A third life…

About thirteen years ago, my husband and I bought a fabulous apartment in Jackson Heights, NY.  It was big, bright, airy, pre-war and had gorgeous details like parquet floors, high ceilings, real plaster walls, etc…  This purchase was timed well, we bought before the real estate bubble expanded and before anyone was considering Jackson Heights hip. (Before the Starbucks moved in, and before the neighborhood was the focus on several NYTimes articles.  For example, here’s a recent one: http://nyti.ms/1MFGfJj)

Because of this luck in timing and some financial luck as well, we bought a two-bedroom apartment in NYC!   We couldn’t really afford any furniture though.  So, most of what we bought to fit our new, bigger and nicer place was from Ikea or Home Depot and we worked hard to transform that stuff and the older and more broken bits we had dragged from our previous apartments with paint and imagination.

One of the new pieces we did buy was a small unfinished pine kitchen table and four chairs from IKEA.  It wasn’t the fancy extendable table that I came to covet at other people’s apartments.  No, it was the cheapest they had.  (I just checked and they sell it for $69.)

After staining it with red wine, paint, markers, and tomato sauce,  I eventually stained it on purpose, adding a fancy detail with painters tape to create a two-toned effect.  Despite the fact that the stain bled slightly, making the edge a little fuzzy in a few spots, I came out pretty well.  Well enough, that moved it several hundred miles when we left NYC for my new job back in 2008, when Big Girl was a newborn and I was a newly minted PhD.

Seven years later, this same table is one of our most used pieces of furniture.  And, boy does it show it.  A couple years back the original chairs broke so we replaced them.  Equal parts optimism and frugality, we once again bought the unfinished pine ones with the intention of staining them right away.  Now they are covered in penciled names, crayon scribbles, paint splotches and food bits.  Thus, among our refinishing projects are 1 Ikea pine table and four pine chairs.  All in need of a thorough sanding and staining to fit my dreams for our new kitchen.

But do I really want to try and get kid help on this smelly and complicated task?  In fact, I can think of at least four reasons why Big Girl should not be allowed to help me sand and stain the table and chairs.

First, are kids allowed to use stain?  Think of all those toxic chemicals!  I’m not sure of the chemical make-up in stain (and I am not going to start googling it!)  but the smell is enough warning.  That stuff is clearly toxic.  And, like all “good parents” I try pretty darn hard to limit my kids’ exposure to all the toxins I can.  It is easy to start worrying about all the toxins in our environment and how important it is for children’s health to limit their exposure to them.  While I think limiting toxins is very important, I’m wary of falling into spiral of fear about all of those invisible risks.  So, for now, I’m silencing that worried voice.  I’m not talking about exposing Big Girl to those toxins all the time.  I’m talking about the two of us spending time using wood stain for a few hours.  Luckily, it’s warm enough that we can even do it outside.   I am not going to re-cast this as a “safety” issue.

Second, it’s too hard a job for a kid:  Maybe. It is hard work to sand the years of dirt and grime off the table and chairs and it’s intellectually hard too to figure out how to avoid any brush marks or fix a splatter especially since we are using stain & polyurethane combined.  But, I don’t think hard is a reason not to try.

Third, she might ruin the project.  Or, fourth, she might ruin something else… like her clothes or jacket.  Oh, well.  She might or she might not.  If she does, we’ll fix it as best we can.

Anyway, I can think of two great reasons to let her help: sharing the joy and pride of taking something ugly and making it beautiful and teaching her some skills that she can use in the future.

So we did.

First, we went and picked out the stain color.   I let Big Girl take the lead on that part.  We decided that we want the kitchen to feel like being in the forest.  So we are going to do a deep green on the walls and dark brown as accent color.  Big Girl picked out a nice dark brown stain.  Then I bought us each a new brush and sanding pads in medium and fine grit.

After we returned from the store we brought the furniture out to the driveway.  I convinced my very fancy daughter to go put on some clothes she doesn’t like to help mitigate risk four.  Then, I explained that our first job was to sand the table and chairs to make it smooth so the stain can bond.  I took over first with the medium grit to wear away at the old stain and the worst of the mess.  She did the second coat with the fine sand paper.  My arms got tired and my hands got scratched but Big Girl entertained me with her imaginings and she really helped get the job done much more quickly

IMG_2751 (1)

After wiping down the furniture with damp rags and taking a lunch break.  We began the staining.  It was hard to both teach her what she needed to know and also let go enough so she could make mistakes.  (Hmmm.  I think that sentence actually summarizes my entire experience as a parent.)  I decided to limit my instruction to “going with the grain” and not getting the brush too wet.  I limited my micro-managing by having us work together on each chair so I could catch drips and get the areas she missed.  We were a great team.  About an hour later, the first coat was done.  We added another coat and now we have “lovely tree stumps to sit on in our forest”!

Turns out there was another reason for having her help.  It was really fun to do it together.

refinished table


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