Monday, May 25, 2015

The Ugly Lamp - restoring a family heirloom, part 1

My grandfather, Harry Levine,was a Jewish Russian-born immigrant.  In his hometown of Vilna (then Russia, now Lithuania), he was trained as a woodcarver/furniture maker.  He came to NYC in his late teens, somewhere around 1912, plus or minus a couple of years.  (I've not yet been able to find him or my grandmother on any ship manifesto.)  In NYC, my grandfather studied at the Educational Arts Alliance, where his woodcarving skills became transformed into the talent of a sculptor.  I'm very proud that the wonderful Brooklyn Museum owns two pieces of his work.  They can be seen on permanent display in the Luce Center for Visible Storage in the museum.  I've written about him several times before on the blog, in particular here and here

Sadly, my grandfather died young, and my brothers and I never met him.  The legacy he left behind includes etchings, watercolors, carved busts, an intricately carved fiddle, and many wonderful pieces of furniture.  We each have pieces. For example, I have a beautiful hutch-cabinet, and a library-size table that I use as my dining room table, with carved lion heads on the ends.  One brother has the violin, another has a bust and an end table, and so on.  And then, there's the piece that nobody wanted, the ugly lamp...
The lamp has been the family joke for years.  We have no idea who spray-painted it gold, but it didn't help make it look better.  When our parents had both passed away, and we sorted out the remnants of their home, it was the one thing that nobody claimed.  One brother finally agreed to take it, and the lamp has been stored in his basement collecting dust for many years now. 

He and his wife recently bought a retirement home in Cape Cod, and have been cleaning out their former home and getting rid of stuff.  Periodically, a package will arrive in the mail.  Recently, the package included a lovely needlepoint that my mom had made.  It was rolled up, smelled like wood smoke, and was dirty.  I had it dry-cleaned, matted, and framed with glass, and this weekend we hung it on the wall at our Loon Lake cottage.  I remember my mom making this, and I know she'd be glad to know I have it safely now. 
Also in the package was... yup, you guessed it; the ugly lamp.  I agreed to take the lamp with the agreement that nobody would get upset with me for giving it some sort of funky renovation.  My plan is to make it whimsical and multicolored, possibly with colors like turquoise, yellow, and magenta, though that is just my current idea; I could change my mind tomorrow.  But I will not change what my grandfather carved.  In the base of the lamp there are three panels with engraved insignia.  The first panel has an intertwined H and an R, my grandmother Rae and grandfather Harry's first initials.
 The other panels have a Star of David (often called a Jewish Star) and a menorah.  Compared to my grandfather's usual intricate, detailed, sculptural carving, these crude engravings are rather odd.
The lamp, when I received it, was filthy from years of living in storage.    So I figured I'd start by scrubbing it off with some soapy water and a stiff brush.  And suddenly, I discovered there was other paint under the gold. 
 The more I scrubbed, and rinsed, the more of the gold paint came off, and the more red and black I discovered.  I think the red was painted over the black, though I'm not sure.
And then, as I continued scrubbing, the red and black paint (and some white that I presume is a primer) all started to come off too, exposing the bare wood underneath. 
 When I finally stopped scrubbing and rinsing today, this is how the lamp looked. 
 The paint almost completely came off the top of the  lamp, but not around the curves. 
Now that it's drying out, I'm trying to decide how to next proceed.  Can I just spray a coat of primer on the whole thing once it is dry?  Or now that so much paint  has come off, do I have to get off every stitch of the paint, that I wasn't originally planning to remove at all?  (I absolutely HATE doing paint removal.)  I have no idea what kind of paint is on the lamp.  If you, my readers, have done any  similar renovation/restoration projects, I'd love your advice on techniques and materials.  In the meantime, this is how the lamp looks as it is drying out. I'll be posting 'part 2' when the project is complete!


  1. There are so many new products on the market since I tackled anything like this. I think I would just take the lamp to a paint store and ask them what to do:)) Good luck. I think it has potential to look pretty cool in the end!!

    1. I may just do that. I just don't want to do actual hard work; I absolutely DESPISE sanding and will choose any alternative to prevent having to sand.

  2. I can hardly wait to see how it turns out! What a wonderful story.

    1. Thanks! I'm gonna take my time making up my mind before I do anything more.

  3. Is it weird to say I actually like it the way you have it now, with all of the previous layers exposed? I'm sure whatever you do with it will be beautiful, and your plans for a whimsical, colorful lamp sound fantastic, but there's something about the black, red and gold flecks I really like! But I can imagine it would be tough to "fit" some where in your home. How lovely for you to come from so many artists talented in so many different ways!

    1. You are absolutely NOT weird. I actually felt the same way, and was sorta disappointed when some of the red/black suddenly came off and exposed the bare wood. But nobody else would let me have it in the house, and anyhow, now that the wood is exposed, it looks kinda dry, and I think refinishing it will help preserve the piece. Ironically, I was considering painting with a fun color scheme, and giving it to my son and girlfriend, but he's told me he'd rather it be just natural wood color. Sigh... Of course there's no guarantee he'll want it anyhow.