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Refinishing Your Antique Furniture – Everything You Need to Know
In a perfect world, those who love antiques could inherit beautiful pieces of furniture in well-loved but cared-for condition. Things like dents, dings, scrapes, moisture damage, and insect damage would never happen, and the patina on our beloved family heirlooms would always be perfect. Unfortunately, the world and most antiques we find or inherit through our families are often less-than-perfect.
Improper storage, nicks, dings during moving, humidity, and fading due to exposure to sunlight are often among the most common causes of antique finish damage. Many wonder if we should refinish our precious antiques or family heirlooms. This question often leads to several more: can you refinish an antique? Should you refinish an antique? Are there certain types of antiques that you should never refinish? Does refinishing harm the value of the antique? Should you try and do it yourself or contact a professional? And, of course, the most important: if I do decide to refinish, how do you refinish an antique?
If you've ever asked yourself these questions, we at Laurel Crown understand. Today, we'd like to answer these questions and give you a detailed guide to refinishing your antique furniture and everything our experts believe you need to know before beginning, during, and after.
What is the Difference Between Refinishing and Restoring an Antique?
Refinishing involves removing the existing finish on a piece of antique furniture—using a chemical stripper, electric or hand sanding, or even a combination of the two, then either staining, painting, or refinishing with a sealant of some kind for protection. Restoration, on the other hand, refers to light cleaning, removal of grime build-up, and light cosmetic fixes such as repairing a surface or a chip in paint while maintaining the structural integrity of the antique piece.
Restoration may sometimes involve labor-intensive, historically accurate techniques and expensive or rare materials—such as hand-hewn nails made by a blacksmith.
How Do I Tell if an Antique Needs Refinishing?
There are a few notable signs that can indicate it may be time to consider refinishing an antique piece of furniture. If you notice:
- The surface of the piece's wood always feels sticky, even directly after you have gently wiped it down or dusted it. Wood furniture, especially precious antiques, should never be cleaned with solvents or solutions. The only cleaning genuine wood antiques need is wiping with a clean, dry, or damp with a drop of very mild detergent, lint, and dye-free microfiber cloth. However, if it remains tacky despite being cleaned, it is a good indicator that it is time to consider refinishing.
- The original or existing finish shows signs of cracking, exposing the wood beneath. This is an indication the protective barrier of the finish is no longer doing its job, protecting the wood from wear, temperature, and humidity changes.
- You've spotted the original finish flaking, peeling, or chipping off.
- The antique is heavily dinged, dented, scratched, blemished, or watermarked. Even if the finish remains intact, all these marks indicate that the antique has a lot of use. Treating it to a renewed finish can strengthen the protective barrier and stay in place.
Where To Begin?
The first thing you should do before considering refinishing is to assess your antique. It's vital to have a few critical pieces of information, such as:
- How old is the antique?
- What material is the antique? What kind of wood? Is it solid wood, or is there a veneer? Does it have metal parts, and what metal are those parts?
- Is this antique one with a lot of personal meaning and one that you will keep handing down to the next generation?
- Is this an antique you want to place on the market or sell?
- Has this antique been painted?
Once you begin considering these questions and hopefully have a few answers, it's essential to ask yourself a few questions, too:
- How complicated will the refinish be? Does your antique feature many little details, such as deeply carved or applied filigree? All the smaller nooks and crannies can add significant time and effort to removing the old finish and make refinishing tricky.
- Will the piece require new hardware such as screws, nails, or drawer pulls, and are you willing to replace them?
- Different parts of furniture may need various applications for refinishing. For example, if you were refinishing an antique wooden dining room chair, any slats or ornate carvings may need a delicate touch. In contrast, areas such as the seat or arms will require multiple coats of finish to protect them so the surface remains durable.
- Does the antique appear to be made from different types of wood? Occasionally, during the process of striping, you may soon discover that the piece is made of many kinds of wood, which will either mean you will have to learn to love it as is or spend time trying to stain it to make it look uniform which can be a highly complex process.
How To Know When Not to Refinish an Antique?
- If your antique's finish is in great shape, there are hardly any dings or dents, or you enjoy how it looks. There's no need to change anything if the finish is intact or you like it as it is now.
- If you recognize the piece is mostly veneer over wood. The veneer will not properly stain in the same way as solid lumber.
- Suppose the piece is made from rarer wood fragments, like mahogany. Mahogany is a beautiful and rare wood and notoriously challenging to refinish without expertise.
- If your antique is made of particle board, veneer, plywood, or MDF (medium-density fiberboard.) Refinishing is not only a waste of resources but time. Paint, stains, or finishes do not adhere well to these smooth plastic-like surfaces, and many pieces made with these materials are generally not considered valuable outside of sentimental value.
- If the antique was built around or before 1850 and is a unique designer antique or extremely valuable with a maker's mark—do not refinish it! You can quickly destroy what makes an antique like this worthwhile with a small mistake. Ensure you've done your research or have a reputable antique expert assess the value for you, as well as consult a professional antique preservationist to determine if refinishing should be considered.
- If the piece holds great sentimental value to you and you do not feel confident in refinishing it, the best thing to do is either not refinish or get a highly trusted professional to refinish for you, as they will be able to identify the wood and most likely the original color or stain and be able to recreate it without damaging the piece.
Does Refinishing an Antique Harm Its Value?
