Compostable plastics: The hard-to-break-down facts

Chris-Ann and I picked up Chet at the Compost Education Center in Fernwood on Monday morning. In the car, he told us a little of his background. He was a professor in the States he created a composting program at his university. He has a master’s degree and does some creative writing, and likes to ride his bike to work wearing cowboy boots.

When he and his wife started to think about leaving Arizona, they made a short list of places they’d like to move to, and began to apply for jobs. Victoria was at the top of that list, and then Chet saw the listing for Executive Director of the Victoria Compost Education Centre. As of January 2nd, Chet is the new director of the CEC.

Chris-Ann and Chet at the Malahat lookout

Chris-Ann gave the short version of her resume –  BA in religion and music, university chaplain, Greenpeace organizer , co-manager of Surfrider, and now working on her  MA degree in leadership and organizational change management in social structures.

And I gave mine – a software developer who got to work on a political campaign and got a taste for it. Now I’m working with Surfrider on Rise Above Plastics and trying to unravel the chaotic mess of how waste is dealt with on Vancouver Island.

That got us to the Malahat. We stopped at the viewpoint to look down on Finlayson Arm. It was Chet’s first trip up island. We pointed out the observatory, the airport, and Brentwood Bay marina, wreathed in fog. Our gaze drifted downward to the trash people had thrown over the railing there. “Don’t worry, it’s all compostable”, Chet snarked. Laughing, we got back in the car.

At Coast Environmental, just outside Chemainus, we pulled up to a giant trash compactor. I hopped out of the car and put on a big smile for the gentlemen who were taking their breaks there, eyeballing us with curiosity.

“I’m looking for Jack,” I said. “He’s expecting us. Do you know where I can find him?”

Jack’s office was further into the yard in a portable building. He greeted us and took us inside to get hi-vis vests.

Smell was the concern at the front of Jack’s mind. He showed us the two compost cookers, giant Quonset huts connected by a tunnel. Air is pumped in under the floor boards, heated and forced up through the piles of compost, and sucked out by giant blowers that filter the ripe air through a bio-filter. The bio-filter is basically a huge bed of bark mulch that absorbs the odors. It smells sweet enough to me, so it must be working.

Coast Enviro takes a lot of bio-waste. The stuff in the bottom of the Porta Potties, that’s bio-waste.

Jack has a windsock on a tower above his office and he records wind direction and speed every day. If there’s an odor complaint, he can prove whether it came from his facility or not.

His pride is the wood and drywall recycling and contaminated soil remediation. Soil is remediated using solid bio-waste. That’s sewage, basically. Microbes in it eat the bad stuff and render it harmless.

The manufacturer of the drywall takes it back and recycles it into more drywall. This seems very correct and harmonious to me.

Wood is ground up in a 1200 horsepower wood chipper and used in either decorative bark mulch or compost recipes.

The facility is built on the site of an old sawmill. They have a near-infinite supply of sawdust buried in their back lot. Sawdust is used between layers of food or bio-waste in the composting process. The old sawdust pit from the mill is part of what made this site ideal for composting. If the sawdust wasn’t there, time and labor would have to go to acquiring and processing brush to provide a carbon source for composting.

Island Farms asked them one time to dispose of 2000 gallons of spoiled cracked eggs. Their normal disposal channels wouldn’t work for so much liquid. Jack made a nest in the midst of his mountains of compost and poured in the eggs. It ended up speeding the composting process so much that it became a standard operating procedure.

“But what about plastic?” I finally asked.

“It’s a problem,” Jack said. “I hate the stuff.”

Jack doesn’t accept plastic. Sometimes he holds onto it briefly and gives it to Emterra, who send it to the US. “Where in the US?” I asked.

“Don’t know.”

“What company takes it?”

“Don’t know.”

“What about compostable plastics?” I asked. This was the question we were actually here for.

“Well, they just don’t compost!” Jack laughed.

He expanded further, leading us into the Quonset huts. Mountains of dirt rose into a fog so thick you couldn’t see the far end of the building. He explained that the fog was just steam released as the compost material cooked and aerated.

