What is that gunk? … on cleaning wood …

I am now the proud owner of my Grandmother’s dining room set. It’s not anything fancy, it’s certainly not a valuable antique. In fact, it’s typical mid-’60s era good quality stuff. At the time, it was moderately “high end” but nothing outrageous. This table is only marginally older than I.

I grew up eating at that table. More family meals, after school snacks, summer time treats and much more than I care to count were placed on that table. I earned extra money polishing its seemingly endless acres of wood surfaces. I have set that table countless times – carefully placing everything from the “every day” plates to the “good” china on its surface.

As a kid, it seemed huge, but I never saw it without at least two of its three leaves in place. As an adult, it seems practically sized, perfect for four to six, when it’s stripped of all its leaves, and expandable up to the huge, family-size thing of my childhood memories.

But, it’s not the pretty, gleaming thing of mellow, glowing wood and solid black iron and leather I remember. Age and lack of care have taken their toll.

The last few years of my Grandmother’s life, she was not too particular about cleaning, so the table sat, gathering dust. After she died in early 2000, it went to one of my sisters, the only one who had any room for the large, heavy and rather dark piece. There it sat for five years – she and her now-ex were both smokers, they had dogs and the dusty yard outside lent its own part to the mix of crud that settled onto the table, and into the crevices on the chairs.

In 2005, my sister left, and the table sat still, who knows if it was ever cleaned or wiped during the next two years. Her ex was depressive, and not too interested in housekeeping. Finally, their divorce is going through, the house is being sold and the table was carted to my sister’s garage to await me. I would pick it up and put it in my dining room, this time, I was the one with enough space for that table.

Besides, I always liked it. I love the dark wood, I love the iron scrolls on the legs, I love the vaguely Mediterranean style of it. Most of all, I love the memories of family gathered around it.

And now it sits in my dining room, once a beautiful piece of warm wood, with that soft, mellow glow that is the sign of a good finish, its surface is dull, the corners have a few chips and there are some small scratches on the sides. The leather seats are torn here and there, but nothing too bad. It’s the chairs themselves that are in the worst shape.

Their finish is marred by years of built up gunk. A black, sticky residue covers their surfaces and stubbornly refuses to budge. I’ve tried nearly every product known and have had no luck in removing the gunk without also removing a significant portion of the remaining finish.












And so I am left with the choice of either leaving the gunk there (not an option), removing the gunk and attempting to restore what finish I can, and accepting the resulting slightly “distressed” look, or of stripping the entire table and chairs and refinishing them – a truly Herculean task if there ever was one.

I plan to start easy, and simply clean the whole mess, and will eventually wind up doing the major over-haul of a full strip and refinish. And I expect the time spent in cleaning, refinishing, polishing, etc will also be time spent walking down memory lane…

Yes, it would be easier to simply say, “It’s old, it’s outdated, it’s not pretty and it’s not really worth the effort to save. So, toss it.” But I can’t. I can’t for so many reasons. I can’t because my entire family looks on that table and sees the years of family history. I can’t because I look on that table and see years of my own life, my own experiences, my own history reflected in its now clouded wood surface.

And so it begins, this is where I learned how to make a place setting. This is the table on which I first learned to sew. This is where I sat happily on my Grandfather’s lap on weekend mornings, watching cartoons together as he had his breakfast of eggs, so covered in pepper they looked speckled with black. My hands are larger now, it’s harder to get between the iron scroll work and the wood to clean the legs.

I don the rubber gloves and pick up the scrubber, the oil soap, the gunk remover and lots of soft paper towels, and I commence – slowly removing the built-up, caked on grime and revealing the wood beneath.

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