Shop Projects – Refinishing a sewing machine cabinet

A couple of years ago I had a benchtop tool in my shop which needed to find a semi-permanent home in my shop somewhere other than the workbench, and as I drove past a pile of items on the side of the road next to a “FREE” sign my eye caught what appeared to be a small nightstand. I stopped and found it to be a veneered table in fairly poor shape, but seemingly solid enough to be a good tool stand. When I tried to pick it up it was surprisingly heavy and unbalanced. A second look revealed it to be an old sewing machine cabinet complete with the old machine.

Given that I have a weakness for old machines, the cabinet quickly went from being a basic tool stand to a project in it’s own right. The old Montgomery-Ward sewing machine itself seemed to be in reasonable mechanical shape. It seemed to be a transition model between belt powered treadle machines and electric driven machines as it still had an external drive wheel, but rathar than a belt it was powered by an external electric motor with a rubber tire rubbing against the outside of the wheel. The wires for the motor were in very poor shape with crumbling insulation and a look inside the speed control mechanism showed it to be equally bad, so work on the project of fully restoring stopped and it got shoved into a corner of the workshop.

Recently I got tired of it being in my way and decided that it could store just as well in the house as in the shop, but to do so I needed to at least get the exterior in better shape. It was originally a nicely veneered piece of furniture with the front panel being bookmatched quarter-sawn oak, but by the time I got it the situation was beyond a simple cleaning. Much of the veneer glue had failed, and one entire side only seemed to be held on by the varnish around the edges. There were also several spots with missing veneer, and some deep scratches and dents. After disassembling what I could, I re-glued the loose veneer and began to lightly sand the heavily ambered and crazed finish, thinking that if I could get through to the actual veneer I might be able to save it.

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That was unfortunately not the case. Once the finish was sanded enough to see through the surface flaws, I realized I was not the first person who had tried to refinish it. It looked like a prior attempt had gone in with a very heavy touch and left deep cross-grain sanding scratches in most of the veneer, and had sanded through in several spots. In addition, the solid legs were found to be glued together from wood of different shades which would have looked very awkward when stained. The only option which seemed suitable quickly came down to paint, and some semi-gloss exterior left over from a prior project presented itself as a reasonable choice.

After final sanding, a couple of coats of paint, and reassembly the cabinet was ready for a new lease on life as a nightstand – with a bit of a surprise to whoever should happen to lift up the top.

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