Inside the composter

The compost recipe is designed to heat the compost up to at least 55˚C, the “magic” temperature in high heat composting to ensure potential pathogens and weed seeds are killed. All the air in the building is exchanged through the blowers several times per hour. It cooks for a few weeks, then they shake out any material that hasn’t decomposed yet and give it another cycle. Usually the “compostable” forks, bags and straws take several laps through the cooker. Anything that remains intact after three or four cycles goes to landfill.

“What do you do if you get a load that’s mostly compostable plastic?” I asked.

He’ll let the recycling companies know his capacity, and tells them not to bring it if it’s over his limit. There’s a cost to running a load of compost through the cycle over and over again. Regular food waste breaks down on the first run, so waiting for the plastic to decompose as well is a waste of time. In that case, the stuff ends up in Hartland landfill. That’s the only place for it.

At the end of the tour, Jack showed us his computerized system for controlling and monitoring the compost piles, and one of his staff joined us.

“We have to stop making all this plastic shit,” the man said. “We’re drowning in it. No one wants it, and it’s going to eat the earth and leave nothing for our grandkids.”

We nodded soberly and shook his hand as we filed out.

It was the right moment to make the big ask. I explained our awkward situation in Victoria. The city is planning to add more single-use plastic products to our existing plastic bag ban, as part of a long term zero-waste strategy. We want them to include compostables, and the city is tacitly on board with this – thanks to Marika Smith, Chet’s predecessor at the CEC and current Waste Management Specialist at the City of Victoria.

However, in the past couple of years, local businesses have replaced their plastic serving utensils with compostable plastic ones. It’s everywhere, with the purest of intentions.

You can see that everyone is trying to do the right thing. It was only when another Surfrider volunteer, Ali Ruddy, started to dig for information, that we learned how inadequate compostable plastics are.

We now have to explain that these products are not helping, and in fact are making the problem worse. The stuff does not break down in the green bin in your backyard – it often doesn’t even break down in the industrial facility. More often than not, it ends up in the landfill or in the ocean.

“We want to start a conversation about this in Victoria, because nobody knows about this. We’re going to do some talks in March and we need speakers. Can you come speak?”

Jack firmly agreed, and Chet offered that the CEC can also help with public outreach and education. With sincere thanks, we said goodbye and drove back to Victoria.

Finalyson Arm from the top of the Hat

Viking Ship of 2018

My friends and I got together to build a boat the other day. We build one at the end of the year to fill up with memories and put out to sea in a Viking burial ceremony on New Year’s Eve. In past years the boat was made of cardboard and papier-mâché. It’s lots of fun to be a grown adult playing with papier-mâché, cardboard and fingerpaints.

Kahla closing up the bow

This year, I had a business refurbishing and flipping vintage furniture. Someone gave me a cherry and mahogany dresser to refurbish, but I wasn’t able to do much with it. Soon after I acquired it, I moved into a new place where I didn’t have any room to work on furniture. It stood in my dad’s basement waiting for me to come deal with it, but I didn’t have time. Finally I kicked it to pieces and took the bigger pieces to my friend’s house to use as kindling in their fireplace, and kept the finer pieces of mahogany, planning to sell them online.

The day of the boat-building, they were still in the trunk of my car as I ran around town trying to find big enough chunks of cardboard. Victoria has become very environmentally friendly lately – all the car dealerships, for example, get their parts in metal cages instead of cardboard boxes now. Good for them! Sucked for me though.

After a while it occurred to me that you can build a boat out of wood. The result was the finest Viking burial ship we’ve ever had. It might even float on its own this year!

Painting the flag

The idea of the boat is to fill it with whatever remnants of the year need to be burned, forgotten, and left in the past. Kahla wrote her stuff on paper and crumpled it up to throw in the boat. “Forgetting self-care,” she said.

“Taking on other people’s stress,” I added.

“Having to be productive all the time,” she said.

