Rescuing Grandma’s forgotten cedar chest

The chest after the restoration

The chest after the restoration

I have only the vaguest recollections of the cedar chest that was in my grandmother’s house in New Jersey where she and my grandfather lived when I was a kid.

Maybe it was in the guest room that siblings and cousins used when we visited from time to time in the summer. Or maybe it was in the finished-out portion of their basement they used as a game room and second living room. Maybe it was in their bedroom.

My first firm memory of it was in Grandma’s bedroom when she moved into my mom’s house in Texas in the early 1990s and stayed there until she died in 1994. The chest stayed in that room until we emptied out the house after Mom died about a decade later.

It landed with one of my sisters until she needed to downsize. That’s when it found a home in a way-too-cluttered corner of my garage. And over the past eight or nine years, there it remained buried, neglected and nearly forgotten at the bottom of a stack sundry boxes, crates and — well — junk.

chest before

How it looked after being pulled from the garage.

But not long ago, a shiny new Volvo demanded a reserved space in the garage. And last month, a new kitchen refrigerator elbowed the old one into the increasingly crowded garage. So over Thanksgiving weekend came the reckoning.

I won’t inventory here the items that were banished forever, but the old cedar chest, which by now had lost several hinge screws that connect the lid with the base and sustained some moisture damage, had to be saved.

The stain ring

The stain ring

It was covered with dust and some residue from an old paint can left a stained a ring on the lid. The decorative sections of metal that looked like hinges but wasn’t was tarnished a ratty grayish green. The heavy handles on the side were also discolored.

But the wood was mostly intact. And it retained the rich brownish-red and blonde knotty grain. The inside was dusty but only slightly damaged by moisture. But only a hint remained of cedar’s signature aroma.

At first, I thought I’d just dust it off and fix the hinges and find a place for it inside the house. But I couldn’t get past that nasty paint stain. So I decided it would be pointless to only sand clean the stained part. And because some of the stain bled over to the metal, there’d be no sense it cleaning just some of the metal.

The project ended up taking the better part of a day and a half. I took 60-grit sandpaper

Bringing the copper back to life

Bringing the copper back to life

wrapped around a block of wood to scrape away much of the dry, brittle varnish on the outside. I used an electric palm sander to take away as much of the paint ring as I could. More 60-grit unlocked the cedar’s aroma inside the chest.

Repeated applications Brasso, which carries the pungent fragrance of ammonia, first with an old toothbrush and later with a soft cloth, showed me that the decorative metal was copper fastened with round-headed brass tacks. The hinges were also copper.

The handles: Fro tarnish to shine

The handles: From tarnish to shine

The sheen was restored to the outside with three coats of polyurethane. The inside was sanded smooth to subdue the blackened moisture damage. I installed some discreetly placed wood screws to shore up some weak points before they failed.

The stain ring is barely visible.

The stain ring is barely visible.

I’m not sure how old the chest is, but the original screws in the hinges and handles are flat-heads, so it was probably made well before the mid-20th century when the Phillips head made its appearance. The sides are joined with rabbit cuts and the panels are tongue-in-grove. Event the bottom is solid cedar planks, not plywood.

The finished product looks good, but not like new. That’s because I wanted it to look like it once belonged to someone’s grandmother.

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