In a corner of my back yard, surrounded by drop cloths, my heavy pink rubber gloves caked in caustic, brownish gunk, I gingerly brushed paint remover on an old metal file cabinet, then scraped off layers of paint. From time to time, I cursed bitterly after inadvertently touching a bare elbow or exposed knee to the cabinet, wincing as the gelatinous, napalm-like paint remover instantly burned my flesh, and ran for the cooling relief of the garden hose.
Why was I stripping the paint from this old thing? I needed a four-drawer file cabinet. It wasn’t an antique or an interesting piece, and its quality level, even when new, was modest at best, but functional. And it came free. But free has its own price.
Just a short time ago, this innocuous piece of furniture was discarded by my wife Susan’s school after decades of service, clad in its original olive drab, a bit rusty and dented in spots, scratched and belabeled. Serendipity! We were repainting my home office at the time, and I needed file space to organize my writing and teaching paraphernalia. I snagged it and dumped it in our driveway.
Weeks later, I was finally ready to face the file. I cleared the spiders and ants playing hide’n’seek inside, then pulled out all the drawers, turned the frame on end, vacuumed deep inside, wiped it out, scraped off ancient school district logos and hand-written labels (using Goo-Gone and elbow grease), replaced the drawers, washed, toweled, and sanded it lightly, brushed it off, and then –– Hey, presto! –– ready to paint. All the while I babbled to my family in voluminous detail about every step of the process. I already owned the cleaning products; thus far, my main investment in the free file cabinet was sweat equity.
What now? My ever-sensible wife had suggested I solicit advice at the paint store about painting old metal file cabinets. Even at that point I knew in my heart that I should spray paint it.
But I had been impressed the summer before with a quick-drying brush-on paint primer I’d used on our dingy fireplace brick and crumbly mortar. The primer had instantly bonded the entire façade into a hard-surfaced, easily paintable mass, and I had re-coated the fireplace twice with a semi-gloss latex paint, the kind you’d use to paint interior trim. This warm brown color, called Earthtone, also seemed ideal for my file cabinet – it would blend nicely with the natural wood bookcases, desktop, and oak floors in my office, and complement the newly painted Smokey Slate and Whisper Yellow walls. Besides, I had primer and paint left over.
Not quite enough, as it turned out. I ran out of primer, so I bought another quart, my first expense out of pocket. I let the quick-drying primer dry the indicated hour, then immediately brushed on the brown semi-gloss.
The primer was clearly not dry, but I didn’t let that stop me – I was already tired of the project. The paint clotted a bit at the corners like chocolate pudding, bouncing when poked. I couldn’t brush out the brush marks, but I was determined to finish this coat and add another one that same evening. The warm brown did look great in my office. Surely I could smooth it all out in the next coat.
Wrong. After waiting (again) the minimum drying time of two hours, I took brush to can and deftly applied another helping of Earthtone to this future nucleus of my intellectual life. The accumulated layers of paint drooped like melting mocha ice cream (just before it gets drippy), but I convinced myself the resulting texture was attractive and unique. My son Danny commented that, with the light a certain way, from certain angles, it looked like wood. This feeble attempt to ensure his inheritance nevertheless boosted my morale. Clearly I’d discovered an expressive offshoot of trompe l’oeil, the technique that tricks the eye into thinking a painted object is real.
But as I stared at the damn thing, I knew I had a major disaster on my hands. I had followed the directions, but I had allowed only the minimum recommended drying times. Clearly the steel cabinet had been unable to soak up the primer and thick layers of paint I’d slathered on like icing on a cake. After all, most people used this paint on porous surfaces like wallboard and wood – and fireplaces. Nevertheless, the next morning, I brushed more paint on the worst of the melty parts, trying to smooth, sculpt, and cajole the slowly thickening mass into an acceptable surface.
Susan laughed two days later when she saw the mock-mocha-wood texture. “It will look fine in a dark corner,” she assured me sweetly, but the paint was still tacky. The layers of wall paint occluded the operation of the drawers like cholesterol deposits in major arteries, and I knew I would always hate the results. Besides, I couldn’t let an inanimate object defeat me, no matter how evil it was.
“I’m gonna strip it,” I vowed solemnly, and I bought a can of paint remover, a can of spray primer, and a can of Saltwater teal, satin-finish spray paint. More expense. I admitted I’d been wrong not to accept advice, hoping to inspire my son with my honesty and overcome his growing view of me as an obsessive oddball. I set to work stripping.
Some of the mocha glop came off easily in long, intact paint layer sheets, some took lots of scraping. Susan offered to help, but I shrugged her off, mumbling that this self-inflicted torture was my penance, my hairshirt worn in hopes the discomfort would cleanse my soul of its pigheadedness. Now it really was about winning.
As I ran out of paint remover, I threw a hissy fit trying to track down my wife, who was buying a second can. She showed up moments later, but I had managed to finish the job by squeezing out a few more brushfuls of this toxic, repulsive gel that blistered paint and flesh readily, and I secretly returned the extra can to the store.
After seven hours of burning extremities, breathing noxious fumes, and kneeling on concrete, I completed my task, the layers of brown wall paint, white primer, and olive drab coagulated in a gooey, marbly swirl under the cabinet.
Susan brought home eight more cans of spray paint. I blanched at the new receipt from the hardware store. “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy a file cabinet?” she asked.
“Well, they don’t sell teal ones,” I theorized instantly, warning solemnly that the wrong color could breach the newfound feng shui of my Smokey Slate and Whisper Yellow. I cleaned and sanded the nearly bare metal file, scraped some rust, removed, cleaned, and replaced the drawers for the umpteenth time, and started to spray.
The Number One Rule of Spray Painting Outside is to wait for calm weather. Impatient and compulsive again, I held the cans awkwardly at arm’s length in a stiff breeze as the paint swirled past the intended surface and into my face. Occasionally my trigger finger dipped into the spray path and large droplets glopped out and dripped and dribbled down the sides of the cabinet. When I finished I had teal fingers, lip and nostril. The directions called for multiple light coats, separated by less than an hour. By the evening I had used one can of primer and four of Saltwater, blowing four coats of teal in the general direction of my file. Some of it adhered.
This four-drawer file cabinet now sits docilely in a corner of my office, sporting its sassy paintjob and holding my files. On the front, a couple of errant, puddly drips are covered by magnets of paintings in the Louvre. The Saltwater paint chips a little each time a file drawer is opened or closed. The drawers roll easily but a bit roughly, and one has to be lifted an inch to close all the way. The new hanging file racks inside are a bit too tall, and the label tabs on the files brush the top of the opening with a gentle, submissive “f-d-d-d-d-d-d” as I open each drawer.
Every now and then I find myself staring at my former nemesis, a monument to my stubbornness. In my mind’s eye, I can still see brown ice cream smeared across faux-wood drawer fronts. But no. I blink and look again. It’s steel and it’s teal. I won. And it was free.