“The John A. MacDonald statue,” I said. “Actually, that’s the name of the boat.”

The John A. MacDonald statue used to stand on the steps of City Hall. The first Prime Minister of Canada, his home riding was Victoria, even though he never actually came to town while he was in office. He also accepted bribes from companies trying to get the contract to build out the CPR and participated in the founding of the residential school system. Here are ten standout quotes from John A. MacDonald in case you had any doubt about his relationship with the First Nations.

Guess this year it's a pirate ship

I never thought about the guy much before this year. In school I was taught that he was the founder of Canada, but they left out the other information.

First Nations elders in Victoria asked that the statue be removed as part of Victoria’s Truth and Reconciliation program. After a year of meetings and deliberations, it came down right at the beginning of municipal election season. That meant that for the entire election cycle, I, Lisa Helps’ volunteer coordinator in charge of canvassing the entire City of Victoria, got to hear thinly-veiled racist nonsense about that stupid statue every single night.

Many of the people who complained about it assured me that Lisa had lost the election with that blunder, but they were very wrong. We on her campaign team worried, but remained faithful that it was the right thing to do. We occasionally heard from children of residential school survivors as well, asking us to thank Lisa for doing it.

Gold lettering is classy, right? Name of the boat painted on the back.

We won the election by a lot. That statue didn’t do us any harm at all and I learned a lesson. Do the right thing – it might turn out okay, and the victory will be sweeter.

Anyway, the boat is named Sir John A. MacDonald and we’re going to set it on fire on New Year’s Eve.

Finished and drying

The Shipping Container Plan

Last year I needed a big project. Having just returned from Denmark with a head full of information about Danish interior design, I decided to import a container of vintage Danish furniture to Victoria, where there is a strong market for it.

Cost breakdown

As the plan came together, I needed to increase my certainty about it. I wanted exact numbers, or at least well-informed estimates, about how much I would have to spend on shipping, how much I could afford to invest in product, and how much I could hope to profit.

My education is in computer science, not business, so I started with a spreadsheet and turned it into a crude webapp that I could consult and manipulate numbers as needed. Here it is – http://rocketships.ca/srs/shipping/.

Fixed costs

Ship a 20’ container from DK to CA $5800
Plane ticket to Denmark $1400
Truck+gas+living expenses while driving around Denmark for 3 weeks $1000
Total $8200

Variable costs

Import tax 9% on value of stock (what I bought it for, not what I sell it for)
Insurance .06% of value of whatever’s in the container.
Loan rate 4.5% of the portion of capital that I borrow.

How much you have to put in to get x out

I ran the numbers a few different ways and found a sweet spot at about $30k input to make $10k back. $50k input would have been better, but $30k was what my risk tolerance could handle – at least for the planning phase.

How to get through customs

There is a trade agreement between Canada and the EU, which Denmark is part of. That makes the customs process simpler than it otherwise might be. There are three main forms you need.

A6A

Freight/cargo manifest. You have to list every item inside the container as accurately as possible. I understand that any inaccuracy will lead to customs agents tearing your shipment apart (even more than they otherwise would). There is probably an art to providing exactly enough information to keep them disinterested.

B3

Customs coding form. This form has 50 fields in which you have to detail, in the required format, information about your importer, your own company, and the weight, value and customs classification of your goods. Customs classification is a 10-digit code that you look up in the Canada Customs Tariff document, published here – https://www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/trade-commerce/tariff-tarif/2018/menu-eng.html. You have to figure out what customs code description matches each item in the shipment and fill out a form B3 for it. There’s only one field for the CDC code on form B3, so it seems that you need a form B3 for each different type of thing you’re bringing in. I’m looking at wooden furniture and lighting, so that’s two codes. I believe that means two forms.

Ci1

Canada Customs invoice. This one is kind of optional. If all the goods come from a wholesaler who can provide a complete invoice, then you can use that. However in my case, I’ll be going to estate sales, flea markets, auctions, charity shops, a couple of wholesale places, and people’s homes. Most of those sellers will not provide an invoice. It’ll be a cash deal and the paperwork will be my problem. So for each vendor I have to provide a Canada Customs Invoice. It looks like any other invoice; a list of items and prices, with the seller’s contact information.

