Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of my favorite television genres is the makeover show. While I tend to fall asleep somewhere around the 15-minute mark of an episode of Homeland, set me up with a remote and some Bath Crashers, and I’ll be there for a good 12 hours, hooked. Even if I think the “after” is ugly — and, sometimes, worse than the “before” — there’s still something so satisfying and exciting about that act of transformation that I can never seem to turn away.
Slightly less predictably, my favorite sub-genre of the makeover show has nothing to do with home design. Sure, I’ll watch someone renovate kitchens for as long as HGTV will allow, but my real passion lies with the personal makeover show — the kind where they renovate flesh-and-blood human beings as opposed to brick-and-mortar houses.
Tragically (for me, probably not for the human race generally), these shows seem to have fallen out of fashion in recent years. Sure, we still have Clinton, Stacy, Carmindy and a revolving door of hairstylists to teach us What Not to Wear (and how to do our make-up and how to have Mom Hair). It’ll do fine, but I submit that the now-defunct 10 Years Younger will always have had the upper hand because of the added benefits of bluntness and public shaming. Where Clinton and Stacy’s hidden cameras seem to be all in good humor — as evidenced by the beet-faced contestants looking more pranked than completely betrayed — the 10 Years Younger crew had participants stand in a glass box, much like the Pope, while bystanders judged their overall appearance and, most importantly, guessed their age. From there, they’d receive a few non-invasive cosmetic procedures before being handed over to the “glam squad,” a team of peppy style mavens who decked them out with a couple new outfits, a fresh hairstyle and a make-up regimen. Then they’d repeat the whole humiliating glass-box exercise over again, where, as the name implied, onlookers would always deem them to look about 10 years younger than they had before, give or take a couple years for believability’s sake.
This might seem a little unsettling until you remember that before Ty Pennington hosted Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and was just that fun and funky carpenter on Trading Spaces, there was just plain old Extreme Makeover. Here was a show where regular people were plucked from their lives, told they were unbearably hideous and saddled with new exercise routines, eating habits, teeth, faces and bodies. The show didn’t shy away from aggressive (extreme, you might say) plastic surgery, and participants always seemed thrilled with their slimmed noses, enlarged breasts and whatever else they received. They didn’t seem that interesting at the time, but the early aughts — based on reality TV alone — were utter madness. (See also: Mr. Personality)
I’m no expert, but I think the genre reached its true apex with The Swan, which took all the extremity of Extreme Makeover, doubled it, and then threw in the added benefits of competition. Here was a roundtable of harsh “mentors,” a reality TV mansion, a host of indeterminate nationality and an eventual beauty pageant. There, the contestants, who had each undergone months of surgical procedures along with rigorous dieting and exercising, would squeeze their new bodies into extravagant sequined pageant dresses and parade their new smiling faces with their new shining teeth across a stage. As an added bonus, they were refused access to mirrors of any kind while undergoing their transformations, so they literally had no idea what they looked like until the end. It was high stakes, high drama and highly messed up. Try making something like this up. It’s impossible. Sure, more recently we had Bridalplasty, but that feels like Saturday morning cartoons after The Swan. There’s just nowhere to even go from there, and that’s why the makeover genre has petered out. We took things too far, and soured it for everyone.
While there’s certainly a lengthy discussion to be had about all the terrible things a show like this says about our society, the way we view women’s bodies (or in the case of Extreme Makeover, all bodies) and how the show is ultimately sadistic and more or less tragic, I can’t help it. I was thoroughly entertained. But what I find exceptional is that all of these shows — from Extreme Makeover to What Not to Wear — always return to the same basic refrain: that the experts are just enhancing the participants’ natural beauty. Nobody is ever unsalvageable. There is always potential to be unlocked, whether that means a new shade of eyeshadow and a flirty bob or what basically amounts to an entire face transplant. It’s all about working with what you have, and striving to be the best version of whatever that is. It’s just the modes of getting there that vary so greatly.
