Stain work

The sugar is in from the store and the new table is lying in pieces, half of them stained, on the front porch. One set of side railings and the bottom platform are stained and drying, slowly, in the chilly breeze slamming in from the north-northeast.

We are south of the ice line, which, tonight, is going to hover somewhere near Nashville. Here, we will have nothing but chilly winter rain.

My hands smell like wood stain, but several pieces of tight-grained, pale wood now bear a golden-brown color some company or other has chosen to call "golden oak." The grain, originally little more than freckles or dashes in the wood, now contrasts as a darker brown against the gold of the rest of the wood.

Wood stain dries more slowly in cold, humid weather; I have been fighting a battle of patience against the wind and the temperature all day today. In summer, these pieces would have dried quickly, enabling me to stain all the pieces of the table today; instead, I found myself gingerly turning and moving tacky pieces of wood from place to place in search of more room to work on more pieces.

The magic comes with the first coat of varnish. I've never quite understood the trick of light and reflection that a single coat of gloss varnish gives a piece of carefully sanded and stained wood. I just know that I always wait until midafternoon to start the first coat of varnish on a piece I'm working on. The clear coat does something to the grain of the wood I don't understand but always love; the magic comes in watching a quiet, pale piece of wood adopt the burnished glow of a cat's eye as my brush skims, wetly, across it.

I work almost exclusively with foam brushes. I thought I was strange in this choice, but my mother confirms the same preference for foam over bristle. "A better finish in the end," she says. I always chalked it up to my unsteady hands' habit of dribbling too much varnish or stain in exactly the wrong place.

We are forecast rain until tomorrow night, and high temperatures that will not rise above 50°F (10°C) for the next few days. The shortness of day and pale winter light mean that I will have to work quickly during the warmest part of the day to finish as much as possible before this weekend, when I hope that we'll have the time (and the finished product) to finally assemble the table.

Want to learn patience? Stain and varnish a table. You learn to work from the top down, catching your drips as you go, laying on small bits of color at a time so as not to over-saturate any particular section of the wood. You become more careful, more cautious, as you go along—especially when you realize that the end results of your labor will be seen by every person who comes in your house from now on.

But for now, it is dark. My stain work is over for the day; the light of the front porch is not strong enough for me to correct any mistakes I make, and any mistakes left overnight will be permanent ones. I will put up the sugar, and conjure something resembling dinner from the ingredients I brought home from the store.

Outside, the pieces are drying. Inside, two more await me.

Tomorrow, I begin again.


I really REALLY like that table! I bet it'll look gorgeous when you're done with it :)