Oops I did it again

Every so often I find myself writing a variation on the same post – the idea that working with wood entails largely non-reversible operations. Essentially, woodworking has no “undo” command. I’ve written about that back in October here, in Feb 2011 here, Aug 2009 here… oh, there’s a post from June 2007 and one from June 2006, too. Eight years and counting of noting the same problem – rushing forward without stopping to think one or two steps ahead. The consequences of “just try it” are often irreversible.

A friend at work had a Spanish cedar platter that had once been her grandmothers. She packed it in a suitcase for a long flight and it cracked in transit. Fortunately it was a clean split and hadn’t completely separated into two pieces, so after looking at it I offered to glue it up. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would use for clamping pressure, but felt confident I could use a band clamp, a bunch of rubber bands, or if I had to, cut out clamping cauls on a bandsaw and use bar clamps. As it turns out, rubber bands did the trick. I flooded the joint with glue (in hindsight, I should have tried to be more economical and use a syringe that I’d forgotten I had) and clamped it up.

Yellow wood glue is a great adhesive. In a tight joint and with proper pressure, the adhesion will be strong than the wood itself. That is, if you try to re-break the platter, it will split somewhere other than on the glue line. It also cleans up with water, doesn’t smell, and isn’t carcinogenic. One problem, though, is that if you just try to smear it off the wood while still wet, it can leave an invisible coating on the wood that will show up as a blotch when you apply a finish. So the general rule is to let it cure for about 10 minutes and then carefully scrape it off as it gets “gummy.”  I’d flooded quite a bit on the joint (my first “mistake”) so I knew I’d be waiting more than 10 minutes to clean it up. Eventually, though, I did gently scrape most of it away.

Spanish cedar platter, glued

Spanish cedar platter, glued

Here’s where I rushed it – after an hour or so (when I knew the glue had set) I saw that one part of the repair was just every so slightly out of alignment. The halves were offset by maybe 5 thousandths of an inch, about the thickness of 2 sheets of paper. Not terribly visible, but I could still see it and more importantly feel the ridge as I ran my fingers over the joint. So then I did what I would normally do – I grabbed a small card scraper and started to scrape down the seam until the two sides were flush with one another.

Except… this platter was finished (varnish or shellac, I can’t quite tell yet, but I’m leaning toward shellac). Which means i put a nice scrape mark in the middle of a finished platter. Ugly! I hadn’t thought of the consequences of taking a scraper (or any abrasive) to the work – to do it right I’d probably have to strip off all the finish and re-finish the piece. Even that wasn’t such a problem, but this wasn’t my piece to play around with. Remember, it was my friend’s late grandmother’s. Now I’m feeling really badly that I might have made things worse. I’ll take it in and talk over options over the next day or two, once I figure out what the finish actually is (easy test – if I rub it with alcohol and it dissolves into the cloth, it’s shellac. Otherwise varnish). Please let it be shellac – it’s easier to play with (again, dissolves in alcohol) and I might be able to just fix that one area and give the whole platter one more good top coat or two to make it all look even.

I’m hopeful that I won’t be referring back to this posting six months from now, but history has a way of repeating itself.


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