Back in January I decided to redecorate my entire living room and instead of a new coffee table, I ended up drawn to a WWII-era Chinese Camphor Chest.
I found the chest at Adjective’s Unhinged. If you live in Orlando and don’t know about Adjective’s Marketplace, then you are truly missing out. This place is magical. It’s like an antique mall + every DIY furniture/knickknack makeover from Pinterest EVER. It’s amazing.
Adjective’s Marketplace has finished pieces that have been re-done by professionals. It’s where I got the bedside tables for both my bedroom and guestroom.
Adjective’s Unhinged is where the Adjective’s vendors sell pieces that they haven’t Pinterest-fied yet. As a consumer you can buy a piece and take it home, as-is. Or you can buy a piece and have the vendors re-finish it to your specifications. The Choose Your Own Adventure of antiques shopping.
I saw this trunk and – before doing any research on what the heck it was or putting together any plan of attack for refinishing it – purchased it and had Vince + Kellan pick it up for me.
So it came home and the research began. Not only did I find out that it’s WWII-era, but I learned that these chests are extremely common, range widely in quality, and absolutely NO two are alike though some are very similar to one another.
Each chest is hand-carved and was originally stained and varnished with a high gloss. Mine is middle-of-the-road quality, and originally it probably likely looked like this:
By the time I got to it, my chest had been stripped of most of the varnish, painted a weird combination of bright blue and yellow, then mostly stripped again and painted over completely in that odd pink…. of course I had no idea of any of this when I bought it. I just knew I HAD to have it.
Like, the urge to own this chest, the love I feel upon looking at it, is so strong that I wonder if it were mine in a past life or something.
I started working on it by chipping paint off with an exacto knife. And it was NOT hard. The paint was so thick, and the carvings so intricate, that I spent hour upon hour hunched over the trunk in our garage chipping away to reveal detail and relief.
After I got nearly the entire lid chipped away of major paint chunks, we debated for probably two months on what the next step should be. Vince highly recommended media blasting the trunk with a soft media like walnut. But that ish is EXPENSIVE. So we kept putting it on hold.
Finally, Vince was out of town (and thus unable to prevent any rash decisions on my part) and I wanted the trunk done (I’m impatient and figured I either fix it and enjoy it or destroy it and have at least tried) so I decided to take a risk on good ol’ fashioned paint stripper.
I tried to research how Camphor Wood would handle paint stripper – pretty much zero help on the internet. With the help of my friendly Home Depot paint guy, I settled on an ‘eco-friendly’ paint stripper that would hopefully not be too harsh.
I started with a bottom corner of a side panel. Within 5 minutes I ended up doing the entire side.
The sides were pretty easy because whoever had given this trunk it’s previous treatments didn’t seem to care too much about the side panels. I took the paint off and realized a lot of original varnish was still there, and it was this gorgeous golden color.
So I moved on to the back panel.
Holy. Crap. Dat detail doe. The eagle is unflippin’ believable with all that detail. And the flowers! I just kept brushing the paint stripper on and dipping my brush in water to swirl it around and off. And the more I brushed, the more detail was revealed. I ended up taking the hose to the trunk to wash all the stripper off and using Vince’s air compressor to blow dry it.
By the time I got to the top, I had this down to a science. I figured the top would go the easiest since I’d spent the most time digging out chunks of paint from the details, and it did.
At this point I’ve gotten 95% of the paint off of the trunk. There are still remnants of blue and yellow tucked into the crevasses. There is still weird pink on the top and feet.
Next steps are for me to hit it one more time with paint stripper and then a gentle cleaner. After I hose it down and let it dry, I’ve decided to take one of two routes:
- Coat it with three thin layers of UV Polyurethane to give it a ‘wet’ look, which is really when the wood shines.
- Stain it a golden color all over and then poly it.
I’m still not sure which I want to do just yet but once that’s figured out I’ll get glass cut for the top and it will be officially done!
For now, it’s found the perfect space in my front room between two accent chairs whose flower pattern matches WAY too well for me to believe my subconscious wasn’t involved. While the chest may not be done in its make-over process yet, it’s perfect and loved as is. 🙂