Each fall, our neighborhood hosts a mass, coordinated garage sale. For one day, fifty-plus families throw their garbage in the yard instead of the dumpster, and people pay them for the opportunity to haul it away. We’ve become garage sale connoisseurs since Hannah came along, because children’s toys a) cost a fortune and b) should not cost a fortune. Garage sales are how we game the system.
This year, Leslie and Hannah were out of town visiting friends during the sale, so I was tasked with finding some
trash toys for Hannah.
I came back with a ship hatch.
You know, like a door from a ship. Not just any ship, a World War II-era ship. A Liberty ship. Now, I shouldn’t have to justify this sort of purchase, because (in case you missed it) it’s from a WWII ship, but I knew Leslie might be less than enthused. It didn’t blow bubbles or light up or make creepy laughing noises like the rest of Hannah’s toys. It was actually really heavy and full of splinters. To smooth things over, I picked up a plastic xylophone thing on the way home.
A little background
As I hauled my haul home, I fantasized about this hatch’s prior life. I naturally assumed Liberty ships were the unsinkable scourge of the Axis of Evil.
Turns out they were more like the Chevy Vegas of the allied fleets. They were cheaply assembled, floating tin cans that toted dehydrated foodstuffs and toilet paper. One did sink a German vessel though. So there’s that. Then their hulls began to crack, and a couple blew up in port.
At least it looks cool.
From warship to living room
So, what to do with this thing? It takes unique vision to see a coffee table in a ship hatch.
(Does a quick Google query.)
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t the first person with that idea. But if I was going to tread on well-worn territory, I’d at least make this one cool.
The hatch—our would-be tabletop—looked like it had been through a war. Which it had.
The grain was split in several places. Aesthetically, these and other blemishes lent the piece character, but it needed reinforcement.
To mend one of the splits, I tried my hand at a couple butterfly joints. Any guesses on what a butterfly joint looks like?
That’s right, a bowtie.
Basically, a butterfly “key” can be inserted into the wood wherever a split threatens its integrity, holding the two sides together and preventing the split from growing. It’s an age-old technique implemented as much for its charming appearance as its function.
Achieving a perfect fit takes practice. (Incidentally, I need more practice.)
I also used square dowels to shore up some loose pieces.
Ship-Inspired Table Legs
The biggest question: what to use for the legs? It had to be cool. It had to be unique. Nautical, but not too nautical.
I drew inspiration from a riveted ship’s hull and wrapped 4″x4″ wooden legs with sheet metal and mimicked rivets with uniformly placed lag bolts.
But, I couldn’t just plop the weathered ship hatch atop these awkwardly shiny appendages. They needed to match the metal on the hatch itself.
To achieve a comparable patina, I picked up a gallon of muriatic acid at Lowe’s to etch and age the legs. This is where I’d be remiss not to say something that would make my lawyer father-in-law proud: if you want to experiment with muriatic acid that’s fine, but I sure as heck didn’t tell you to. Seriously, it’s scary stuff that’ll blind you, melt your lungs, and burn your skin off. I’m pretty sure “Dip” is its street name. If, of your own volition, you decide to play with muriatic acid, be prudent, and wear safety gear (eyewear, chemical gloves, a mask, etc.).
Back to the legs: I sprayed the muriatic acid on the legs, and within a minute or two it began to etch the steel and darken the zinc-plated bolts.
I sprayed and rinsed several times and then left them outside in the elements for several days. The shine was gone and a nice patina achieved, with no two legs looking exactly the same.
In fact, one of the legs got a little carried away:
I cut aprons out of some reclaimed oak that had been exposed to the elements and thus matched the look of the hatch nicely, and I joined them to the legs with mortise and tenon joints. Mortises are basically slots cut into wood, and tenons tongues that are cut to be inserted into the slots. A properly cut joint can be held by nothing more than wood glue and is much, much stronger than a joint held by, say, pocket screws.
I sanded the surfaces smooth, finished the wood with tung oil and the metal surfaces with satin polyurethane. Tung oil soaks into the wood (rather than sealing the surface), bringing out the grain and giving it a warm, rich appearance. It doesn’t add a glossy sheen—a look that I wanted to avoid on this rustic, historic piece. It’s not as protective as, say, polyurethane, but that’s okay. I want it to continue to patina. I look forward to the stains and rings the table will accumulate over the years.
Finally, I mounted the tabletop, added metal casters to the legs so that Leslie can move it aside to vacuum (her favorite hobby), and now we have us a piece of WWII memorabilia that hope will serve us better than it served the U.S. Navy.