Feeling Blue: Chinese Sideboard Transformation

Our best projects often come from customer requests.  Case and point: this transformation of an old Chinese sideboard going to a lake house in Michigan.  Our customer needed a media cabinet to go beneath a very large TV in the living room of a Michigan beach house.  We had a lot of sideboards (mostly Chinese) but did not have exactly the right color, a type of navy blue.  So we promised to make a custom color and then the fun began…

The sideboard we had was too "green" and at first, we thought it would be easy adjust.  It was not!   None of our professional-grade strippers worked very well, so we relied on a lot of old-fashioned sanding.  First, we sanded off the clear coat.  Then, we sanded through the blue-green layer, removing most of it.  Then we hit the oldest layer –cinnabar red. 

A note about Chinese lacquer. Most Chinese furniture was finished in black, oxblood or red cinnabar lacquer.  Black was the most common, being a mix of tree sap lacquer (clear) mixed with common iron filings that turned the sap jet black and hardened after a few days.   The resulting finish looked great but more importantly, protected the wood from insects and moisture.  Oxblood was also plentiful as the colorant was literally the blood of animals, typically oxen.  Blood is a very powerful pigment.  Oxblood lacquer was also translucent, allowing the beauty of the wood grain to be seen.  Red lacquer, or cinnabar lacquer, was the most expensive because the cinnabar powder was costly to make.  It was always saved for the topcoat.  Finding cinnabar on our sideboard was an interesting surprise, because it supported the purported age of the piece.  It had been refinished but was truly an old piece.

Once we’d sanded the piece properly, leaving some of the old layers intact, it was time to add the new color.   Our customer was a designer and had a very specific color picked out; “Washington Blue” by Benjamin Moore.    We purchased a gallon in oil base (not latex) due to its greater strength.  We brushed on the paint and let it cure for a few days in our paint room.

Once the paint had fully hardened, we lightly sanded it (again.)  There was a lot of hand-sanding in this project!

Now the piece was ready for the “antiquing” step.  That meant adding a thin layer of dark stain and rubbing most of it off, leaving some in the corners and recesses.  This creates a finish with strong light and dark contrast, which simulates natural age and use. 

Once we were happy with the gently antiqued finish, we brushed on a coat of matte water-based lacquer.  This topcoat protects the layers beneath and accentuates the color of the paint.  The result: a custom finish that will provide years of satisfaction and enjoyment.