One of a Kind
The Story Begins
This story begins somewhere in West Africa, where a sawyer slicing rainforest hardwood noticed an unusual log. It had a strange grain figure, unlike any he'd ever seen before. Sensing an opportunity, he set the log aside.
An industrious sort known for selling rare species to foreigners with a taste for the exotic, on day he showed the unusual log to a German veneer broker who instantly took a shine to the bizarre grain patterns. The now animated broker learned that the log was from a pauconda tree and that the specimen at hand had been diseased to the point that its entire grain structure had been distorted. As far as the sawyer or anyone could tell, the wood of that diseased pauconda was (and is) truly one of a kind.
The veneer broker immediately bought the log and shipped it back to a mill in Germany, where it was cut into as much single-ply veneer as possible - in all, about 40,000 square feet of precious veneer. Soon thereafter, an accomplished architect from the United States discovered the special veneer and secured the entire supply for use in an office located on an upper floor of a shining glass tower in Minneapolis.
I haven't been able to nail down the absolute truth of the story behind this veneer, but once you see the strange grain pattern, you know you've seen something rare and wonderful, diseased pauconda or not. The wood has what I can best describe as a random, surreal, even psychedelic grain pattern, all tangled and twisted into intricate highlights and variations. It's extremely hard and about as porous as oak; the color is very warm - lots of reds with yellow highlights.
In 1997, nearly all of this veneer was installed in the offices of a firm of venture capitalists in one of the city's most spectacular structures. The sky was the limit, it seems. In fact, rumor has it that the woodwork alone for this single set of offices cost $1.8 million. Pale beech moldings, plush carpet and artistic lighting designs reflect, complement and highlight the rich wood tones and surprising grain patterns.
A local woodwork manufacturer had affixed the pauconda slices on MDF substrates, producing more than 100 3-by-9 foot panels. Once hung in the offices and corridors, the panels were finished without any colorants, except for a bit of color found in the paste wood filler used to create a classy, closed-pore surface. Several coats of conversion varnish served as the original topcoat.
Unfortunately, however, the contractor who applied the varnish seems either to have over-catalyzed it or put it on way too thick. Whatever the ultimate cause, the varnish had at least been applied to thickly and began clouding and cracking shortly after application. The result: a brand-new suite of the finest offices money could buy with a badly failed finish.
I guess it's no surprise that all parties were anxious to find a quick remedy. First, they called in a painting contractor to strip and refinish the panels. Using a peel-away stripper, sheeting and metal putty knives, the crew set to work - only to stop short when they discovered that the combination of stripper and metal knives left unsightly, streaky stains on the wood. Sensing a spiral down to disaster, the general contractor dismissed the painting contractor and began searching for an on-site refinishing expert.
He found me.
To this day, I'm not exactly sure who referred me, but I'd like to meet whoever it was to say "Thank you!" Before this project, I'd done much of my refinishing, spot finishing and touch-ups in a shop setting. I'd always worked on-site as jobs required it, but before this office suite I'd never even imagined a challenge of this magnitude.
At first, the contractor and the architect were very specific in what they wanted me to do. They believed that the problem with the streaks in the stripped wood could best be solved by using toners and hired me to refinish just one panel to see if their approach would work. View Figure
Although I did my level best to color the wood appropriately, the result wasn't what anyone wanted.
Shortly thereafter, we all sat down in a meeting in which they asked me, point blank, "If money were no object, how would you tackle the problem?" I told them that I would sand the wood down and basically start over, building a new finish from the raw wood up. They gave me the go ahead and a contract to rework the panels in the east corridor of the complex, which had been stripped already by the paint contractor.
Before I became involved, a representative from Sherwin-Williams had been brought in as a consultant and had developed a straightforward schedule for the new finish: A coat of vinyl sealer, some sanding followed by application of a paste wood filler, then another coat of sealer, more sanding and two topcoats of a water-white CAB-acrylic finish.
Again, I began by working on a single panel to see if I could make the suggested schedule work. I was highly motivated to get things just right, so I spent a good 30 hours working on that single panel. As the last layer of the topcoat cured, I knew I had done it: The finish looked great!
Satisfied with my work and relieved that someone had found a way to solve their problems, the people in charge hired me to sand the panels that had already been stripped, remove the remaining old finish from several of the other panels - and refinish the lot of them to match the rest of the woodwork.
I remember leaning against the wall at one point and wondering what I'd gotten myself into this time. I was excited by the notion of tackling such a big job, but I knew I was in over my head. I prayed a lot - then dove in and never looked back.
Accelerating To Perfection
When I began the job in earnest, the contractor and architect were adamant that I take my time to do a good job. Unfortunately for their peace of mind, I kept running into little problems that complicated my work.
Beginning on the panels that had been stripped, for example, I bogged down in an enormous amount of prep work and clean up. The beech molding needed to be cleaned and sanded, and there was lots of finish residue everywhere. I used 100-grit abrasive, moved to 150 for final sanding of the stripped surfaces and then went straight to a sealer coat I sprayed during the evening, when the offices were empty.
