New year, new finish

When my husband and I married, we combined the accumulated goods of two adult lives.

My goods included a set of metal, screw-together shelves that shimmied and bowed when books were stored in them. The metal shelf theme was complemented by a sheepskin rug I’d purchased at CostCo, under the mistaken impression that it would make a room with metal shelves romantic, and a hand truck whose tires eternally went flat and stank up one of my closets.

His household included a battered bedroom set with intricate carving and extremely shapely Queen Anne legs. The set was so effeminate that when I visited his apartment for the first time, I was startled. “What interesting furniture,” I said uneasily, then chastised myself for the bigoted stereotypes that were racing through my brain.

He paused in the act of urging me backward, so that I might recline and get a better view of the ceiling, and grunted “Mmm. Yeah. That stuff was left behind by Mrs. R—.”

This explanation did not reassure me. “Mrs. R—? Who’s that? Was she your girlfriend? A landlady?”

“No,” he said, then he spun a complex tale of the set being abandoned at his place by the mother of a part-time stripper and the paramour of a fellow who frequented a car restoration shop on a street nicknamed “Methanol Alley”. “So-and-so was dating her daughter. The set was better than cardboard dresser I had in Flint so I kept it,” he finally concluded.

I came away utterly bewildered. How had the bedroom set wound up in his home? Why did it matter that the woman’s daughter was a part-time stripper? Where on Earth did one find dressers made of cardboard?

Perhaps some mysteries are best left unexplained.

His bachelor dowry also included a worn set of end tables which, he proudly declared, had been in terrible shape when he purchased them. Their condition had not improved with age.


I didn’t own any end tables, so they were a welcome addition to the marital household. They were battered and hideous, but so what? They still did an admirable job of supporting lamps, plates filled with stale pizza crusts, and stacks of overdue library books. Besides, we soon faced more pressing issues than ones of appearance: a baby with deep-seated objections to sleeping and pets who liked to empty themselves on the couch.

As the baby grew older and transitioned into boyhood and tweenhood, the fact that the tables were battered even seemed like a positive. At least we didn’t have to worry about furniture getting banged up when feral packs of boys visited! Kids could spill things, put their feet up, or even stand on the furniture and do the Macarena. Nothing they did would make the place any worse. If their parents found the tables low class or didn’t let their children visit, so much the better.

Then, all at once, I grew weary of the worn surfaces. One day I approached my husband and asked how he’d feel about my refinishing them. It was a delicate matter. They were heirlooms, after all; one couldn’t get a patina like that on furniture overnight. No, those surfaces had history. They spoke of repeated assaults from ocean waves penetrating shipping containers, lonely cats sharpening their claws, and spilled beer soaking into piles of questionable magazines.

“Sure, make art tables out of them,” he said, barely looking up from his crossword puzzle. “I like that idea.”

Art tables. I had no idea how to make art tables, not that I’ve let lack of knowledge or common sense hold me back before.

“What kind of art tables? Shall we glue pictures to them? For example, we could all mash our faces against glass, take photos, and glue the photos down so it would look like we’re stuck in the tables.”

“Sure. Do that.”

“What if I cover the tables with pompoms and wiggly eyeballs?”

“Sounds good.”

“Would you be horrified if I painted them with stripes and polka dots?”

“Go for it. I trust your artistic judgement.”

At some point during the questioning, I realized that he really and truly wasn’t that worried about the matter. I also realized that I didn’t want to invest much energy or money in creations that might get wrecked. These were tables, after all, not artworks we’d hang on a wall. Whatever we did to them, they were still fated to hold books and glasses of iced tea.

That was how I found myself bellying up to a copy of Filter Forge, a program for creating Photoshop-compatible filters. With over 12,000 filters already available for use, I figured one of them would work just fine for designing fabric I could decoupage to the tops of the tables. That would give the tables a colorful, painterly look without too much effort on my part. It would also help disguise any imperfections in the surface that remained after sanding and filling.

Here are the steps I went through.


Step 1: Design and order fabric

One could simply purchase fabric from a store. However, I opted to design the fabric myself. I tackled that first, since there can be a lead time of a couple of weeks for fabric to be printed and delivered. While the fabric is being made, one can move on to other tasks.

