Life Events. Ever since August, I’ve been taking stock of my living situation and realizing I needed to move. I wasn’t happy, and uncertainty about some of my housemate’s finances were causing me extreme anxiety and flashbacks to when my dad lost his job and then lost the house. The other housemates (K. and C.) and I decided we’d go in on an apartment together, so lots of real-estate hunting and budget discussions ensued that eventually culminated on finding a place at the end of September. We were originally given a move-in date of November 1. We are all Pagans, so that was like asking Christians to move house on Christmas Day. That obviously wasn’t going to happen, so we negotiated to November 8. So largely all of October was spent preparing for Samhain and the move, all on a shoe-string budget.
In retrospect, I’m surprised we kept our stress levels manageable. My main task for the month was procuring furniture as I had sold all of mine with the exception of a nightstand and an ugly green La-Z-Boy recliner and all K. and C. currently owned was their own bedroom furniture. But, as my housemates say, I have “mad Craigslist-fu.” For the common spaces, I found a non-ugly, excellent condition sofa, a nice lift-top coffee table, a large dresser to serve as the TV console, a dining table and 5 chairs, and a kitchen cart. The previous owners of the cart had cannibalized two of them, so what I bought had one wire top and two wire basket shelves, a push handle, and four casters. I picked up an additional shelf for it at The Container Store and it now holds my Kitchen Aid mixer, their microwave, and our bulk potatoes and onions perfectly and frees up much-needed counter space in our kitchen. We split the purchases with K. and C. getting the sofa, dresser, table, and chairs ($205) and me taking care of the coffee table and cart ($184).
I took care of my own bedroom furnishings pretty easily. I decided to keep the storage shelving I’d bought for S.A. and A.J.’s garage and repurpose it for my bookcase, which meant I had to get shelf liners ($30) so the wires wouldn’t damage the books. My covenmate S. and her husband J. gave me a new queen mattress (from their RV; they replaced what the factory had provided), so I found a nearly new Ikea Brusali queen bed for $60 and also found a nearly new Ikea Hemnes 3-drawer dresser for $65. I’m sure I’ll probably sell these pieces if I suddenly find myself moving across the country; after all, they’re not exactly heirloom quality stuff. But I am definitely keeping my “splurge” piece: a vintage secretary desk that I completely refinished with the intention that it would be my desk by day and my altar by night.
I paid about $100 for the desk, which was $60 more than I wanted to pay. However, I scoured all of Craigslist for secretary desks for weeks, and most were going for about $150 and were also really ugly. I liked the federal lines of this piece, which can be mixed in with contemporary, traditional, or ‘country’ style furnishings with little conflict, and I liked that there wasn’t some massive organizing system in the secretary top. In fact, it just had a tiny divider that I easily knocked out. When I went to see it though, I was a little disappointed with the condition it was in. The drawers would not slide evenly, the whole thing smelled awful–a combination of mildew, cat, and old lady–and the previous owner had spilled something in the top drawer and it looked like a fungus was growing on it.
I was decidedly unamused, but ended up buying the desk at full asking price out of pity for the seller. She was taking care of her mom’s estate…and her mom had been a hoarder. It was woefully evident that the woman did not want to be within a hundred miles of the house, just as it was plain that all her mother’s “treasures” were dusty, broken, dated junk that no body would purchase. I figured the least I could do was give her full asking price for the one thing likely to sell and offer it up as a mitzvah.
Back home, I damn near cried when I finally got to inspect the piece fully. The “solid wood” piece only had a wood frame and drawer fronts. The top surface was actually laminate, the sides of the dresser part are thin particle board, and the drawer boxes appeared to be the 1970s equivalent of MDF. The drawer glides were toast, and one of the drawer handles was missing the pull part, which meant I’d have to replace at least the bottom four pulls. When I went to remove the knobs from the top drawer, I damaged them and ended up having to replace all four of those, too. Worse, the “fungus” was not, in fact, fungus, but an eruption of wood from the chipboard of the drawer getting wet. But I decided to soldier on anyway.
