This is a continuation of my enlightenment, thanks to the Serpentine Chest. Part 1 is here. Poet Robert Burns said, The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men. Gang aft agley . . . Right you are, Robert.
As you can see, the underside was cracked warped and needed to be removed. I made the perimeter cuts from the top side. I had a nice straight edge in place and didn’t need to cut so far back from the edges to find the cavity. The veneer on this side still adhered to the wood.
I removed the top cabinet and the damaged veneer panel, collecting lots of splinters along the way. With both veneer shells gone I knew that the back edge tongued rail needed to be removed. I wound up hacksawing the nails and screws on the underside of the rail to free it from the cabinet. This was a far simpler approach than trying to get at the heads in a space with 6″ of clearance. I also reasoned that sawing through the nails would leave the case inside the drawer below undamaged. A small gap between the top rail and the bottom case allowed the saw free access to all four of the retaining nails/screws.
I would like to remind you that, at present, I do have a day job and 50-60 hour weeks are the rule, not the exception. This project started in July and by October I finally had a free weekend. My wife and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful Florida weather and work outdoors. While she prepped another piece for painting, I planned to sand, fill, repair and replace the damaged and missing veneer. Unfortunately, the bright October sunlight revealed far more damage.
This is the point where a rational person, capable of critical thought, may have entertained the idea that perhaps, just maybe, the damage to this piece was more profound than appeared on previous cursory examinations.
I saw lots of veneer damage: missing, gouged, or with glue no longer holding, which allowed the thin material to crack and splinter. Originally the left rear leg appeared to need only slight repair work to the veneer but face to face, in the light of day, the damaged area wasn’t pretty. I can only assume it sustained a very hard drop at some point that shattered the rear leg.
A fine line separates a fool from a visionary, or so I like to tell myself. Showman P.T. Barnum boasted, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” If that’s true, then my next action becomes very important. Sure, I felt like a sucker, but I knew I could repair this piece so it would be better and stronger than the original.
The upper cabinet’s surface needed a few cosmetic repairs. I applied Elmer’s Wood Filler to nicks, gouges, scratches and a little TiteBond Cold Press for Veneer glue to reattach the loose veneer areas that appeared ready to break apart. Easy repair, or so I thought. Scratches not deep enough to retain wood filler predicated the use of an orbital sander. I spent most of a day sanding the entire cabinet to get rid of scratches.
I also used some of the veneer I cut away earlier to repair missing pieces on the edges of the upper cabinet.
The leg, composed of a solid 1″ x 3″ mahogany piece and the solid cabinet sidewall, became my second major reconstruction on this chest. What had shattered and come apart was a 1/4″ piece of cabinet grade plywood overlaid with veneer that formed the outer part of the facing leg.
I removed the veneer and made a 1/4″ deep cut above the highest cracked material. I then chiseled out the broken material down to solid surface. I had a scrap piece of 1/4″ cabinet grade plywood in my wood bin which I then used to shape, cut and replace the missing surface.
The guys at our Woodcraft store recommended using Titebond III Cold Press for Veneer glue for cabinet work and I have learned not to argue with the pros. The shaped piece got glued, nailed and clamped into place. Once that dried I used the original scrap veneer to replace the missing exterior veneer on the leg. The new layer of veneer brought the surface flush with the rest of the cabinet face. The next three weekends saw me sanding and filling to even out the surface.
There is a relief moulding on the lower part of the cabinet, but both ends of this moulding were broken or worn off.
Luckily, I had made casting moulds with my son for craft projects when he was a child. I bought Crayola Air-Dry Clay to make moulds of the existing wood moulding. One week and three attempts later I finally had the casting for making a prosthetic repair. Bondo was my material of choice for this. Once it forms and hardens I can shape and fit to areas as needed. I use silicon to coat the interior of the clay mould. This allows the hardened Bondo to release from the mould without breaking. I can then recast the mould for the second piece.
Bondo, you may ask? I am not a real car body repairman, I just play one from time to time. And I had some Bondo on hand from one of my attempts to repair parking lot dings on our car.
Meanwhile, Ann Marie was eager to get her hands on the chest. What the heck. I told her, “Go ahead and paint it.” I’d sand and add the prosthetics later. She jumped at the chance, painting the outside Annie Sloan Chalk Paint Paris Grey with Old White trim. She contrasted the inside drawers Louis Blue.
The replacement panel for the top of the lower cabinet was the last piece of the puzzle to go into place. I knew I had a dado blade kit. I’ve used it to make recessed grooves and the tongues to go into them. Of course, I couldn’t find it. I looked off and on for two months wondering what secret compartment I’d stored it two years ago. I still haven’t found it. I finally wound up borrowing one and a table saw for half an hour at the carpenter’s shop.
The panel has recessed edges, top and bottom, on three sides. The edges are the tongue that fit into the groove of the cabinet side rails. I used a wobble blade, not one that you adjust to a set depth for the width of the cut. This type of blade makes the same kind of cut as it wobbles off center. The difference is that the cut isn’t uniform. I took 80-grit sandpaper and a sanding block to work the edges down so that I had a uniform 1/4″ tongue to slip into the grooves.
The next step was to slide the divider top into place in the grooves of the lower chest. Easy, right? Not so much. The top stopped sliding about 6″ through the grooves. I needed the rubber mallet but after 4 or 5 good whacks the panel hadn’t budged. I had managed to wedge it tight. After some gentle nudging, I succeeded in liberating the stuck piece.
I needed . . . a bar of soap. All our soap is in dispensers. Liquid soap. Can’t use that. Where to locate a bar of soap? Camping supplies! Sure enough, we had a couple of travel bars still in their wrappers. Confession time: the soap was from a hotel. Yes, a hotel. The perfect size for camping and hiking. I rubbed the tongue edges liberally on both sides with the bar of soap. The next attempt was a smooth ride into place.
The back rail needed a double layer of veneer to bring the surface level with the rest of the chest. Once again, I dug into my bag of veneer scraps. I found the original veneer that had peeled away easily during demolition. Most of the length still had double thickness. The missing part needed to be fitted, glued and clamped before the rail went into place on the back of the chest.
At what point would a sane person have called it quits? Cut his losses and walked away? Went to the pub, had a pint or three and sang sea shanties? I’ll never know because I am definitely not that person. The male of the species does have character flaws. The brain is hardwired to dig big holes that are very difficult to climb out of.
The Serpentine Chest is now a strong piece of furniture remanufactured, reimagined and recycled for another generation to use and enjoy. I put a lot of work into this piece but the original bones were good. The construction had to have been sound to hold together as well as it did over the decades.
Humbly, I submit that the chest is now better than new. It was made from native American timber by U.S. craftsmen in an industry that has largely gone offshore to Asia. New furniture is usually made of particle board or MDF. The life expectancy of these cheaper, imported pieces is measured in a few short years, not decades. And certainly not generations.
This project gave me insight. I now check the entire piece before purchase. I move it away from the wall, tip it over, try to rock it, flex the drawer joints. If I had known then what I know now, I would have walked away from the Serpentine. But I don’t regret buying the chest because it allowed me to practice new techniques, sometimes multiple times. This was my learning piece, something I studied and worked on with caution and diligence. You and I both know that we won’t shrivel and die after being suckered. But we learn from our mistakes, get stronger, and move on.