MIKE TALKS ABOUT...
Restoring a Classic Drop Leaf Duncan Phyfe Dining Table
Why did you restore this table?
Connections between neighbors are one of the best things about living in my historic Brooklyn neighborhood. On a recent Saturday, a neighbor and repeat customer named Diane came to ask my opinion about a table being sold at a stoop sale across the street. The table had been in that home, on my block, for more than 70 years. Now the son of the late owner was cleaning out the house, and Diane wondered if this old Duncan Phyfe style drop-leaf table could be made beautiful again. She walked me across the street to give an estimate before buying the table. I normally focus on mid-century modern pieces, but a well-made piece of wood furniture from any era is worth bringing back. It is particularly meaningful when a piece can be given a new chapter in the same neighborhood where it has already served faithfully for generations. This particular piece was in particularly bad shape, which made the prospect of transforming it even more challenging and ultimately a more satisfying endeavor.
What (or Who) is Duncan Phyfe?
Mr. Duncan Phyfe was a mover and shaker in the furniture world of the nineteenth century. A poor immigrant cabinet maker from Scotland, he eventually employed over 100 workers at his New York City workshop, and became one of the most respected and well-known furniture makers in the nation throughout the 1800s and beyond. He championed a dark wood, neo-classical style that became the standard of upper-class décor in nineteenth century America; he even changed the spelling of his name from Fife to Phyfe, probably to be more neo-classical.
Widely copied, Duncan Phyfe-inspired pieces are plentiful in the antiques world, though most are likely not made directly by him (he died in 1854). Since his pieces were rarely marked, however, you never know! Particularly in the New York area, there are true Duncan Phyfe pieces still in existence.
What was your process?
I first disassembled the table for easier access, creating three separate parts—each leaf, and then the center section that I left attached the base. I removed the metal ferules on the feet as well.
Next, I applied a chemical stripper to remove as much of the old finish as possible. I am not brand loyal in my wood strippers, I find they all basically work fine for my purposes.
After the stripper, I used a stripper wash with steel wool (a plastic wire brush for the crevices) to remove all chemical residue. This is an important step in the process.
Once I allowed the table to dry overnight, I set to work gluing everywhere that had loose veneer, both on top and under the leaves as well (since the underside is visible when the leaves are down). I used my hand to get glue as far in as I could, and then used painter’s tape to hold the veneer down for drying.
Since there were many sections of completely missing veneer—nothing to glue down—my next step was to fill in those sections with professional grade two-part wood putty. You can only fill so much at one time, so I had to apply and let it dry, then come back again. It dries chemically, therefore quickly, so I was able to build the putty three times over the period of a few hours.
The next step was sanding the entire table with 220 grit sand paper to unify the filled sections with the rest of the wood, being careful not to sand too much of the veneer away since it’s only about 1/64” thick.
Now that I had a clean slate, I applied the first coat of Danish oil, which was cherry-tinted at Diane’s request. You pour it on, wipe it around, then wipe it off.
Wood filler won’t take the oil in the same way, so those sections have to be approached as an artist would approach restoring a painting. Since I had already applied the Danish oil, I knew the color to match. Utilizing my many professional touch-up supplies, I first created the background color of the wood then, using a 3 bristle brush, filled the areas in with matching grain – both the color and the direction. Since wood grain itself is three dimensional, it makes sense that this process is also done in stages. One can only go so far however in recreating the natural look as the appearance of wood changes based on the viewing angle and light. But when this process is performed well, the eye simply moves past those places as they no longer obviously appear to be problem areas. A tedious and time-consuming process but ultimately extremely satisfying!
Now I let the Danish oil cure for about 3 weeks. That much time is not always necessary but in this case I wanted to make sure it was fully cured, because I knew I would ultimately be applying a coat of urethane as the final coat for this dining table.
But first, to create a finish that was close to the feel of the wood, I elected to use a tongue oil finish after the Danish oil. I applied two coats with 24 hours in between, and let that stage cure for 72 hours.
Then to the final coat: hand-applied, brushed on semi-gloss urethane. Had I used only urethane for all three coats, the finish would not have felt as natural. The combination of the tongue oil and the single coat of urethane allows for the best of both worlds—a natural feeling finish that can also stand up to moisture, which is desirable in a dining table.
I allowed the urethane to cure for 72 hours before rubbing it out by hand with 0000 steel wool and lemon oil. This gives the even, durable satin finish that is so nice to touch.
And at this point, the table was ready for its next chapter at Diane’s apartment, all dressed up to continue its life of service in this Brooklyn neighborhood.
PS See my neighbor Diane's website here.
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