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BY DON FLUCKINGER • Every once in a while I get sucked into a story I’m writing a little too much, and end up living it a little bit. My wife Kate (Richard’s daughter) doesn’t always approve of this phenomenon, especially the time I interviewed Pat Morse, one of the Northeast’s great trunk restorers, and he made it look so easy that I decided it would be fun to restore a broken-down, Civil War-era trunk used by Henry Atherton, a previous owner of Richard’s Nashua manse.
|Picture airborne fragments of 160-year-old paper floating through the living room and obscuring Kate’s view of the television as I chip out the mildewy lining, fleck by fleck, with paint scrapers and putty knives…|
If you can picture airborne fragments of 160-year-old paper floating through the living room and obscuring her view of the television as I chip out the mildewy lining, fleck by fleck, with paint scrapers and putty knives, you sort of get the idea. Repeat this scene every evening for three weeks, and you start to comprehend why Kate might be chagrined. After all, it’s hard to enjoy Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip when you can’t actually see which character in the ensemble cast’s talking.
And let’s not even get into what happened when the cracked, brittle leather cover had to come off.
But the trunk turned out well, because Morse wrote a great guide to doing it.
Which brings us to this month’s pen column, retrofitting a four-drawer CAO Criollo cigar box for pen storage. Last month fellow Granite State fountain pen aficiando Bryan Stone told me about these amazing four-drawer boxes that store about 24 pens, and I got sucked in again.
Converting one of these from cigar box to pen chest works well; the finished project makes an excellent desktop accoutrement because of its vertical shape — it doesn’t have the big footprint of traditional Reed & Barton chests. Another nice thing about the front-opening design of this chest? You can store it on a bookshelf. With many pen chests, the top opens up — like record players used to — making bookshelf storage a pain.
Like most of the finer things in life, however, you can’t just wave your credit card and acquire one of these great little pen chests. The two chief logistical problems: First, CAO discontinued the Criollo line, so supply of these boxes is dwindling — but they’re still widely available; and second, no one makes these pen chests for retail sale. That means if you like the pictures of the one I made here — and you’re not afraid to make a little wood dust and inhale some varnish fumes — you can make one for yourself. But do it soon, before these boxes can’t be found anymore.
Begin by acquiring a box or two. Go to eBay and don’t pay a penny more than ten bucks for a box. Interestingly, a few years ago crafts people were paying up to $50 for the boxes, which was a great deal for the cigar smokers paying $80-$120 a box for the cigars. Now, though, the going price is $10, although some sellers still feel they’re entitled to more. I made a deal with a seller to purchase six of them for about $7.50 each plus shipping.
To make your pen chest look like the one pictured, follow these steps:
Remove that godawful ribbon on the front of the box above the latch, and pry off the latch gently with a screwdriver and needle-nosed pliers.
Sand the outside of the box, first with 120-ish and then 220-ish grit paper. Run the 220 over the drawer fronts and insides, too. Tack cloth it all.
Varnish the outside with at least three coats. If you’ve varnished anything, you’ve probably got your own modus operandi, but for the record I put on three to five coats of oil-based semigloss, letting each coat dry 24 hours and hitting it with 600-grit sandpaper and tack cloth between each coat. After the last coat dries, I don’t sand but instead use #0000 steel wool and buff it up with a soft flannel cloth.
For the drawers, I enjoy priming and painting with metal-look or metal-flake paints, as it provides a nice contrast to the wood. But if that’s a bit flamboyant for you (or it doesn’t match the pens that will be stored in the chest), try more natural or earth-tone paints. Varnishing the drawers would work, or even leaving them naked.
It’s also a nice touch to paper the drawer insides with wallpaper from a local wallcovering place. (They practically give away remnants for free.)
Drop in pen trays from Gary Lehrer. My preference is not to glue down the trays in these CAO boxes; I just cut them sized well enough that they press fit and don’t move.
The crowning touch is a hardware upgrade from UMX, which sells the box corners and latch I used on this project — but there are many more choices than these. Furthermore, they have hinges, too, if the ones that come with the cigar box look too flimsy for you — but be aware that these funky inside-mounted hinges are custom to the box and not every replacement set will fit.
Other tips you might try:
Stone and I agree that the map of the Caribbean on the top looks pretty cool. We choose not to remove it. But scrape it off before varnishing it it’s not your thing. Try wetting it down with water in a spray bottle before scraping it. You probably want to take the paper embellishments off the inside of the front doors, too, in that case.
I made the drawers slide easier with Butcher’s Bowling Alley Wax, an old old product they still sell at Home Depot. I usually use it on sticky dresser drawers, works great on that too.
Sand down the joint where the two doors come together in the middle of the front of the box. It makes a nice seal for the cigars as is, but once you varnish up the box and get your pens in, you’ll want to loosen up the fit.
If you start feeling weird while working with the Spanish Cedar (the particular wood these boxes are made off), wear a dust mask. Some people who work with this wood report online that they are allergic or sensitive to the dust — although Richard and I are not.
Add self-adhesive felt pads on the bottom of the box — get these at Home Depot or at craft stores — to keep it from scratching the desk, table or bookshelf it will live on.
Still with me? If so, good luck. I am making six of these babies, and they look fantastic. They’re cheap to make. Before actually doing such a project, it can seem like a multi-step, insurmountable project, but it’s actually pretty basic.
If I can do it — I’m not a craftsman, I’m pretty ham-fisted when it comes to these things — you definitely can. Piece of cake. Get sucked into the story yourself, and go try this. You’ll be pleased with the results.
Further Reading: Antique Trunks: Identification & Price Guide, by Pat Morse
Pat Morse wrote both the guide to restoring trunks referenced above and this richly illustrated field guide to trunks. Trunk restoration is actually a fun, rewarding project — and if you're into retrofitting cigar boxes for pen storage, a lot of the principles and ideas shown in both this book and the restoration guide apply.
|Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.|