Rescuing an Old Dresser

Do you recall the first time being asked to restore a piece of furniture? For me it was not really that long ago. I help re-seal a customers concrete patio, lo and behold there’s an old dresser that this lady had re-finished with her grandfather when she was a little girl, and she’d like it to be fixed up.

I take a look at it, its a bit rickety. But somehow I’m thinking, fix a few drawers, strip and spray some poly, blah, blah, yah I can do that for $400. As I’m loading the dresser into the back of my pickup I tell the lady’s husband in a most sincere tone, “I’ll take good care of it.”

He replies, “Oh, that thing is a piece of junk.”

Ah, so it is, so it is.

It should come as no surprise then that once the dresser was back in my shop I realized that it needed to be disassembled and all the joints re-glued. And hey, why not French polish the thing while its in pieces? Maybe I blew my work budget right at the get go because I knew I would enjoy the work only if I could do it to my own standard of quality. When its done, its done.

Not to lie, it was a piece of junk in terms of joinery. The panels sat in the same groove as the tiny wimpy stub tenons for the rails. By the time it got to me the only thing holding it together was the nails used to get it out of clamps on the production line.

That said, taking apart a piece of furniture you didn’t make is really fun and interesting. You get to be part detective, brushing the dust off of a past place and time, exposing wood that hasn’t seen the light of a workshop in a long time.

And gosh, pulling rusty nails is just excruciating. It makes you think of all the times you’ve read “disassemble the joint with as little damage as possible”. Well, just how much damage is possible, lets not find out. The drawer stops were little pieces of dowel glued in to the front drawer dividing rails, what a joke. They got replaced with proper dovetail stops mortised into the front dividing rail.


And worn drawer bottoms.

Which are  a simple fix.

I made up some finishing samples for the customer to look over. As it turns out the fewer choices you present the better. I’ve seen a dozen samples put in from of someone that pretty well melts their decision making ability, in the end they of course pick something not even shown, i.e. “match this color from this different species of wood on the other side of my house” kind of thing, ugh.

French polished shellac is a rabbet hole, but try it, its a beautiful finish, truly. Soon you’ll be convinced that everything, including the phase of the moon needs be considered when applying shellac with a rubber and spirits.

The front faces of the drawers were warped, which had to be corrected on the newly glued runner strips. I don’t care if the drawer face doesn’t sit perfectly flush with the frame, the drawer needs to run flat on the runners.

Now lets see how many specialized tools I can use repairing a drawer.

Marking the drawer bottom for a sliding dovetail batten.

Azebiki saw for cutting the sides of the dado. As an aside, if you pay $40 dollars for a saw like this expect to get a $40 dollar saw. Or be happy and practice your saw doctoring skills!

Routering out the waste. The drawer bottoms were badly warped. Normally I might have just flipped them upside down and called it a day, but the drawer stops had carved grooves in the drawer bottoms from sagging so much. Consequently the panels had to be held flat with battens for all the marking and cutting.

White Ash tools pleasantly by hand, including a little dovetail plane.

Cut too loose and the joint is pointless, too tight a fit and you warp the panel. Maybe there’s something to be said for always cutting tapered sliding dovetails?

Whew! One drawer down, four more to go.

But something fixed with care, it adds a charm all its own.

The shellac finish convinced me to buy a proper cabinet scraper, I spent way too long sanding out tiny digs from using a hand scraping card.  The wood was red oak, filled. Stained with a brown mahogany gel, body coats of amber shellac and then clear followed by a dark paste finishing wax. And to skip over all the tedious bits, it turned out quite well. Just in time for Christmas, and passed on to its next generation of owners.


This is everyones fault but mine…

I want to rant a little bit about how a building can get mangled in the build process because of a cacophony of opinion between the home owner, architect, engineer, and carpenters. Somewhere in the mix is me, yay!, which I am most pleased about because I have a job in the mountain community where I live and don’t have to travel hours every day to work or live in some flatlander corporate paradise.

The structure pictured below is an accessory building we affectionately refer to as the Garagemahal.

Its a nice little building, right? The architect lives directly in view of the thing so he pretty well designed something he could live with looking at all the time. The homeowner wanted to have a bathroom window added, notice it drawn in sharpie directly below the point load from the front gable. Notice how the smaller transecting gable has a higher ridge height than the main gable? Seems strange but it looks nice in the drawing.

I helped frame up the grade level walls, but everything didn’t get sheathed before the main contractor went on holiday for an elk hunting trip. The truss contractors installed most of the trusses and the building leaned out of plumb because they had to pull all of the external bracing to get their crane in to lift the trusses. It leaned over more than an inch. And then they nailed the sheathing up without racking the frame plumb again. The trusses themselves were screwed up, the homeowner ordered with some kind of condensed set of plans and so they arrive without dropped gable ends that allow for lookout rafters to support the gable end overhang. But they got put up anyway, so the truss guys partially sheath the roof with a lesser gable end exposure of 18-1/2″.

Apparently I get to frame a ladder for the gable end overhang and just fasten it to the end trusses. It puts the overhanging roof load in tension, which seemed so sub-standard to me that I didn’t even know it could be done until I studied my framing books a bit. But there are corbels on the gable end that support the barge rafter so I won’t lose sleep over it.

Lets look at the truss sections for the roof.

The main gable is formed with “attic room” trusses, scissor trusses for the smaller gable, and an interior ceiling plan thats vaulted in the middle at the same pitch as the roof.

Of primary concern to me is the valley rafters. This is how the architect drew it.

Now, have I lost my mind, or did the architect? Vaulted ceiling means the center square of this building is stick framed. Tripled girder trusses support both the roof and floor load of the smaller gable and so all that load goes onto the perimeter load bearing wall (remember that sharpie drawn bathroom window?).  But the ridges are at different heights, and the valley rafters have to hang on the lower ridge and carry down to the girder trusses. So why did the architect draw them as all intersecting in the middle?  Not to mention that there is no top plate for the valley rafter to land on, its going to hit the side of the girder truss. The top chord of the girder truss is 2×6, not nearly enough depth to nail an LVL sized to carry the load so it requires some kind of metal hanger. With my luck that connection point will be smack in the middle of a metal gusset plate. And shouldn’t that connection point be specified by the truss company per IRC? Having to move the valleys to where they need to be will change the interior ceiling plan as well, fun times!

So basically the architect drew it wrong, the engineer took their money but said nothing, the homeowner provided bad info to the truss designers who delivered the wrong trusses which then proceeded to fuck the building when the contractors installed them. Or maybe I just missed something.

Now I’m apparently the guy that can handle roof geometry and will get up on a 12/12 pitch roof in January in the mountains. Thank god for fall protection equipment. But I don’t get paid enough for shit like this.

So now I’ll leave you with a cute picture of a little girl learning to play chess and we can all feel better.