As I started the real work, the fact that I'd had no real idea what I was facing or how long it would take began to sink in. I'd always worked alone, but I knew I'd need to hire some expert help before long and worked with the woodwork manufacturer to obtain the services of five terrific finishers. Working mostly in the day but saving our spraying for evenings and nights, we slowly made progress.
As we worked, a routine developed. The panels themselves offered a convenient way to segment and sequence the job. Using 3M's Polyfilm sheeting, I would tape and mask the panels on either side of the panel being finished (as well as the ceiling and the floor), then we would spray on a coat of finish and let it dry. At first we used a portable HVLP sprayer; that proved too slow, so I invested in a Kremlin Air Mix, and air-assisted airless sprayer that increased my speed while decreasing overspray.
As we became more involved, we also adjusted our stripping technique. At first, we had removed the finish by using 60-grit sandpaper on Fein sanders attached to a point-source dust-collection system. The problem with this approach was the time it took to sand the panels clean.
On average, it took a good five to six hours and dozens of abrasive sheets to sand an entire panel clean; we also sanded right through the veneer in a couple places, which has given me lots of experience in patching and graining to imitate diseased pauconda. We'd gotten through 25 panels this way - at which point the contractor's patience began to wear thin and I started hearing complaints about the pace of the work.
I knew I needed to accelerate the stripping process somehow. Chemical strippers just weren't an option, both because of the odors that would inconvenience office workers and because I wasn't about to use them on vertical surfaces above hand-woven carpet that cost $200 per yard! At that point, we started experimenting with heat guns as a quicker way to remove the finish. View Figure
When working with the heat guns, we found that the depth of the varnish worked in our favor and made for easy stripping. We applied heat on the maximum setting - listed at 1,000 degrees on the models we were using - right up to the point where the finish would start to bubble, and then we scraped it right off.
Although a real time saver, the process came with risks. First, we had to be very careful not to scorch the veneer or delaminate it from the MDF substrate.
We talked this potential problem through with the glue manufacturer and were told that all would be well so long as the glue wasn't brought to 300 degrees for more than 15-20 seconds. We did run into some bubbling on a few panels, but we took care of these trouble spots by carefully injecting glue behind the veneer.
As we worked through the east corridor, it became obvious that we were on our way to successful completion of the job. Before long, however, the contractor was asking me to look at problems in other parts of the suite. Before long, the project had expanded to include the west, north and south corridors, the main conference room, the foyer, the elevator vestibules and several additional offices!
As the work progressed, we continued to make adjustments and refinements to our processes. We became experts, for example, in the application of the paste wood filler, so much so that what once had been a messy step became a real art form. We'd brush on natural filler colored with dashes of raw sienna and burnt sienna, then trowel off the material using plastic putty knives before rubbing the surface with burlap, one of the more traditional ways to apply fillers.
We also refined our sanding procedures for the CAB acrylic. At first we used 30-minute stearated paper for between-coat sanding; this worked will in leaving a good, flat surface, but it was slow going - and costly at about 15 sheets per panel. After some research and experimentation, we switched to a special, foam-backed 500 grit abrasive we used on our sanders. By dampening the foam backing and slightly wetting the surface, we basically we-sanded the topcoats - and it worked beautifully.
At the architect's request, we also experimented a bit and found that UV light was highly effective in darkening the wood. Stripped and sanded, the pauconda became as light as the beech wood in the molding. We needed to darken it again without disturbing its color; and we found that exposing the raw wood to UV light for 48 hours deepened the color to match portions of the woodwork we hadn't refinished. View Figure
Gaining A Feel
As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, the crew and I developed a real feel for the way we did our work, which came in especially handy in performing some of the more delicate procedures. In short, we turned repetition of certain tasks into a timesaving asset.
During the two full years I've been on this job, the processes of stripping, pore filling, sanding and final touch-up have become nearly second nature; more important, I know I've added a couple of valuable skills to my bag of tricks as a result of all this experience. View Figure
I've also developed a feel for what it means to accommodate the logistics of a project of this scope. There's a sense of choreography as you move from one area to the other, taping off the next section and finishing the last, preparing and sanding surfaces. And we accomplished much of what we did at night, cleaning up so office staff could go about their business seamlessly during the day. All of this has forced me to rise to the occasion and work on a truly professional level.
I don't know that I'll ever run into an assignment like this one again, but if I do, I know I'll be ready - and much better prepared that I was this time through. Is there another diseased pauconda in my future? Well, who knows what some sawyer working away in the rainforest will come up with next? View Figure
Although my company is basically a one-man show, I had significant help on the project described in the accompanying article. Working through the manufacturer whose woodwork was being refinishing, I found five fellow wood finishers who fit the bill perfectly.
As it turns out, all but one of us were graduates of the same local wood-finishing program I had attended a few years earlier, and it's been a real pleasure to work with each of them - - Randy Cermak, Mitch Unruh, Matt Squires, Matt Hirman and Gerald Cartwright - - on this amazing project.
At several points along the way, we also turned to our former instructor, Mitch Kohanek, head of the wood-finishing program at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn. His support, encouragement and advice were truly invaluable! View Figure