Customs Broker

The forms aren’t complicated, but there are a lot of boxes on them. Every box is a chance to make a mistake that will get the container held up in customs for weeks or months. My frequent method of getting through big, intimidating jobs is to do the work as quickly as possible without regard for mistakes, then show it to someone who can tell me where I went wrong. This is much faster and more effective than trying to get it right the first time, if you can stand looking like an amateur once in a while. I can. But in the case of customs agents, the stakes are higher than looking like an amateur.

This is where a customs broker comes in. These are companies whose whole purpose is helping people get their shipments over the border. I contacted Dilas Intl Customs Brokers to get a quote for help, and it seems that they can make sure that everything goes smoothly for about $300. Probably worth the money, though my initial plan was to handle all the paperwork myself.

The container

The container is 20 feet long and 10 feet square. If you were moving out of a one or two bedroom apartment, that would be about enough space to fit all your stuff. The best quote I got was from shipping.dk, who can ship my container to Vancouver via the Panama Canal for $4850 USD.

I talked with a very nice guy named Kaspar who patiently answered all my beginner questions informatively and said, “Just confirm a week or two in advance what day you want the container.”

The prices of containers can vary a fair bit. Shipping.dk can do the 20-foot container for $4850, but a 40 foot one is almost double the price, $8250. Meanwhile Blue Water Shipping can provide a 40 foot container for $8000 even, but the 20 footer is only slightly cheaper, at $6800. It’s worthwhile to shop around.

Where to get stuff in Denmark

I’m not the first person to try out this plan. People have been shipping containers to northern California for decades. There are two shops in Vancouver that specialize in importing containers of furniture from Denmark, and between the two of them they bring in seven containers each year. They don’t have any trouble finding goods, since the Danish market has caught on as well and there are wholesale providers of used Scandinavian furniture that specialize in container shipping. Sites such as bliddal-classic.dk and remodern.dk let you choose exactly what you want, pay for it and ship it quite seamlessly.

The trouble is, those sites are expensive. They know what they have to sell, and sometimes they sell for almost the same prices as shops in Victoria would.

You can find cheaper stuff if you work a bit more informally. Copenhagen is, of course, the most expensive place in the country, and that’s where most people begin and end. I went to Sønderborg instead. No one has ever heard of it.

Sønderborg at the beach

People donate their old stuff to charity shops or take it straight to the dump; Danish trash is hipster treasure. Danish dumps are staffed by cheerful, clean, well-paid union employees who know good value when they see it; they run an auction site for the good finds. Prices at genbrugsauktion.com are much cheaper than at the wholesale sellers. Lauritz.com is another auction site, a bit more selective and high end than the genbrugsauktion, still cheaper than the wholesalers, and covers Norway, Finland and Sweden as well as Denmark. I think the key must be to troll those sites all year, and do a pickup once in the winter.

And finally, there is my former partner Bo. I helped him open his shop in Southern Denmark last year, Als Genbrug og Antikvariat. He gives me a 30% discount and has negotiated discounts with a couple of other local shops for me.

Inventory considerations

Deciding what to buy is the hardest part for me. I have a book about Scandinavian design, some websites where I can research, and a year or so of looking at and coveting fine furniture. It doesn’t feel like nearly enough experience to compete with the old salts of this industry who have been developing their expertise for decades. I even lack the simple experience of furnishing the house that I live in. So for furniture, I narrowed my focus down to a relatively short list: nightstands, desks, floor lamps, pendant lamps, dining room chairs, accent chairs and coffee tables. These are all things that I have personal experience with, so I can trust my judgment.

Condition is important. All of the shops I’ve talked to have people to repair and refinish the stock they buy, but adding the hourly rate of a repair person runs up their costs very quickly. Upholstery is expensive, and almost never worth the effort. So anything that must be recovered is probably not going in my container.

