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Do whatever it takes!

by Rita Smith

August 27, 2014










I swung the rubber mallet, wedging the slim metal chisel deep into the seam between the two mahogany planks.

When the chisel was buried deeply enough, I leaned on the end with my full body weight, and endured listening to the awful cracking sound as the firmly glued wood ripped away from its base.

I cringed with each blow and each loud crack. Treating any kind of wood with such disrespect “goes against my grain,” so to speak.

I spent more than two months seeking help and advice from everyone I could find on how to disassemble and move our solid mahogany table from the old house in Toronto to my new house in Newcastle.

I called moving companies, wood working specialists, furniture repair shops and antique stores, and I got the same answer from everyone: sorry, there is nothing we can do to help you. Good luck.

“Don’t you even want to come and look at it before you say ‘no’?” I asked one wood repair man who came highly recommended.

“I don’t need to,” he responded bluntly. “I do repair. This is not a repair.”

I sighed despondently; no one, it seemed, wanted anything to do with moving this table. This giant, heavy, beautiful table: it weighs something like 1000 pounds. We were only able to move it into our Toronto house originally because we removed a large picture window from its frame into order to get the table in the house. Since that time, the old picture window had been replaced with a new, custom-made vinyl window which was not going to be removed for anything. The intact table was too large to be moved through the door.

One day, weeks into the research process, I dropped into Alf’s Antiques. Alf’s specializes in harvest tables and reclaimed wood. While Alf’s is in the business of selling tables, not moving them, I thought they might be able to recommend someone I could hire to help me.
“No, I’m sorry, Alf doesn’t take on projects like this,” the owner’s wife told me without hesitation when she heard my story. “And I don’t have anyone to recommend to you. We can’t help you.”

Well, at least she’s not wasting my time, I sighed to myself. Could it be possible that my family’s treasured dining room table was destined to be chopped up and sent to the dump? Was this awful reality something I was going to be forced to accept?

“But, you can do it yourself,” Mrs. Alf pointed out to me charitably. “When you’ve got the table upside down, see if you can figure out what kind of glue was used to attach the legs, and what kind of solvent you need to dissolve it. Then keep pouring solvent into the seams, and use a crowbar if you have to in order to pry the legs off.”

“Won’t that damage the wood?” I gasped.

“Do you have any other options?” she asked, logically. “Actually, if you look around at some of our tables, we have had to saw right down through the top of the table, in order to pull the legs out through the top; then we glue the sections back in when we are finished. In fact,” she continued, warming to the topic, “you would be astounded, if you saw some of the things we have to do in order to repair and refinish a table.”

With a loud “CRACK!!” the leg base popped off of the tabletop.

And then, in a piece of wisdom that has echoed in my mind ever since, she advised:
“Don’t be afraid to get physical with the wood. Do whatever it takes. An imperfect wood table is better than no table at all. You would be shocked if you saw some of the things we do! Don’t be afraid to get physical with the wood.”

“Don’t be afraid to get physical with the wood” became my new mantra. Once I accepted this idea and stopped pussyfooting around, things seemed to fall into place: first, two workers from Habitat for Humanity happened to be having a cigarette break in front of my house one morning, and agreed to flip the table over for me in exchange for a $20 donation.

Then I learned that acetone is the universal wood glue solvent I needed to dissolve the glue (types of glues used have changed regularly over the decades).

Finally, my dad, a carpenter, called from Michigan with priceless advice on the construction of the table: “Reet, NO carpenter would have attached the legs directly to the mahogany table top,” he predicted, from 300 miles away and without looking at the table. “He would have attached the legs to a plank and screwed the plank to the tabletop. If you look, you’ll find the screws; remove them before you try to dissolve the glue.”

I located the screws and removed them, and began pouring acetone into the seams. The solvent ran away from the seam and pooled everywhere but where I wanted it to be. I gave up on the chemical solution and got out the chisel and the rubber mallet.

“Don’t be afraid to get physical with the wood,” I reminded myself, as I took the first, painful swing.

An hour later, panting and sweating, I was elated in victory when I heard the last, deafening “CRACK!” as the second set of legs popped off of the tabletop, and the job was done.
I am so glad I risked damaging the wood, in order to save the table.

For sure, the wood is chewed up in some places. However, the table is still 98 per cent perfectly intact, and all the damage was to the bottom side of the tabletop, where no one will ever see it unless they are crawling around on the floor.

A month later, on moving day, Mrs. Alf’s advice came in handy again when the movers announced it would be impossible for them to move eight custom-fitted wood bookcases from my basement.

“We have to,” I informed them. “They have to go, either to my new house or to the dump; the new owner doesn’t want them and I can’t leave them.

“Don’t be afraid to get physical with the wood,” I gave them permission. “Do whatever it takes.”

20 minutes and a few rubber mallet swings later, the book shelves were out of the basement and on the truck.

Don’t be afraid! When you have no option but to act, act. Do whatever it takes. You may be surprised at the result.

By moving day, I was confident enough to “get physical” with the bookshelves, too.
It was that, or abandon them altogether. I got physical.

“Take a chance! All life is a chance. The man who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.”
– Dale Carnegie

“Don’t be afraid to get physical with the wood. Do whatever it takes.”
– Alf’s Antiques

Posted by: Rita Smith – Ideas and Ideals

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