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Restoring a Paul McCobb Planner Group Drop Leaf Dining Table
Why this dining table?
I was hired to restore this dining table for its owner, perhaps because I have restored many Paul McCobb pieces before this one. He was prolific. Long ignored by collectors because of their affordability (and ubiquity) in the era, McCobb pieces have become popular again in the last 15 years or so. After all these years, they still suit the way we live, offering compact design with clean lines and a touch of flair. And because they are made of wood, they can be renewed.
Who was Paul McCobb and what is The Planner Group?
Born in Massachusetts in 1917, Paul McCobb came of age as a designer just in time for the mid-century suburban explosion. More than any of his contemporaries, he embraced the opportunity to bring good design to the masses. He had more expensive offerings, but the inexpensive Planner Group, made of birch and maple and produced from 1950-1964, was his most popular. It was full of modular, interchangeable designs and simple, clean angles, and it has continued to influence the way our furniture looks and works ever since.
“The Planner Group was the furniture of the people. It was basic and simple, easy to understand and easy to use,” said Chon Gregory, McCobb’s chief associate for 17 years. This was in a New York Times article in 1996; he went on to say “It holds up well”, and I agree (though those iconic chairs of his have structural issues sometimes, but that’s a different blog post…).
What was your process?
My first step was to remove the leaves. If there are moving parts, you simply cannot restore a piece of furniture well without taking it apart. (Pictures and/or video along the way really help make sure you have the information you need to put it back together when the time comes.)
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 work pretty well. I used steel wool and had to reapply a few times to fully remove the factory finish.
After the stripper, I used a stripper wash with steel wool, and a fine wire brush for the crevices, to remove all chemical residue. This is an important step in the process, and people tend to skip it, which they shouldn’t.
Sanding everything was next. This table is made from solid wood, not veneer, so I didn’t have to worry about taking too much away. I started with 150 grit sandpaper for the larger imperfections, then followed with 180 for the bulk of the job, and then used 220 to finish it up. (220 is particularly fine, and is not totally necessary, but I strive for an uber-smooth surface.)
Next I applied a wood conditioner. With lighter woods like this one, it really pays to do so, because light woods can otherwise take finish unevenly and be blotchy. Mohawk is my favorite brand for this sort of thing, it’s a professional line, but Minwax works okay too, and perhaps is more widely available. I applied with a brush and let it soak into the wood. (The bottle will have more detailed directions, which you should follow if you are doing this at home.)
A brushing lacquer offers a harder finish but is not quite as water resistant, so I chose polyurethane for this dining table. I like to brush it on with a wide (3 or 4 inch) foam brush. After the first coat had dried, I de-burred the whole thing by sanding with 400 grit sandpaper, very lightly. I repeated this process twice, for a total of 3 coats, which is generally enough.
You can see in the photos that the original color of the finish was a bit darker than my finish. In the mid-century, they often tinted and darkened finishes to cover or even out the natural grain of the wood. In our time, we tend to want to see the natural variations in color that the wood offers, perhaps because we simply don’t get to see as much wood in our daily lives. So, I chose to use a clear urethane that allowed the depth and luminous quality of the wood to show through.
I allowed the urethane to cure for 72 hours before rubbing it out by hand. I often do so with 0000 steel wool and lemon oil, but in this case I wanted a high shine, so I used a series of polishing pads, starting with 1000, then 2000, then 3000, then finally 4000. This gives the even, durable high-gloss finish that is so nice to behold, and which holds up to use.
Putting the table back together is the final step, taking care to ensure the leaves move up and down easily and everything is aligned. You are essentially reversing the order of taking it apart, using your photos as a guide.
It’s a great feeling of accomplishment to bring a worthy piece of vintage furniture back to this level of functionality and beauty. I think Paul McCobb would be pleased to know his work is enduring.
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