Questions and Common Sense Answers: Priscilla Can You Darn My Socks?

Q I am refinishing an old (antique?) harvest table and have run into a problem. The table is mostly nailed together with old cut nails. The top is even nailed to the frame through the top. The nails were countersunk and the holes filled with putty of a sort which is now gone but there is a dark, almost black stain around all the nails in both the skirt and top. Is there a way to get rid of the stains without bleaching the entire table? Should I dig them out and fill in with more putty?

A Actually, if I were doing the table I would leave the dark stains. They are a sign of age caused by the oxidation of the iron nails in the wood. The iron rusts, resulting in ferrous oxide which then reacts with the tannin in the wood causing the black stains, rather than the red or orange stains usually associated with rust.

However, that’s not what you asked. Don’t dig out the stains and replace them with more putty. That just creates more problems. The best thing to do is to putty up the open holes and cover up the stains which a) achieves your goal of a uniform color and b) preserves the marks of age for the next owner who may actually like them.

One way to do that is to use the artist oil colors sold in art supply stores. These colors are actually oil paint consisting of a ground earth pigment color, a binder such as linseed oil, a slight amount of vehicle such as mineral spirits and maybe a little japan drier to speed it up. Buy the smallest, cheapest tubes you can find. They will last you a lifetime. The basic wood colors are burnt umber, a reddish brown, raw umber, a gray green, burnt sienna, an orangey color and raw sienna, yellow. You can add black, white, red and blue to the list and you just about have it covered.

Start with a palette made of a small piece of clear glass with the edges taped. Place small portions of either the oil paints around the edge of the glass. Using a slender tipped artist’s brush drag small portions of color to the center of the glass, mixing colors to match your background. Place the glass on the background surface as you work to achieve a color match. Paint your matching color over the dark stains. Apply thin coats, layering the colors but try to avoid a build up of material that might show through as a raised area under your final finish. By layering the colors you can achieve shading and graining effects on your touch ups. Just let your artistic instincts take over.

Allow your touch ups to dry thoroughly, at least overnight, before applying the next coat of finish. The good thing about this technique is that you can adjust the color of your touch ups after every coat of finish if you need to. Just avoid that heavy build up.

Q Trying to find out information on this piece of furniture which my grandmother had for 50+ years. It is a small wooden stand with a lift top lid and a handle. I think my Grandmother used it for sewing but it has held everything that would fit since then. What was its original use and how old do you think it is?

A Short and to the point. The piece is a sewing stand from the 1920s. Stands like this one were small, lightweight pieces that could be carried by the convenient handle from the sewing machine to the parlor chair where Grandmother sat to listen to the radio while darning socks or sewing buttons.

Sewing stands emerged in the late 1700s and were popular items then. One style, with drawers and rounded ends, was even nicknamed for Martha Washington. The Martha Washington stand re-emerged in the 1920s.

Your stand is called a “Priscilla” stand, apparently in reference to the early 20th century treadle sewing machine of that name. There also was a popular magazine of the period called Modern Priscilla. Your stand is made of glued up sections of gum with a dark stain to simulate walnut. A virtually identical stand is shown on page 31 of Furniture of the Depression Era by Harriett and Robert Swedberg, Collector Books. The price guide in the 1996 edition of the book lists the Priscilla stand at $165 although yours would be valued slightly less because of what I can see of the condition of the finish in the photo.

You will not detract from the value of this piece if you have it refinished professionally or if you do a credible job yourself.

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