Home & Garden Columns

Restoration Comedy: Bankster Rap

By Jane Powell
Tuesday June 15, 2010 - 07:37:00 AM

I admit to being kind of disappointed at not receiving a single nasty e-mail after my last column. Either Planet readership has dropped significantly since going web-only, or everyone in Berkeley and environs is completely hip that the banks are screwing us, and that homeowners are not responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. 

For those just joining us, I have been detailing my attempts to get a mortgage modification under the HAMP program. I started last October. Just this last week, I finally got through to an actual human at my lender, GMAC Mortgage (a subsidiary of General Motors, a company you may recall American taxpayers bailed out. GMAC was the financing arm of GM—and you know how consumer friendly auto loans are—they became a bank specifically in order to get TARP money). I inquired about the state of my application—they had offered me a three month forbearance, which I refused, having asked for six months. I was thinking there would be negotiations—maybe we would compromise at four months or something. Nope. My application was rejected outright. Here’s their reasoning, as far as I can tell—my reduced income and higher medical costs suggest (to them) that I cannot afford a reduced payment of $700 a month (translation—to get to that payment they would have to eat some of the principal), therefore I can go on paying $2600 a month till I run out of money and they foreclose. I was also told that if my income increased, I would have to start the process all over again (so they can drag it out another eight months). 

I made an appointment to talk face to face with an actual human at NACA (Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America—my HUD housing counselor) next week, so maybe they will have some ideas. I did finally manage to rent my vacant room here at the bunga-mansion, so my income will increase. Although I had to lower the price by $75 to do it. We’ll see what happens. I may yet have to resort to a Youtube video—apparently it’s the only way to get banks to respond. 

In the meantime, let’s talk about shellac. I have been refinishing the trim in my kitchen. It was originally painted, because old growth Douglas fir was the turn-of-the-twentieth-century equivalent of MDF (medium density fiberboard—i.e. cheap and nearly disposable). That is no longer the case, and after ten other houses into which I installed white painted cabinets and painted trim, I am finally giving in to my fantasy of having beautiful clear-finished fir in the kitchen. And it had to be done the old-fashioned way, with numerous coats of orange shellac. 

Shellac is a very old finish, made from the secretions of the lac beetle. Basically it’s bug snot. They deposit the resinous substance on branches, where it is harvested, boiled in kettles, stretched into sheets, allowed to dry, and then broken into flakes, which are dissolved in alcohol to make liquid shellac. If it’s not bleached, the natural color is a kind of orangeish brown. It’s a natural product, even edible (try not to think of bug snot—it’s used to coat a lot of candies) except that the usual solvent is denatured alcohol, which has been made poisonous so you won’t drink it. You could dissolve it in vodka if you wanted, and it is possible to buy straight ethanol—but really, you don’t want to drink it. You can but it as flakes to mix up yourself (www.shellac.net) or you can buy it already dissolved at the paint store or home center—look for a date on the can, since once you mix it it’s only good for six months or so, after that it doesn’t cure properly, and remains sticky. Of course you could take advantage of that by using it to make tack cloths. 

Anyway, nothing gives that old time dipped-in-molasses look like orange shellac. I made it even more molasses-like by adding some brown dye. The problem for me? It takes six coats, sanding between each coat, followed by two coats of polyurethane, because shellac doesn’t hold up very well in a kitchen, since it’s not terribly water resistant. The good news—it dries in about half an hour, so you can put on a lot of coats in a day. The bad news for me—there’s a lot of woodwork and cabinets to put eight coats of finish on. So it’s taking forever. Also, all this woodwork had to be stripped of paint first, which also takes forever. Did I mention the kitchen has five doors? 

The fast drying time also makes it somewhat difficult to apply—the open time is almost nil. I’m trying to convince myself that adds to the hand-crafted look… 


Jane Powell is the author of Bungalow Kitchens and writes for the Planet whenever she feels like it. She can be reached at hsedressng@aol.com