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.

Would you like to receive updates by email?

Published by

Shannon Graham

Shannon has been writing brief essays and occasional how-to articles at Rocketships, Unaffiliated (.ca) whenever inspiration strikes, since 2012. She is interested in your opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *