Saturday, 24 May 2014

Restoring Ercol Pebble Tables, a Progress report on removing Dark Finish

Since recently acquiring a set of three of the famous pebble tables in a rather sorry state I have made a start on stripping the dark finish in preparation for their revamp as "Natural Blondes". There are a few points of interest to pass on discovered whilst working on them. The first is that the top does not appear to be elm but a much lighter and harder wood. It contrasts with the three little round seatings underneath which fix the legs and with their grey colour DO appear to be elm. A test oiling of the underside of the top indicates that my normal method will result in a very light finish so I might look at other options. Whilst sanding, slightly flexing the legs of the smallest pebble revealed that two joints in the top were starting to separate and could develop into serious cracks. One was plainly open. I pondered on the glue to use initially planning on use two part epoxy, (Araldite), warmed with a hairdryer to thin the glue and aid joint penetration. In the end I settled on an experimental trial of Chair Doctor. The top was completely sanded prior to dribbling Chair Doctor along the open joints. The legs were gently flexed to assist the C-D to find its way deep into the cracks by capillary action. Whilst the glue was setting an elastic Bungee was hooked around the legs to press the joints together as the thinner the joint the stronger the finished item. The experiment is a success with joins now invisible, including the joint which had been a distinct crack. Chair Doctor claims to swell wood to tighten joints and does seem to have worked to close up the hairline crack which the top had. The middle table has a distinct gaping joint in the top and will be last to be looked at. Interestingly it sees that at some point Ercol changed the direction of the "planking" on pebble tops. On my old set the joint run perpendicular to the longest span which seems to be asking for trouble. On the largest one Ercol acknowledge this weakness by their addition of a long ovalised strengthening piece screwed to the underside. In contrast my more recent Golden Dawn large pebble has planking running the proper way

Fixing dents in Ercol tables

I'm slowly progressing with the refurbishment of my nest of dark Ercol Pebble occasional tables. The smallest has been completely rubbed down and I've set to work on the largest. Apart from the nasty cream paint and removal of the original dark stain it has a few little 5mm wide dents on the surface of the tabletop. I had starting sanding this and it became apparent that marks would still be visible below stain level and I didn't want to have to carry on sanding good wood to remove them. Apart from the work involved, pebble tops are rather thin and I didn't want to weaken it more than necessary. Sanding had reached the level that clean wood was visible overall but stain still remained in the grain. I had come across a dent removal solution involving use of a steam iron but decided to try just cold water with a tiny amount of washing up detergent. The dents in the top were just compression damage and no wood had been removed and I was hoping that water would soak into the crushed wood fibres causing them to swell to their original shape and the dents would "heal". The technique used was to wet the immediate area around a dent leaving a standing puddle which was left for several hours, (or days depending on what I was doing), then repeated probably 6-7 times. I haven't made any scientific measurement but it does seem to have been successful in reducing denting significantly to the extent that the sanding still needed to remove the grain staining will be enough and this final rub down will also remove some light water staining has occurred.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Sanding is so soothing

Another project has been completed. Number one (and only) son has moved into his first unfurnished house and we promised him our old Ercol circular drop leaf table. Since we acquired our 5-legged extending dining table the old drop leaf has been living in the kitchen and is was really too big for the space. We needed to replace it with something smaller and square so snapped up an Ercol kitchen table, the rectangular design with spindle shelf underneath which sits nicely with two Windsor chairs in our breakfast/blogging corner. The new table isn't in great condition with an ink stain and joint separation to the top but that's something for the future. The table came with 4 light finish Windsor chairs, (60s or 70s era?) and these were suffering from being stored in a loft, shrinkage had loosened leg and back joints and the finish was looking dull. As the whole table and chair set were reasonably priced, no-one else bid on Ebay, and they were 10 miles from me so I'd been able to inspect prior to bidding I knew what I was letting myself in for. The initial plan was to fix the many loose joints with Chair Doctor as described in my other blog postings and give the chairs a quick polish. It didn't work out like that though as I started cleaning some black scuff marks from the bottom of a leg using a Cif on a paper towel and found that the finish was coming off to expose bare wood. Further experimenting showed that I could make good progress stripping off the old coating with Cif on a green nylon pot scourer rinsing off periodically with water. Against my better judgement I decided to go for a complete strip and refinish. I don't know if all light finishes will come off as easily, maybe a production run using some sort of water based lacquer or maybe the finish has become delicate with ageing. If you want to try the same method I recommend testing on a small section out of view. Tips for Cif/scourer stripping: Don't let the wood get too wet, scour, rinse, wipe down and move to a different section frequently. Best to work outdoors on a windy day. The scourer will get clogged with lacquer debris so wash it out frequently. Don't glue joints before scouring like I did as many became loose, possibly water dissolving Chair Doctor. (Re-Chair Doctoring worked fine.) Although scouring took away the donkey work of initial strip by sanding, (I prefer not to use chemical strippers), at some stage the sandpaper has to come out. After doing a LOT of chairs now I have a few tips which will help you get an acceptable finish and save wasted effort. Like many tasks, the devil is in the detail. It is very tempting to get out the sandpaper and start attacking a large easy area which gives the illusion of progress. Unfortunately when you then move on to those difficult crevices around dowel joints you will end up re-sanding a lot of the easy stuff you already worked on. For that reason I start by sanding all of the joints and work outwards. To minimise leaving sanding marks I cut finger shaped pieces of 120 grit Aluminium Oxide paper and work in oval movements as much with the grain as I can. Avoid holding the ends of a strip and "towelling" as this will leave circumferential marks which will show badly. Once the difficult bits are done the long sections of spindles are easily sanded along the grain and where you meet the fiddly bits you sanded earlier its possible to reduce any sanding marks you were unable to avoid. You can do the whole job by hand but I found that the deep grain of the elm seats made it hard work so used a power detail sander, Lidl's finest :-), one with a rounded triangular sanding pad. With care it can be used on the curved faces of legs and bow, the technique is to dangle the chair from one hand whilst lightly brushing against the sander held in the other in a sort of random motion frequently changing where the chair is held. Avoid pressure or concentrating on one place as "flatting" of a rounded profile could result. Be careful not to over-sand, the aim is to retain the profiles of the original piece, keep sharp edges sharp. If you have a set of chairs for instance it's a good idea to work on one at a time leaving one original untouched so that you have a pattern to follow. As always The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good I don't believe that it's practical to achieve a totally invisible refinishing job especially if stripping dark finish. (I've mentioned before that removing dark finish often reveals that Ercol quite sensibly used beech with unsightly coloured graining which wouldn't be visible the finished article.) Fortunately I'm more interested in having furniture to use and enjoy than to recreate collector's items.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Coffee Table Book. A Review of Ercol: Furniture in the Making by Lesley Jackson