I auditioned quite a few designs before settling on these:


(By the way, should you want to try these fabrics yourself, they’re available on my Spoonflower store.)

They were bright and modern, in keeping with our art-filled mid-century house. I did find them a bit garish at first – I believe the statement I made to my husband was “Good lord; these make my eyes bleed”. However, he encouraged me to give them a try. I’m glad he did. I’ve since come to love them. They now seem cheerful and lively rather than obnoxious. Perhaps that’s because the effect of a bright, large-scale print is moderated when used on accent pieces or a small area.

Notice that I created two designs, not one. I could have simply had two identical lengths of fabric printed, one for each table. However, I knew that if I did that and couldn’t get the fabric aligned exactly the same way on each table, it would drive me nuts. Maybe nobody else would know, but I sure would! With two similar but different panels, they don’t look “wrong” if the tables are juxtaposed.

While the fabric was being printed in Durham, North Carolina, I prepared the tables for painting and decoupage.


Step 2: Disassemble, Sand and Putty

Here’s one of the tables in its original state. The tops of both had quite a bit of wear and damage, so they required sanding.

If one has teenagers handy, they make a convenient source of labor. I later disassembled the tables to make it easier to sand all of the components.

At this point, a neighbor stopped by and mournfully said “Oh, but they’re wood. Can’t you just varnish them?”

Yes, if one has a surface that is actually wood, or is veneer in reasonably good condition, one can simply do a light sanding and apply varnish or another protective coat. I like the look of wood, so I would have preferred to do just that.

However, that was not our situation. These tables probably came from People’s Table Factory #5 in a Chinese town dedicated to making end tables. When the tables were new, they resembled wood, much like a bra stuffed with silicone inserts or socks may appear to contain breasts. (A bit of wisdom I learned as a child while watching a relative who had a poor body image prepare for dates.)

In reality, the aprons and tops are veneer-topped composite. The veneer was peeling and had chipped away badly. One could order sheets of veneer, painstakingly trim them to shape, and glue them in. I am not that dedicated and, as my husband stated, repairing the veneer would cost more than he paid for the tables to begin with. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s still on point.

I opted to apply filler, sand the tables, and prime, paint, and decoupage.


One of the table tops after sanding and applying filler. The surface is smooth now, if visually unattractive.


Step 3: Prime and Paint

Here’s one of the tables after disassembly. The legs have been primed in preparation for painting. I used Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer, which was mentioned in this article on painting furniture.

At this point, the fabric had been printed and shipped to me. I took it to a craft store and chose several bottles of acrylic craft paint to match. One could also have paint custom-mixed at a paint store or lumberyard. I opted for craft paint because it’s dirt cheap, available in a wide range of colors, and I don’t have to beg a store employee to mix it for me.

Acrylic paint is nice because it can be cleaned up with water. I keep a bucket filled with sand outside my back door, so I can empty rinse water into it rather than down my drain.

The table legs, after painting green stripes down the edges. I quickly abandoned that idea in favor of painting the legs a solid blue. I simply couldn’t get the edges of the stripes crisp enough for my taste.

One of the table tops after being primed. The pencil outline is in preparation for painting a green border around the edge of the table.

I wanted a painted border around my fabric, rather than running the fabric all the way to the edges of the table tops. However, since the tint of the paint is visible through the fabric, it was important to have a white background in the center so the fabric would be as bright as possible.

Painter’s tape applied along the pencil marks. The tape kept the edge of the border nice and crisp while protecting the white background in the center.

Sorry; I neglected to take a photo just after I’d painted the border. Pretend that white section around the edge is green and you’ll know what it looks like, though.

I painted the legs, drawer front, and other sides of the table top as well. I also purchased and painted plain wood knobs for the drawers, so that they’d match.


Step 4: Prepare fabric for decoupage

I’d never decoupaged furniture before, so I consulted this article. It recommended using Mod Podge, a traditional decoupage medium that’s available at most craft stores.


