Choose Your Best Option - Refresh, Repair, or Refinish
If you haven't read the article "Is Refinishing Bad?" (see link at left), you may be wondering whether or not you should attempt to do any work on your old or antique piece of furniture. Reading that article, along with the information in the left column on this page that discusses some steps to find out if it is valuable, is a good place to start. If you have a truly valuable antique or collectible, you should not consider doing ANY work to it at all. In these rare cases, you will only reduce its value if you modify the condition it's in, no matter how poorly you may think it looks. And that advice goes for antique painted pieces as well.
Hopefully at this point you've done your homework and found out your project isn't a rare or historical antique or collectible. You know that it's just a nice piece of furniture that looks like it needs some help. Restoring it to make it usable or more attractive is a great option and if you're a "do it yourself" kind of person you'll find the experience rewarding. Depending on the condition it's in, there are three broad categories to restoring an old piece of furniture. These are;
- Keep the existing finish. Clean and wax to give it a rejuvinated look.
- Perform touch-ups to the existing finish to renew damaged/worn areas.
- Refinish it. Remove the old finish and apply a new one.
Step #1 - Evaluate the Existing Finish
If you're not sure what needs to be done just by looking at the item, then take a more scientific approach. Start by inspecting the finish to see what flaws it has and how serious they are. Keep in mind that the purpose of a finish is not only to make the furniture look good, but also to protect the wood from moisture, dirt, stains, scratches, etc.. If the existing finish cannot do this, it needs to be replaced.
Indications Refinishing is the Best Option
It's pretty easy to tell when refinishing is the best option. These are common signs to look for;
- The finish is coming off in flakes or sheets.
- The finish is crazed/cracked all the way down to the wood.
- The finish is sticky (after cleaning).
- The clear coats have turned dark and hide the wood.
- The finish has unsightly blemishes that aren't removed by cleaning.
- The wood has dark patches or rings under the finish.
- It just looks horrible and you want to refinish it.
A finish can fail for lots of reasons. As they age, shellac, lacquer, and varnish become more brittle. Old varishes are especially prone to crazing and cracking with age. Sometimes you'll find cracks that follow grain lines, often on the flat tops of tables and dressers or chests. It's not unusual for the finish to be flaking around these cracks. Sometimes sections of finish can flake off where the finish lost adhesion to the wood. Water and sunlight (UV radiation) are common sources of this failure. In other cases finish is missing as a result of some abuse that scraped it off, or over the years, it just got worn off.
Occasionally lacquer gets sticky, especially in spots that get touched or handled a lot. This problem has to be verified after cleaning, just in case the stickiness washes off, but if the finish itself is sticky, it has undergone a chemical breakdown that is irreversible.
It's pretty common for furniture that was finished or refinished in the late 1800s through the early 1900s (up to the 30s and 40s) to turn dark, even opaque in some cases. The old finish actually hides the wood. These pieces may not seem to look horrible with the semi-transparent finish on them, but the improvement from refinishing is often dramatic.
Problems that Can be Repaired
There are lots of finish problems that can be corrected or repaired. If the finish is mostly intact and looks pretty good, performing touch-ups will save you the effort of a complete refinish job. Here's are a few of the common problems that can be fixed;
- Most white or milky rings.
- Areas where the finish is worn.
- Minor crazing that doesn't go through to the wood.
- Nicks, scratches, dings, and other minor blemishes.
- Dull and lifeless appearance.
Rejuvinating a Dull & Lifeless Finish
If the finish is in good shape but just looks 'tired,' you can really give it some life by cleaning and waxing it. The cleaning will remove any surface dirt and grime and the wax will give the finish the optical clarity it needs to reveal the beauty of the wood.