Reconfiguring The Beauty In The Beast
by Daric Gill
“It’s yours if you want it… But I’m dragging it to the dumpster on Friday if you don’t do something with it.”
Yep. That sentence. Usually, it’s regarding something big, amazing, and… most likely a tad unwieldy. Maybe it’s referring to that upright piano that you would LOVE to have, but just don’t have the room for. Or maybe it’s that dresser that you’ve needed, but your Honda Civic isn’t up to the challenge. In my latest case I was donated an antique jewelers cabinet that was in serious need of some love. Of course, it had to be claimed in the next few days or face decimation. I had a choice and I think I made the right one. This project was an absolutely fun piece-by-piece teardown and rebuild.
This new configuration is sleeker and more versatile. It’s now available to be used as a bar, dining room table, and of course–even a workbench. Read onward to learn more about this piece and its reclaiming process.
[A FULL Image & Process Gallery Below]
My best guess to the age of this piece (considering the hand-cut joinery, hardware, and wood quality) dates to about 75-100 yrs old. Of course, this is an approximation and would require some additional research to more accurately date it.
Wood is much like your skin. Imagine almost a century of not moisturizing or cleaning. The top surface will naturally dry out and flake off. Years of swelling, cracking, and general corrosion has taken its toll. At first glance, the bench top seemed the only salvageable piece left on this workbench. The drawers were misaligned, the supporting struts were dramatically warped, and the whole surface was coated with years of filth. Even the top had become bloated which caused 1/4″-1/2″ gaps between the butcher block slats. This piece of furniture needed some work before it could be used properly again. But I was eager to face the challenge. And I was delightfully surprised to see that there was still some good wood underneath that aged exterior.
So what was it originally? This was a jeweler’s cabinet. In fact, it was still in use until recently when the facility that housed it just couldn’t store it anymore. Each drawer would have been used to stow tools and materials. The bench top has years of recorded history, taking form as burn marks from soldering pens and propane torches, hot stray molten metal divots, and hammer markings. This is an earned history and it was paramount that I was mindful to keep enough character to show its age, but also allowing for a deep cleanse of crud and years of spilled wax.
Jewelers often use a thick wax in their metal casting process. Over time, any pooled wax will collect dust and dirt. Filth and crud can do severe damage to the wood by creeping into the cracks. Over time, it can wedge apart the structural integrity of the wood grain. Scroll through my process shots and you’ll even see some examples of this pesky problem.
After taking the cabinet apart piece-by-piece, I took an inventory of the salvageable pieces. This process always reminds me of taking apart a previously built Lego project and deciding what next to build with the pieces. I cleaned all the hardware with oil and a wire brush and then sanded down each individual length of wood. I decided to open up the base’s design by moving the back support beams into the center to create an “H” frame. The support beams are fit together by a ancient joinery process called mortise & tenon (essentially a hole in one piece fits the tongue of a second piece). This meant that I had to cut out new mortise holes that fit the cross bars nicely. Reintroducing the original through-bolts to the tenon gave some extra strength to the design as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed this build and I look forward to the next big project like this one. Please look through the photo album and comment on anything you like.