Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Remodeling The Van: Panels

Getting the frames, including all those ebony plugs, completed is all well and good, but they only make up half, if that, of the cabinet doors.

The next step is the panels that go into those frames.

The lower cabinets get a different type of panel than the uppers, so I'm going to leave door #6, an upper and the one we've been following, for now and divert to door #16 which is one of the lowers.

The lower cabinets all get solid panels but I was having a terrible time finding an appropriate, and affordable, straight-grained  quarter inch ply to make the panels out of. Then one day I was in town and poking around one of the big-box DIY stores when I wandered over to the luan rack.

Luan is a really inexpensive plywood (Which is why it's used so often as a sacrificial floor protector during construction projects and is a material of choice in lower-end travel trailers and motor homes.) usually made with a southeastern Asian hardwood, though there are no set standards for what wood is used in the making of it other than the wood, as well as the glue, has to be inexpensive. (Leave raw luan out in the weather and it will explode all over the place within days.)

But, because there are few standards for the making of luan it varies greatly and sometimes you can find a batch that looks pretty good. That was the case for me that day. I didn't set out that morning planning to come home with about 25 sq. ft. of hand-picked luan that cost me $20, including tax, but the other alternative was the $250 (Plus really expensive shipping) quarter-cut White Oak ply from the specialty hardwood supplier that I was beginning to think I would have to resort to, so I was willing to make some compromises.


As you would imagine, quarter cut veneers have the same vertical grain that quarter sawn lumber has, but Luan is always made with much less expensive rotary-cut veneers which means it has some of the cathedral grain pattern that I was trying to avoid in order to stay true to Arts and Crafts, but by carefully picking out where to cut the panels from the sheets I was able to minimize that 'feature'.

This particular luan also had a reddish tint that I hadn't originally planned on, but it helps the panels stand apart from the frames giving the doors depth, (Or so I'm telling myself.) kind of picks out the reds in the rugs and backsplash (more desperate justification,) and actually finishes out (With the same Polycrylic I used on the door frames.) to more of a warmish red-brown, so I let that go as well. (It feels ridiculous when you're doing it, and I always try to make sure no one sees me, but to test what a clear finish will look like at the lumber yard before you buy, just lick the wood. . .)

Of course just slapping a panel of finished luan into the frame is pretty plain and boring, as you can see two photos ago, definitely not in the spirit of Greene and Greene, so some embellishments were in order.

Embellishments that required a lot of shop-hours!

I started by cutting some of my White Oak into quarter inch wide, 1/8th inch thick strips. I then trimmed these strips into the pieces necessary to mimic the linear outlining used so often on the panels of Arts and Crafts light fixtures. Finally I gave the pieces the ebonizing treatment.

This time I did not do the tea pre-soak, and because I used White Oak which is a little less tannin-rich than Walnut the ebonizing produced a warmer, less saturated black than what I have on the plugs. The difference probably doesn't show much in these photos, but when viewed directly it's noticeable, at least to me.

Also, as I was ebonizing and sealing them, because each panel is unique, I had to very carefully keep track of the 'sets' of fitted strips and make sure they all ended up back on the same panel they were originally fitted to.

The last strip-step was to glue the strips to the pre-finished panels using spacers and super-glue.

And for a final little bit of playful punch, I put a 20 degree bevel on one end of a half inch thick block of White Oak, sliced the block into a whole bunch of 1/16th inch thick strips, finished them clear, measured for length, added a 45 degree bevel on the other end with my chopper, normally used when building model railroad stuff

and finally glued them to the panels using spacer blocks to get them in the right place.

OK, now that I have the panels for the lowers covered;  back to door #6:

The upper cabinet doors get plastic panels. If this was true Greene and Greene the panels would be glass but there's a couple of obvious reasons that wasn't such a good idea in The Van. Besides being expensive, and breakable, glass would be pretty dang heavy, so plastic it is.

Originally I had in mind something like the textured amber panels Dad used on the cabinets when he built the wet-bar in the downstairs recreation room of our brand new house in the 1960's. Only it turns out that stuff isn't very popular nowadays and is pretty much impossible to find.

At one point I thought I hit the jackpot when I found someone that had bought hundreds of plastic panels with different mid-century designs and textures that had been stored untouched in a barn for a half-century, and this person was right here in central Texas! Then I noticed that the posting was a couple years old and by the time I contacted him all the panels were long gone, sold off in ones and twos to designers and old farts like me desperate to recover some of the stuff of our childhood.