The fabric is a little easier to work with if it’s impregnated with Mod Podge before applying it to one’s surface. (A tip I learned here.) The Mod Podge prevents fraying and makes the fabric easier to handle and position.

To prepare the fabric, start by taping a protective layer of waxed paper to your work surface. Lay down the fabric and apply Mod Podge to one side. After the fabric dries, flip it and apply Mod Podge to reverse side. Allow the Mod Podge to dry thoroughly before moving or cutting the fabric.

I found that I had a few crinkles in my cloth after this process. However, I was able to press them out by sandwiching the fabric between lengths of parchment paper or beneath a teflon sheet and using an iron at low temperature.

Next, I cut the fabric so that it would cover the unpainted rectangle on my table tops, with a little bit extra to overlap the painted border by about 1/8”. A rotary cutter and a long quilter’s ruler are invaluable for this, although an X-Acto knife and a T-square could also be pressed into service. I can’t imagine making those kinds of long, straight cuts accurately with scissors, not when they’re going to get juxtaposed with the straight edges of the furniture. Any little wobble in the cut will show up. However, perhaps others are better with scissors than I am.


Step 5: Adhere fabric to tabletop.

Ah, those four words make it sound so simple. So pleasurable, even. “Adhere fabric to tabletop.” It sounds as though you’ll smear goo all over your tabletop, waft the fabric over it, and everything is just going to go perfectly. I do believe I invented some new words when I worked on the first tabletop. Here’s what I learned:

  • Alignment marks are your friends. In particular, the pencil line I drew when marking the border of the table was invaluable for lining up the fabric.
  • Work in sections. Apply Mod Podge to one section of the table at a time. Smearing Mod Podge along the width of the table and maybe 1/3 of the way down the length worked well for me. Get the fabric aligned and stuck down in just that section, then apply Mod Podge to another section. Be sure that all sections of the table that are beneath the fabric receive Mod Podge so that the entire piece of fabric will adhere.
  • Use a brayer to press the fabric down evenly without distorting it. If you can’t lay your hands on a brayer, try a rolling pin.
  • There may be air bubbles. Small ones can be removed by piercing the fabric with a pin, then rolling the heck out of it.

Here’s a brayer. It has a handle attached to a hard rubber roller. I bought mine for a graphic design class about a thousand years ago. Sometimes art or craft stores carry them. Again, if you can’t find one or don’t want to spend the money, a rolling pin should work.


This is one of the table tops after the green border was painted around the edge and the fabric was Mod Podged down.

You can see that the edge of the green painted border shows through beneath the fabric a bit. It’s just a small edge, maybe 1/8” wide, and it isn’t really noticeable when using the tables. However, it demonstrates how the color of the paint that’s behind the fabric affects how bright the fabric is.


Step 6: Apply clear coat

Clear coat is important both as a protective finish for the paint and because the Mod Podge is not waterproof.

The legs, drawer front, and aprons received coat after coat after coat of Minwax Polycrylic, per recommendations in this article. I smoothed the surfaces gently with an ultra fine finishing pad after each coat had dried, until I achieved a perfectly smooth, glossy finish.

Unfortunately, that approach didn’t work so well on the tabletops. I was working on them outside a spray booth. After each coat, I found something embedded in the finish: hairs, hapless insects, an entire Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. It seemed that the tabletops were doing their best to break my heart.

One night, after yet another gentle sanding to remove foreign objects, I got mad, grabbed a can of Rust-Oleum Satin Clear Enamel, and began spraying. The surface felt rough and disgusting after it dried. It was also even and fairly attractive, so I sprayed on a couple more coats.

Good enough.


Step 7: Screw furniture back together.

Here a finished table, sans drawer, and an unmodified table are juxtaposed. Perhaps the picture symbolizes the journey from beginning to end.

A finished table with drawer installed and optional hound dog accent. I’ve found that most furniture looks better with the addition of a dog or two.

I was initially skeptical about this project, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well the tables have worked out. They function as pieces of pop art. As a bonus, we like seeing the tables so much that we now keep the surfaces bare.

Given how horrible they were to begin with, though, we could have done almost anything to them and they would have looked better!

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