I can refinish wood and I enjoy it, so wood doesn’t have to be in perfect condition – but I don’t have much space or time for working on it, so not too much damaged wood is allowed. Teak, walnut and rosewood are most popular for Danish furniture. To import rosewood into Canada, you need special permit, because rosewood is an endangered species. Without the documents, I can’t buy rosewood. Teak is more popular anyway, though.

Lamps come with Danish plugs. Every plug has to be changed to Canadian prongs before it can sell. It’s an easy and simple job, but good luck selling any lamp in Canada without fixing it first.

And finally, there are the dead spaces inside of cabinets, between the legs of chairs, under tables… this is where I can find space for jugs, ceramics, little boxes of knickknacks, and other fun little things that cost almost nothing and can sell well in Canada.

The local market

I started looking for customers. This was my favorite part of the process, by far. Turning up at people’s place of business to chat with them is nervous-making, exciting, and ultimately fun. I met some great people doing this. Roshan, for example, is a salsa instructor and former auctioneer who keeps shop part time at two of Victoria’s midcentury modern showrooms. They are Trig Vintage and the Fabulous Find, located on the same block of Herald St below Government. Roshan seems to know everyone in Victoria, and told me what I needed to know about the owners of the two shops before I went to meet them.

Trena Danbrook owns Fabulous Find with her husband Greg. Greg worked as a cabinetmaker and upholsterer in the early days of the shop, supporting them for the first two years before they started seeing a profit. Greg appraises and repairs furniture; Trena sells it and treasure hunts. They host drinks and appetizers once a month in their shop, after hours, and people who appreciate fine design show up to gossip and appreciate the current stock.

Ian Vosberg owns Trig Vintage, and he was enthusiastic and supportive of my plan, but reserved about how much he wanted to participate. He agreed, as Trena and Greg did, to watch for my emails and answer promptly if they saw anything they could buy.

The Purchasing Math

5 Danish kroner = 1 Canadian dollar. This makes for easy math (it’s actually more like 4.8 to the dollar, but close enough). To decide whether I can earn on any given dining room table, I take the price in Kroner, say 700dkk, and ask myself, can this sell for the same number in CAD? That is, can it sell to a homeowner, buying a dining room table for their house, for $700?

If so, then I can make money. I buy it for $140, sell it to Trena or Ian for $350, they sell it for $700, and everyone wins. After I factor in shipping, maybe I made 20 or 50 on the table, and my costs are all covered. Repeat that about 200 times and I can easily make back my investment.

Denmark

I went to Denmark on July 1st to validate the plan in person. Bo, who is still a friend and wanted to be part of the plan, let me drive his cube van around to the shops and auctions of Southern Denmark to find my stock. He also had a fair bit laid aside for me. Unfortunately, once I started sending photographs and prices back to Trena and Ian, I found that I mostly wasn’t able to get prices that would work for both of us.

For example, a set of compact white sofas for 345 kroner – the set could easily sell for $345 CAD with Ian. So that’s a win. But there weren’t many other wins. Erik Buch style chairs are common and cheap here, and popular in Canada. There are lots available from 75kr to 125kr – that’s damn cheap for a nice teak chair, but they still have to sell for 75 to 125 dollars in Canada to justify that. They’re popular, but not that much. In Canada they could get $25 to $50 each, maybe. And most of them need recovering.

This fine expandable dining room table was, I thought, a sure hit for Trena. It’s teak and has a beautiful surface, and it can shrink down to kitchenette size or expand to accommodate a dozen people. Exactly the kind of thing that’s popular for small homes in Victoria, and for 1600kr. But Trena said that they’re common and not quite what she’s after.

What I’m seeing consistently is prices that I could earn on if I had my own shop, but being a middleman isn’t getting me anywhere. I don’t quite have the ambition to open a shop of my own, so it looks like the plan is bust for this year. How sad, stuck in Denmark in July with nothing to do… maybe I can keep myself busy somehow (smiling).

