Monday, January 26, 2009

To Dye For

A couple of houses ago, I owned an old girl named "Baldengray" who was actually my first house, the one I cut my teeth on.

She cut back and I've since lost those teeth, I believe.

This was the house I had high hopes for and where I first learned that I could take things apart, like I once took mechanized toys apart. The difference being that when I put them together and had a few parts left over the consequences were a little more significant than they had been with the toys. Oh, sure, the friction-driven wind up racer now pulled to the right. That was a pain in the neck and left interesting tracks on the kickboard in the kitchen that the old man, to his dying day thought were left by mice in some sort of yoke. However, a bit or two tossed back in the toolbox after a home repair and you're soon looking at the fountains of Versailles in your bathroom or a light switch that can turn off all illumination for blocks.

Painting was usually pretty immune from the laws of unintended consequences so I tried my hand at that. We had lovely french doors (so named because they had panes of glass instead of panels, allowing you to see presumably naked women on the other side) that were painted gloss white but needed a refresher. A little gloss white, a little roughing of the surface and glue in the chip the movers knocked out when they bumped the door with the sofa. Not a problem. In fact, you can look at the chip and see that the doors hadn't always been white, at one point they had been stained.

The paint took well and covered in one coat. I had done a good job gluing the chip back in and painted over it and all looked well until ten minutes later I saw the thing was bleeding a medium red into my fresh white paint. Solution: More fresh white paint which covered the thing up although the base of the door around the chip fix was less fresh white than fresh pinkish that you hoped no one would notice.

Until the thing bled even further and the final job was a quarter of the door had definitely gone pink.

Monday morning I was telling my friend Jim about the Hardy Boys Mystery of the Bleeding Door. Jim had owned an old house in Chicago and we liked to swap stories in a "Name That Tune" contest-like fashion which usually began with the phrase "I can darken that block in _ repairs."

Jim pulled at his mustache the way he usually did when he came across hapless idiots. I had just finished telling him that the white paint had bled the stain underneath when he said "that wasn't stain, it was aniline dye."

Back when houses were made out of materials not usually reserved for ping pong tables but in fairness leaked worse than a White House aide familiar with the matter, woods weren't stained with oil-based pigment but were dyed with alcohol or water-based aniline. Today on This Old Bunny we're going to recreate some of that classic look by trying to stain, excuse me, dye a 1700 something swing leg table that Thumper picked up a few years ago.

The table is in generally good shape except for one blemish on its top where someone had secured the leaves with packing tape. Tearing the tape off had marred the finish and torn out some of the wood so I made it my new hobby to try and bring this thing back to life in a way that somebody at Antiques Road Show in twenty years is not going to go "would have been worth a retirement until an amateur refinish job brought its value to firewood."

Gently, one step at a time. Clean the top of the table and see where that gets you. Iron a damp cloth above the tear out to get the rest of the wood fibers to swell and fill in. Swab a highly diluted stain over the damage but the damage keeps showing up. So I matched the color in aniline, sent away mail order for the dye and an alcohol solvent and waited like a coyote for a package from Acme Explosives and Roller Skates.

The old man had a habit of picking up fresh projects just when the rest of the world was ready to do something else they had been preparing for. We'd be in the car, waiting to go to the movies and he'd come out with hedge clippers just to lop off those few inches of the forsythia before winter. Never mind that it was June and that he was in slacks and a dress shirt. Or we'd be packed for the beach with ice in the cooler melting like the Ross shelf when he'd decide that shorts, sandals and a sun hat were ideal garb for re-roofing the garage. Point being when he got a project bee in his bonnet he had to go after it.

And so the apple has fallen close to that tree. With Thumper getting her coat for a walk, I'm in the attic "just pouring the dye into the solvent so I can work on the table later." The dye comes in powder form with the consistency of and propensity to get around like baby powder in the girl's high school showers. I can only guess at this of course.

The stuff does not quietly into the good jar go, it spills over the rim, onto the floor, onto a winter jacket, onto trousers with impunity. Where it touches moisture, like the natural humidity of a human hand it becomes liquid and spreads at a speed the rocket program can only dream of. It also seems to be color-sensitive in that it gravitates for things like khaki trousers, white area rugs and pink cat paws. Not to mention that my hands are now so purple-stained that I look like I've rigged the Iraqi general election for Al Franken.

This is how Thumper finds me: An aniline blotch in the corner of the attic and somewhere in heaven, Jim is pulling his mustache so hard St. Peter is afraid he'll tear it out. But the Keeper of the Gates has to off, it seems a few blocks of heaven have gone dark...

Bunny on.

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