My buddy Chuck called me the other day and asked me to help out with a project. His wife, Kate, had lost her mother earlier in the year. When her mom’s estate was divided up, Kate got her mom’s Singer treadle sewing machine. It all works but its finish is in pretty bad shape.
The top, in particular, is not looking good. Obviously, there has been water damage to that surface. It’s not surprising. Most people who had a nice sewing machine cabinet around the house usually used it as a piece of furniture when it was not being used for its intended purpose. It often made a great place to put the flower arrangement. Flowers require water. Water and early 20th century finishes didn’t get along well.
Frank, a.k.a. The Duke of DuraVar, and one of my antique gurus tells me that shellac was the usual finish applied to Singer sewing machines back in the teens of the previous century. Shellac and water don’t make a good combination. However, shellac does make a beautiful finish.
I will probably take a few weeks to go through the process of sharing my experiences of stripping and refinishing this cabinet. I hope that you find this helpful to you.
I spent about an hour removing all the screws that held the case to the cast iron base and to take apart the different components in the cabinet. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many slotted wood screws! But this type of fastener was the norm for at least the first half of the 20th century. Mr. Phillips’ invention didn’t come into common usage until the second half of the century.
Chuck had hoped that all we would need to do was to refinish the top. But when I took the cabinet apart, I discovered that almost 100 years of use had taken its toll on this cabinet. I found that there are a number of glue joints that have failed. There are more than a fewmiscellaneousnails that were driven to hold the drawer units together. Those will be removed, the joints re-glued, and the nail holes will be filled. After that, we get down to business stripping the old finish.
I had conversation with my buddy Dave about how to strip this project. Dave’s resume includes years in the furniture refinishing trade. He and I went back and forth as to what the right chemical stripper might be. I was proposing lacquer thinner. At the time I was unaware of Frank’s tip that shellac was the finish of choice. The interesting thing that came out of both guys was that they have or had their own special blends that they used to stip. Dave used equal parts of methanol, toluene, and acetone. Frank’s recipe is two parts toluene, one part methanol, and one part acetone. How’s that for interesting? These two don’t even know each other. Yet, they have come up with essentially the same stripper recipe!