This was a fun learning experience, but I’m on to the next project for now. This one might live again in another form, once I can figure out how to make money!

Learning About Upholstery

6 refinished stools
Finished work

Upholstery is expensive. I’ve learned a few things on my journey – how to refinish teak, how to walk into someone’s place of business and try to sell them stuff, how to get awkwardly shaped large objects into a car without scratching anything – but the advice I’ve heard most is, stay away from projects that need upholstery. It is too expensive.

I like to try things myself, though. Central Middle School had a junk sale a couple weekends ago, and I went to see if I could find something interesting. A flirtatious 70-year-old man wearing a fur coat sold me these 6 stools for $20. A new friend that I dragged along for the day loaded them into the hatchback, and I hauled them home to see what I could make of them.

They started in rotten shape. All of the seats were ripped. All the chrome was rusty. All the feet were loose, scratched or missing. 

I unscrewed the legs and started pulling staples out of the bottom. The staple remover broke immediately. A flathead screwdriver and pliers worked after that.

The first one was easy, but then there were five more. I set up my workstation properly.

Then I got to ripping out staples at high speed. It didn’t take as long as I thought – there was time to grind off the rust as well before I turned in that night. For that I used coarse steel wool. It didn’t take as much sweat as I expected. Most of the rust was just dirt.

So much for prep work. Now I started thinking about what to recover them with. The black vinyl that they came with was a bit boring. Maybe red vinyl? White? 

I had the bright idea of using a grey wool army surplus blanket. That would look cool for sure. It turns out, though, I’m not the first person who ever had that idea. Wool army blankets aren’t available in huge stacks for 5 bucks at army surplus stores anymore.

A, there aren’t any army surplus stores left. B, even if there’s one, they don’t have any wool blankets, and C, even if they do, they’re not 5 bucks, they’re 40. Damn hipsters ruin everything cool.

My next idea was to use canvas. They have canvas dropsheets for catching paint drips at Home Depot for $20, and that’s what I got.

For foam, I expected to pay $10 for a meter or two and cut it myself. Instead, the woman at the foam store insisted on cutting them for me, which was awesome, but the rounds were $5 each. $30 for foam.

Finally, they needed new feet. I thought chunky white rubber ones would look cool, like these. 

I didn’t expect them to cost $5 for each set of 4 though. It didn’t matter anyway because I couldn’t find six white ones in all of Victoria, Langford and Sidney. There were black ones, but they cost just as much, and somehow they didn’t look right. I ended up with vinyl tips that are identical to the old ones that I removed.

The first cushion came out looking messy. I borrowed my dad’s staple gun, which he uses to put up targets at the shooting range. He uses long staples since smaller ones just fall out. For my purpose, they were too long. They won’t sink into the plywood.

It came out looking kinda messy.

I left the extra fabric loose like that and got shorter staples. The next set worked better. With the next five looking good, I redid the first one.

The paper bottom of the stools proudly states that these stools are made in Canada, from all new material. Of course I wanted to keep that. I carefully stapled the paper back on, and screwed on the legs.

Then I stood them up and tried sitting on one. It did an excellent job of keeping me off the ground. Success! Now to check – is upholstery really expensive, or no?

Here’s the cost breakdown. 
Stools – $20
Canvas – $20
Foam – $30
Leg tips – $15
My own precious time – about 7 hours total, if you include driving around to places.

My time is worth about $25/hour when I’m having a good time, so let’s say $175.

That means each stool cost $12.50 in materials, and $29.50 in time. To make that back, I have to sell them for at least $42 each. There’s nothing to do except be bold, and post them up for a price that makes the work seem worth it! Even if I don’t get my price, I learned a lot and I’ll be able to do much cleaner work if I try this again.

The result is a set of slick-looking bar stools that are stackable and have a small footprint – they’re perfect for a tight apartment where there normally isn’t enough chairs for a party. And yeah, I’d say upholstery is expensive! But it may be worthwhile, in the right circumstances.

