Saturday, October 26, 2013

Domestic Refurb: The Cabinet and Bonnet

The saga of the Domestic High Arm Fiddlebase continues.  This was a cheap and very dirty machine that I bought for the specific purpose of having something to experiment on.  No before pictures, I am afraid.  But picture, if you will, something very dark and very brown sitting in the back of a dark garage.  All of my fellow VSMAD* sufferers will have seen something just like it.

*Vintage Sewing Machine Acquisition Disorder

All of these old machines come with water ring marks on the tops, standard.  I think there was a law that said that you had to put a potted fern on top of them.  My usual practice has been to use Howard's Restor-a-Finish which is an easy to use miracle product that melts and removes a bit of the old finish, lays down some pigment, and in general works wonders. You can see a before and after here near the bottom of the post.

Howard's isn't a refinishing system, and it won't do everything.  I wanted to play around with more drastic measures.  The Domestic top had plenty of water rings and other black stains to provide the challenge.

The Second Experiment:  Applying Lots Of Chemicals To Wood

(see the last post for the first experiment:  painting the irons with hammered Rustoleum)

I stripped off the finish with alcohol.  I used wood bleach.  I used a Clorox bleach gel pen.  I sanded.  I scraped.  I stained.  I stained some more.  I stripped off the stain I had laid down.  I sanded and scraped and bleached some more.  I learned a lot.  I learned that attempting to learn furniture refinishing by reading the labels on the cans of products is pointless.    I learned that a one hundred year old stain or burn mark is probably just meant to be there.  ESPECIALLY the burn mark.  Nothing touched that sucker.

And finally I learned that I love Howard's Restor-a-Finish.  I would not bother with all this again.  But it kept me interested and absorbed for many hours and I enjoyed it.  No regrets. 

All that effort did lead to a marked improvement in the appearance of the top.  But what I was hoping for was smooth and even color with no stains.  Didn't happen.  But it is a lot better.

The Clorox bleach gel pen was the most effective at tackling the black stains.

Here's a "during" photo, when I asked the blog readers to help me figure out what the mystery holes in the top were for.  Lots of interesting ideas emerged both on the blog and through private messages, so thanks everyone.  One of the messages lead to a discovery that Domestic made another model with the same fiddlebase footprint.  So the operating hypothesis is that they drilled holes in all the cabinet tops to fit either model. 

The old dried up caulk that was in the holes is still a mystery, but Danielle revealed that her Domestic had a very thick felt packed in the holes.  So maybe the caulk was a later addition by an owner who cleaned out the old felt.  I'm going with felt rather than bathtub caulk. 

One of the woodworking things that I have learned how to do is glue things back together.  The not-so-secret?  Clamps.  You need plenty of them, and the right sizes.  I'm in love with clamps.  Keep in mind that I am a TOTAL newbie at all things wooden, and completely (and badly) self-taught.  Needing bases to hold up vintage sewing machines was the driving force that propelled me to experiment.  That, and buying sewing machines from (they all arrived with their bases broken or completely smashed.  I know better now.)

The Domestic had tight veneer, no loose edges, a nice surprise.  But the bonnet had plenty of issues.  The body of the bonnet had separated from the wood along the bottom edge.  The top was also loose.  Easy glue-and-clamps projects.

The front of the bonnet has what I will call appliques in a decorative wood.  The same decorative wood is on the front of the cabinet drawers.  None of this was visible before I stripped the old dark brown finish off.  What a lovely surprise!

And that center drawer has holes for the bobbins.  The machine came with a shuttle and one bobbin.

The wood appliques are no longer flat--over time they have curled and separated from the bonnet a bit.  My fear was that if I tried to force them back flat with glue and clamps, they would just split.  They don't seem to be in danger of falling off, so I will leave them alone.

Every refurb project is an endless series of decisions.

The wood trim on the top of the front of the bonnet was broken, with a large missing chunk.  The trim on the back is fine.  I thought about swapping them, but once I removed the one on the front I decided that good enough was good enough.  And I could always swap it later.

that's a shadow upper left, not a black mark
I thought about touching up the gold paint on the Domestic logo but decided that the chances of really messing things up were just too high.  Cost/benefit analysis.

Once I decided that I had gone as far as I was going to go on each aspect of the cabinet and bonnet, I topped it all off with a tung oil finish.   Super easy (read the can, I would not insult your intelligence by pretending that I am qualified to instruct anyone on anything wood related).  It comes in matte and glossy.  I started with the matte, which was too matte.  So I added the glossy, which is glossier than I liked at first.  But taken in conjunction with the gleaming beauty of the irons (see last post), and other aspects of the machine to be revealed in the future, the glossy is just great.

The machine originally had two mis-matched knobs for three drawers.  I found some interesting black metal knobs at Lowe's and added one coat of copper hammered Rustoleum.  It ran down into the low spots of the design and created EXACTLY the effect that I had in my mind.  How often does THAT happen?

 The End Results

Better than I could have hoped, not because my experiments were so successful, but because removing the old finish revealed the beauty of the wood.

And next time, the Big Reveal of the machine head..........

stay tuned, folks


  1. Wow, what a great looking cabinet! I can just imagine what the machine looks like. I need to get Howard's restorer for my cabinet. It is from the early 50s the finish isn't too bad but some areas are very brittle. Thanks for sharing your new jem.

  2. Lovely work! I really need to get after some of my machines and bases.

  3. Very nice! It's fun to have project to play and learn on.

  4. You did an absolutely fantastic job. Good enough means more time for sewing.

  5. It is very beautiful, Cheryl. Looking forward to seeing the machine too!

  6. Looks a-mazing! Can't wait to see the machine. OH! And, thanks for the tip on the Howard's! I know it's going to come in handy. ;)

  7. Just wanted to second the recommendation for Howard's Restor-a-Finish. I've used it to reduce water marks on retro and antique furniture. Quite effective.


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