Ercol: Furniture in the Making by Lesley Jackson published by Richard Dennis Publications ISBN 978 09553741 97 192pp rrp £25
Looking very at home on my Pebble table, Lesley Jackson's book traces the history of a business started by an immigrant Italian family whose products literally became "part of the furniture" of British society in the years after the Second world War. Lesley Jackson draws on contemporary sources including Lucian Ercolani's own memoir to recount the interesting story of how a combination of clever design, good business sense and paternalistic management style steered Ercol, originally called Furniture Industries Ltd, through difficult times during which other famous names like G Plan disappeared. The fact that the company exists to this day, owned and managed by the same family and still manufacturing a proportion of its furniture in Britain is a testament to the sound principles instilled by the founder. The Ercolani family left Italy in 1898 because of their non-conformist beliefs, membership of the Salvation Army, did not sit well with their Catholic neighbours and it seems like karma that Ercolani's designs for the Windsor range would come to be influenced by another non-conformist group, the Shakers. A visit to the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1923 which had a display of Shaker furniture with its minimalist and functional style left a deep impression and shaped the idealism which inspired not only designs but also the principles by which the Ercol company was run. Success with wartime contracts to supply utility furniture led to the creation of the classic Windsor designs which with their simplicity of form and functionality have retained their popularity for over half a century looking just as good now in a contemporary setting. The book is generously illustrated, modern photos of signature pieces including the love seat and butterfly chair and also fascinating period photography of the shop floor. From the 1920s, Ercolani commissioned professional photographers to document the works and these are brought up to date with a modern sequence of the manufacture of a Quaker dining chair. The illustrations taken for catalogues in the sixties and seventies are a window on the times; did we really have carpets and wallpaper in those colours? A reminder also of how we felt the need to define the territories of that sixties phenomenon the lounge/diner with a room divider. There are also reproductions of the company's identification sheets and lists of dimensions. All a feast for an Ercol enthusiast who wants to identify and date a classic piece, the emphasis is largely on Windsor but Ercol's other ranges are also well covered. I can't imagine a better book on the subject apart perhaps from a limited edition with real elm covers! To buy a copy direct from the publisher's web site follow this LINK

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Most Overpriced Pebble Tables

HERE A set of patriotically painted pebbles to appeal to any Noo Yawk hipster. Asking price $1600! You cannot be serious!


The current craze for upcycling, the euphemism for badly painting any old piece of furniture has a lot to answer for. Today's misguided buy at the boot sale is the nest of three pebble tables pictured above. The seller had found them in a shop just after the vendor had committed an atrocity with a paint brush and some chalk paint. He knocked a tenner off his price without even being asked so I thought I would take a punt. Underneath they are dark finish but with the top of the middle one suffering some joint separation and all three having marks on the tops they are candidates for a complete strip, sand and refinish job. I've always been a bit ambivalent about sets of Ercol pebble tables as the smallest one really isn't much use. Prices have shot up since the design was reissued so I had resisted the temptation to add a set to my collection. (That didn't stop me buying an immaculate single large pebble in Golden Dawn last year as we did need a small coffee table for the garden room.) The paint job may be hiding a multitude of sins but hopefully I will end up with set restored in light finish that are in nice enough to use but not valuable enough to worry about.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Windsor chairs in Korea

Undoubtedly the grooviest coffee shop in the world has some rather ercolesque seating. Picture HERE. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.