Treasures from Ladysmith

In March I found a dresser that checked all the boxes for a killer UsedVic deal. Terrible, poorly-lit photograph that didn't show what the item looked like; ungrammatical copy; located up island in Ladysmith. The dresser itself was a teak 9-drawer midcentury modern piece with wooden drawer pulls and those conical legs that are so hip right now. I talked the seller down a bit on the price, and drove there on a Saturday afternoon to pick it up.

In the ad it said "Easy to paint to match your decor." I was, therefore, expecting to refinish it. A 7-year-old child answered the door in Ladysmith, and ran to get her mom. The mom, coughing violently, led me to the guest suite under the house. "We're moving," she said. "The tenants already left, so we're storing a lot of stuff down here. You might have to move some of it out of the way."

She unlocked the door and let me in first. The suite had a bit of a smell to it. Almost like… livestock? After a few minutes it came to me – the mouse cages at PetSmart. It smelled exactly like that. I began stacking dining room chairs on top of each other so I could get past them to where the dresser was. The woman watched without moving. Finally I uncovered the dresser, and got to see just how bad the damage was.

There were actual mouse droppings on the top, possibly bird droppings as well. A child with felt pens had drawn a couple of flowers, and someone had dropped a red-hot nail on the corner, leaving a deep burn. Beside the nail burn was a mysterious, dark, splotchy stain.

For all that, the drawers moved smoothly and the veneer was in decent condition. The price was starting to seem a little high for the amount of work I had to do, though. I tried to talk her down a little more.

"It's easy enough to paint," she said. God save me from people who think it's okay to paint over gorgeous teak veneer. "If it's not for you, it's not for you. It's all good." She started to turn for the door.

I groaned internally – I didn't want to drive back from Ladysmith with an empty car. "No, no. I want it. Can you help me lift it out of here?"

"I hurt my back, I can't lift."

Okay. I started removing drawers and carried them out to the car first. With all the drawers out, she was willing to help lift the cabinet. With the seats down and the passenger seat pushed all the way forward, I was able to stuff the 6-foot length of it almost all the way into my hatchback. The hatch came short of closing by only about 6 inches. I loaded the drawers in around it and used two bungees to hold the dresser down, and two more to secure the hatch.

Everything fits!

"You really know what you're doing!" the woman exclaimed.

"Sure," I said agreeably. That's not true, but I'll take praise when I can get it. I paid her and headed home. In Mill Bay I paused at the start of a cloudburst to cover the end of the dresser with a tarp, waited out the worst of the rain, and continued home.

The dresser stood in the basement for about a week before I got a chance to really look at it. 9 drawers, they all need to be stripped and refinished. The top would take a lot of sanding. But most annoyingly, the drawer pulls and feet were painted brown… and there was no way to know what was under that paint. Oh well. I set to stripping.

The first coat of stripper.

After a week or so of using half of my lunch break to apply toxic chemicals, scrape them off, and sand vigorously, most of the damage was off. The felt pen and animal droppings came off easy enough – the nail burn I gave up on – the weird dark splotch yielded to sanding. The paint was covering blond beech, which took tung oil beautifully and added an elegant contrast to the expanse of dark teak.

The drawers, sanded but unfinished. The paint came off the handles easily.

The following week was busy. There were hikes that needed hiking, and a weekend trip to Saltspring to meet some baby goats on Easter.

Enolla, a very nice goat.
Enolla, a very nice goat.

When I got back to it, there was another week of lunch breaks where I applied tung oil and sanded some more. This thing has a lot of surface area. The drawer faces cleaned up well, but the top surface was scarred and battered, and needed extra attention.

Finally I put the drawers in, and winced. I thought that the drawer faces were flush with the edge of the cabinet. They were not. They were countersunk about an inch, and the inside surface was not veneered, only painted. I had absolutely ruined the paint job with finish stripper. I hoped that sanding the damage down would be enough and the drawers would cover it, but no. So I scraped off a paint chip and called to find out how much paint would to cost.