So I was just going to have to make do with simple, clear acrylic panels instead. (I could get tinted acrylic but the colors are more neon than what you'd ever find in a 1900's Craftsman house and the price puts them way outside my budget.) I cut up some sample pieces of the clear and played around with various ways to tint them amber, but nothing worked, unless I was willing to settle for smeared, streaked and blotchy results that looked like they came from a first-grade art class. (Assuming the school district still has funding for art classes, which is unfortunately, and in my opinion, disastrously, becoming rare.)

So my final 'test' was to see if frosted-glass spray would eat away at the plastic. By all rights it should. The spray contains acetone, n-butyl acetate, xylene and other petroleum crap, all stuff that normally eats plastic for a snack, so I wasn't too hopeful. But for some reason all it did to the acrylic sheet was exactly what it was supposed to do, leave behind a clean, dry, frosted-looking surface.

So with a plan in place I cut the 16 panels needed for the upper cabinet doors and used 1/8th inch tape to mask out a linear outline similar to what I put on the lower cabinet door panels.

The little bit of blue masking tape which is stuck to the protective coating still on the other side of the acrylic tells me which opening of which door this particular custom-fit panel fits.

Now at this point any reasonable person would spray the frosting on, strip away the masking, and call it a day, but - well - you already know how this is going to go. . .

As I may have already mentioned a time or two, I'm really attracted to lighting fixtures of the Arts and Crafts movement, especially when they incorporate a natural element such as the leaf clusters above, and I figured here was my chance to bring a little of that sort of design element into The Van.

Now I did manage to keep it somewhat reasonable and used rather simple designs for the panels that aren't always in eye-sight.  Of course in the confines of The Van this is limited to the two cabinet doors tucked into the rear of The Van.

For these simple designs I laid painter's tape on a scrap of acrylic, gave the back of my printed design a very light spray of adhesive, just enough that it would stick down to the tape but not so much it wouldn't just peel right back off again.

Then all I had to do was cut the pattern

peel away the paper, then the excess tape.

And finally lift the mask off the scrap acrylic and position it on the target panel.

But most of the cabinet doors are pretty much in-your-face all the time, including door #6, and I wanted something a little more elaborate for those panels.

Something too elaborate to peel off some scrap acrylic and reposition onto the panel, so for those I had to cut the mask right on the panel itself.

That was a slow, nerve-wracking process. Not enough cutting pressure and the mask would tear rather than lift cleanly away, but since acrylic is pretty soft too much pressure on the knife would cut right into the panel. Then if that wasn't enough, there was the potential  disaster that would occur if I slipped and laid a nice deep, un-hideable scratch across a panel.

But somehow I managed to avoid having to remake any of the panels

Although I have to admit, I did get a little carried away with door #7.  Being right over the kitchen counter, not only is this door pretty much always visible, but it's right in my face much of the time I'm in The Van, so I wanted something really interesting for these panels.

At this point in the photo above I have about 5 hours put into cutting this mask of a classic Monterrey Cypress and I'm still not done yet!

After cutting each of these masks I  pealed the paper off and left just the tape behind because I wasn't sure how the 'frosting' would react with the paper or the inks on the paper. and didn't want to take any chances.

Finally, after hours of painstaking cutting and a hunched up back that would make a whole gaggle of strip-center chiropractors drool, it was time to frost my panels. (I was all hunched and twisted up because I'm near-sighted, with a natural focus of 4 to 10 inches off the end of my nose, so when doing detailed work like cutting these masks I take my glasses off and shove my face right down into it, which is good for the work, not so good for the back. . .)

I laid down 4 light coats of the frosting. The directions say that recoating can be done pretty much right away, so I sprayed the coats just a couple minutes apart. This stuff dries quickly so in an hour it was ready to be handled gently.

First the striping tape came off,

followed by the design masks,

revealing panels pretty much as I had envisioned. Thankfully those wrinkles at the bottom left are from the protective coating which is still on the back-side of the panel and not some unwanted 'feature'.

Pealing some of the masks off was a little bitter-sweet though. This mask took me nearly 6 hours to create,

so peeling it off was almost painful,

and in just over 6 minutes it was history. . .

With the panels set one last time into their final positions in the frames I was, at long last, able to remove the last of the protective coating

and lay a bead of acrylic calk around the edges to hold them in place.  This way if I ever need to remove the panels it's a simple matter of cutting the calk away. The calk is white now, but will cure clear. The cans are there to make sure the panel sits snugly in the frame while the calk cures.

No comments:

Post a Comment