First, I did my best to clean up the desk to a) get rid of the smell and b) dislodge the several colonies of spiders that had taken up residence. This meant removing the backing on both the drawers and the desk area, which wasn’t very hard as it turned out to just be a thick cardboard. Discarding that helped a lot with the cat smell. Soap and water helped, and I was truly surprised at how abysmally dirty the desk was. However, I also had to go over the whole piece–every interior and exterior surface–twice with mineral spirits to get things truly de-grimed and de-stinked. Then I turned my attention to the fungus drawer. As it turned out, I had to take a razor blade and scrape all the damaged particle board out. There was a lot of damage, but after lots of scraping rounds, I got to solid particle board. I used mineral spirits to clean up the gunk, let it and all the drawers dry for several days, then spray painted all the drawer interiors with a white spray paint, which did a great job of sealing up the damaged area.
Next, I turned my attention to the drawer pulls. At that point, I thought I’d have to trash the whole project as no body sells center mount drawer pulls in the size I needed. Eventually, however, I found wooden ones at True Value hardware, and I cut them to size. Installation was a bitch, though. The replacement guides were taller than the originals, which mean I had to inset them, but right where I needed to screw them in was routed out to hold cardboard dividers. It took about four hours and lots of help from K. to get the three glides installed, and I’ll be the first to admit it looks sloppier than it should Retrofitting sucks.
Once I knew I had working drawers, I felt comfortable stripping the original finish so that I could paint it. I was originally going to stain the piece, but then discovered that the top was laminate and the drawer sides pressboard, so paint it became. When I took off the knobs, though, I ran into another problem. The original maker had drilled 1/4-inch holes in the piece, then used special inserts to anchor the hardware to the drawer faces. Today, the screws for hardware are much smaller in diameter. If I attached new hardware, they would rattle around, but I couldn’t keep the damaged hardware. Eventually a brilliant clerk at Home Depot pointed me in the direction of nylon inserts. I had to make the holes a little bigger, but eventually I got the inserts installed. I also had to sand the heck out of the drawer faces to remove the impressions of the old hardware. The other surfaces got a lighter sanding just to give the surface some tooth.
In retrospect, I don’t think I needed to sand the other surfaces. I ended up using Annie Sloan Chalk Paint (ASCP), and it adheres beautifully to anything without sanding. I chose Primer Red, and was very happy with the color. The shop clerk showed me a piece she’d done with it and said she’d only used a dark wax to seal it, so I just bought the paint and the dark wax. That was a mistake. When using that dark wax, you’re supposed to coat the piece in a clear wax first. What I got when I finished looked like mahogany, which was pretty but not what I wanted. Luckily, Miss Mustard Seed’s clear furniture wax removed a lot of the dark wax and left a great finish.
I had decided to paint the back of the drawer fronts in Primer Red, too, but all that handling utterly destroyed the white paint job I’d done on the drawer boxes. I tried to clean it up with mineral spirits, but that didn’t take me far. Eventually, I repainted the interiors in ASCP’s Provence blue with a clear wax finish and really loved the funky pop of color. I even painted the backing for the desk that color, too.
The next major hurdle was the hinges for the desk. When I had removed the originals, I thought they were unsalvageable. The screws holding them in were so rusted, I was able to smash one to pieces. Frankly, I’m amazed I was able to remove the screws intact. The hinges themselves were rusted, and the areas that weren’t were covered in a thick layer of grease and dust. It took me half an hour of scrubbing with a toothbrush and dish soap to remove all the grime, and two hours of scrubbing with Brasso to get rid of the rust. Eventually they cleaned up all right, but they turned out to be brass and still cosmetically damaged. So I spray painted them with a black Hammerite and re-installed them with black screws. It was a bitch to get them re-set, though, and I did a couple big scratches in the desk. At that point, I no longer cared. Someday I’ll fix it.
At that point, I decided to put a shelf inside the desk part to hold odds and ends, and it looks great. I also re-installed proper drawer backing on the top and bottom and made sure to cut a hole in the top to be able to run my computer cord through. In truth, I still have to screw the front of the shelf down, and I suppose I should attend to a big ding in the front sustained when someone knocked something against it when we moved…but honestly? I’m glad to take a break from this project. It was way more involved (and expensive! I’m pretty sure I spent more on paint and wax than I did on the desk, and then there was the new hardware, the shelf, the drawer backing…oh man. I don’t want to total it up.) than I thought it was going to be.