At this point, I thought that I was not much of a businessman. There's a limit to how much this type of furniture can sell for – after all, there are other teak dressers for sale, just as nice as this one. So far I've paid almost half of what I could reasonably expect to sell it for to the woman in Ladysmith. I drove out there to get it, I restocked tung oil and finish stripper, I've spent two weeks of lunches working on it, and now I have to buy paint. Maybe I can sell it for $400? $600 would be pushing it.

But I got this far, I was committed to it. I did a good job and put my best work in, because why bother living if you're not going to try a little? It'll be accounted as a learning experience. And it does look very fine.

There was a time when you couldn’t sell high end used furniture outside of Victoria. People from up island would bring the treasures of estate and garage sales to Victoria for consignment or auction. It happens less frequently these days as those who know what they have can sell their goods online via Used.ca or Craigslist for just as much or more than they would make from the shops.

So the shops in Victoria don’t have quite the same cheap supply of goods as they once did. Demand remains strong, with condos rising like mushrooms and a net gain of 25,000 or so in population over the last five years. Danish Modern style is very popular for condos. You can find gorgeous pieces that have a relatively small footprint and handle stairs and elevators well.

This presents an opportunity to go to the source – Denmark itself. Although the 1960’s are over and no longer producing vintage stuff, the bulk of what remains is still in Denmark, in old people’s houses.

I've bought my plane ticket for the trip to Denmark in July, booked my container, figured out taxes and insurance, and I'm hoping with all my fingers crossed that I can find enough stuff in decent condition to satisfy Victoria's appetite, as well as Victoria's price ranges. 

The furniture restoration business is fun, but maybe not lucrative enough to justify the trouble, at least for me. The importing business, however, could work out. Stay tuned to see what I get up to next.

Stuffing Large Things Into Small Cars

I’ve been busy since the last time I checked in. Of my ten ideas for growing the business, I’ve tried two. Instead of turning my car in for a van, I got a tow hitch installed. And I’ve tried selling things myself and putting them up for consignment, so I can get a bigger share of the profit. 

When I was in Denmark last year, there were trailers lying around all over the place and most cars had tow hitches. That’s how Europeans get away with having such tiny, fuel efficient cars – all of them are expandable by adding a trailer.

Trailers are great, compared to vans or pickup trucks. You can throw any awful thing in them without concern about upholstery or scratching paint. I decided to get one last week when I realized that this table, found in Parksville for an incredible price with matching chairs that didn’t even need upholstering, would not fit in my tiny hatchback.

I hit up Kahla for her truck, but she couldn’t let me have it that weekend, which is fair enough. I had to come up with something else, and it turns out that you can rent a big covered U-haul trailer for like 20 bucks a day. Compared to the price of renting a truck for the trip up to Parksville – more like $300 – it was an easy choice.

Unfortunately, the trailer hitch guys are hardworking, busy guys who could not drop everything and install my hitch between Thursday when I saw the ad, and Saturday when I could drive up there. I had to wait until the following weekend, and by then the table was sold. Ah! Pain! Suffering! But at least now I have a hitch.

Though I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be car-free or at least car-lite, now that I have a reason to own a car, I’m discovering how much more effective it makes me. Even without the hitch, I can deliver awkwardly shaped items to people who live downtown and don’t own cars. There’s only so much high-end Danish furniture on the island, but there’s plenty of cheap drawers and bookshelves, and plenty of people who need them.

Offering free delivery for small items like that has allowed me to flip $20 items and fill in the cashflow gaps while I wait for larger items – like this incredible Frem Røjle table that I refinished – to sell. It’s standing on consignment at the Fabulous Find downtown.

Technically I’m down by about $700 at the moment, but I have high hopes for the two dressers that I have in the basement now. One is cheap and small, and I can easily make $40 on it by delivering it. The other is a great big teaky thing that needs refinishing, but it will be a beautiful statement piece once it’s done.

I’m sure glad I don’t have to make a profit on this yet! But at least this is a cheaper hobby than motorcycles.