This is more or less how I think about wood restoration, which I’m realizing after 800 words makes me a lunatic. But I’m a lunatic who knows some things about wood, which is why I’m here. In my mind, there are two main approaches to fixing up a piece of wood furniture. The first is the Extreme Makeover/The Swan approach, where everything is sanded down until the wood looks clean and new, after which you build it back up again with a series of new finishes until everything looks like it just rolled off the factory line. And then there’s the What Not to Wear/10 Years Younger approach — a milder alternative where the excess and grime are cleansed away to play up the good and minimize the not so good. Everybody knows that wood is, generally, quite salvageable, but often people take the Extreme Makeover approach to wood restoration when all they really need is the What Not to Wear treatment. Usually, all it really takes is a good cleaning and a few readily available products to bring out the natural beauty of a piece of wood that’s seen better days! — Daniel
See Daniel’s wood restoration tips after the jump . . .
For this project, I started with a salvaged antique ladder at the Design*Sponge office, repurposed into a rolling bookshelf ladder. I can only assume that the various staffers here use it to reenact that scene in the library from Beauty and the Beast.
This ladder is super cool and super old and has a great deal of character, but it had never really received a thorough cleaning. I knew the patina and richer tones of the wood were lurking beneath all the build-up from over the many years (dirt, waxes and sealants, grime, mayhem, foolishness, etc.), so I wanted to uncover them without making the ladder look like it had just been refinished. While sometimes sanding everything down and starting fresh truly is the right move, that can often end up looking weird and very “done” on antique pieces, and I didn’t want that. Too much (or sometimes any!) “restoration” can also compromise the value of an antique, and even though this ladder isn’t particularly valuable, it’s still something to be cognizant of. In my mind, if something is old, it should look old.
To accomplish this, I started with a bucket of warm water with a few tablespoons of Murphy Oil Soap and several pads of fine steel wool. Steel wool is obviously much milder than sandpaper and stands up better to water, but it’s abrasive enough that it’ll smooth out any problem areas that might be chipped and brittle. As with sanding, always scrub back and forth with the grain. I used grade #00 steel wool, which is relatively fine (much less coarse than the kind you’d buy in the grocery store!) and available in big packs for only a few dollars at the hardware store.
I’d recommend doing this part outside, if possible, or at least on top of a drop cloth. You’ll want to wear clothes you don’t care about, too, since the water that’s going to come off of this stuff is usually some bile-like shade of brown-black that may stain. And you’ll definitely want gloves. This part of the process is not glamorous, but the results are glamorous enough to justify feeling like a steaming pile of human garbage while it’s going down. Trust me.
You’ll want to change your water fairly frequently so you’re not just moving dirty water around, and I’d recommend going over the whole thing a couple times, just to make sure. It’s okay if the water is still a little murky at the end (expecting it to run clear isn’t very realistic), but it should be significantly less disgusting than your first bucket or two.
Let the whole thing dry out for a while — I’d recommend a couple hours, if not longer. I get impatient and like to get projects done in one fell swoop, but you don’t want to trap a bunch of water in the wood. As the wood dries, it will become significantly lighter and might look like a terrible piece of garbage driftwood that you’ve totally ruined, and you’ll think you’re worthless and unlovable. You’re so dramatic! Calm down! This is all part of it! Sheesh.
After the wood has dried, I like to use a wood oil finish, such as Danish oil finish or tung oil finish. Often just referred to as natural oil finishes, these products are actually a mix of natural oil (like tung oil or linseed oil), mineral spirits and varnish. I like them because they look more natural than a polyurethane, and they’re extremely easy to apply and maintain. Using a lint-free cloth or rag (that you don’t mind throwing away!), just rub a generous coating of oil all over the wood in the direction of the grain. After about 15 minutes, wipe off the excess!
Depending on how thirsty the wood is, you might need two or three coats of oil finish. That’s okay! Give the wood what it wants.
After the final coat of oil has been wiped away and dried, I like to buff in some Howard Feed-N-Wax. There are many different furniture waxes out there, but this one smells great and works great, and I’m a big proponent of it. The wax will give your piece an extra oomph of luster and richness.
The wood will probably be a little sticky/slimy for a day or two, but everything will absorb and harden up, and it’ll still look great! To maintain, I like to reapply the wax every couple months, and you can always wipe on another coat of oil if the wood is looking dry.
I love how this low-impact process brings out what I see as the best features of old wood pieces — the patina and the wear and tear! It’s not a total overhaul, but a thorough cleaning is often all you really need to enhance what you already have.
Daniel Kanter is a freelance writer and designer who blogs about his home and life at Manhattan Nest.