For many collectors, the most common worry is whether refinishing a piece could reduce or destroy its value and appeal. You have no doubt read or heard an antique expert telling you that an antique with its original, pristine finish with dents, dings, and all has more value—they occasionally forget this significant distinction: this advice is generally for only the very rarest antiques on the market today.
For instance, should you find yourself the proud owner of an original, stamped, American Hepplewhite Mahogany Serpentine Satinwood Inlaid Sideboard, you would certainly not wish to refinish it, as the piece can go for as high as $35,000.
If you own your grandmother's Vintage Nichols & Stone Co. wooden rocking chair and feel like you would like to make it shine as it did in your memories, there's most likely no harm in refinishing it. You have more leeway in your refinishing options regarding sentimental family pieces.
Ultimately, the decision to refinish depends on whether the antique you are considering refinishing is more of an investment you mean to sell than keep. We do not recommend refinishing if you collect antique furniture to invest and resell. If the piece is worth more to you due to the memories attached or the fact it has been in the family for generations, there's no need to worry about lowering the value of a piece that is already so highly cherished by you.
What Can I Do to Revitalize Antique Furniture Without Refinishing?
For many of us, attempting to refinish a cherished family heirloom antique or prized piece of our collection seems far too daunting, or perhaps hiring a professional to refinish is not financially feasible. What can you do?
Occasionally, wooden antiques may not need the existing finish stripped away; instead, a good cleaning and perhaps a wipe-on finish to revitalize it.
How can you clean your antiques safely?
Step One: Finding the Finish
Determining what wood finish your antique wood furniture has is the initial and vital step. Only once you know the wood finish can you begin cleaning away dust, dirt, grime, or mildew that may have accumulated over the years.
Luckily for many of us, figuring out the wood finish is relatively easy; all it takes is a quick test. However, before you test, it's crucial to note that you will want to do so in an inconspicuous area of your furniture. This is a precaution just in case something goes wrong—which it should not—but with your treasured antiques, it is always better to be safe. A few areas that would be great for testing would be inside a drawer or the bottom of a chair or desk. You can also test on the piece's surface that rests against a wall.
Once you've determined the spot where you will test the finish for cleaning, it's time to gather a few supplies.
Step Two: Supplies for testing
- Denatured Alcohol
- Protective gloves
- Cotton Swabs
There is a reason why we suggest denatured alcohol, such as methylated spirits or wood spirits. Denatured alcohol is, in basic terms, ethanol with a few extra ingredients that make it a more potent substance. In other words, it is an excellent solvent for cleaning. However, it can be toxic, so always test in a well-ventilated area.
Since denatured alcohol is toxic, it makes sense to protect your hands with gloves as it can be absorbed through the skin. Ensure you wear gloves and thoroughly wash your hands after using denatured alcohol.
You can use the cotton swabs from your bathroom, but they must be 100% cotton. Why does the cotton swab material matter? It prevents any artificial fibers or dyes from accidentally sticking to the wood.
Step Three: Test your Finish
With your gloves on and supplies gathered, pour a tiny amount of denatured alcohol into a metal bowl or disposable cup. At most, you will only need an ounce. Dip your 100% cotton swab into the denatured alcohol for a few seconds, then rub the cotton swab on a small area of your furniture hidden from sight.
Observe how the wood reacts to the denatured alcohol. Does the wood finish seem to dissolve completely? Does it remain the same and show no reaction? What happens to the spot you rubbed with denatured alcohol will determine how you should clean your antique wooden furniture.
Step Four: What the Results Indicate
If the finish appears to dissolve, this indicates your antique furniture has a shellac finish. Unfortunately, shellac-finished antiques are more challenging to clean, as they will need more than cleaning—they require complete refinishing.
If the finish remains the same after dabbing it with the denatured alcohol, the good news is that it is either a lacquer, polyurethane, varnish, or oil finish. This indicates you can most likely handle cleaning your antique wood furniture yourself, and it may be all you need to do to revitalize the look.
Cleaning Your Antique Furniture
Here's what you need to know about cleaning your antique furniture and how you can do so.
- Wood Oil Soap. Unlike typical household soaps, oil soap cleans and moisturizes any existing finish
- Clean, lint-free, cotton clothes. At least 2 or 3
- Small mixing bowl
- Measuring cup
- A whisk or fork for mixing
- Rubber gloves
Cleaning Your Antique Furniture
- Create the cleaning solution with wood oil soap. Put on your gloves and mix one ounce of oil soap with six ounces of water, stirring with a fork or whisk to mix thoroughly.
- Place one of your cotton cloths into the bowl with the solution, letting it soak. When it is completely absorbed, remove it and wring the cloth of any excess liquid, ensuring the fabric is not soaking wet—damp is perfect, just enough to clean off grime and dirt.
- Begin cleaning, working from the top of your antique wood furniture toward the bottom using small, gentle circles and working along the grain. If the cloth becomes too grimy, grab your second or third, repeat step two, and move on to three.
- Once your antique is finished, take a clean, dry, lint-free, soft cloth and ensure your furniture is completely dry by starting from the top and working to the bottom.
If your antique was finished with shellac, or after a thorough and gentle cleaning like above does not revitalize, or your antique furniture remains sticky to the touch or shows any sign of the finish flaking or cracking, it is time to consider refinishing the piece.
What Supplies Should I Have on Hand for DIY Antique Refinishing?
To cover many antique wood furniture types and sizes, we'll present a thorough list of supplies to have on hand so that you will not need to worry about running out of something during your refinishing.
Supplies needed and good to have just in case:
- Dish soap, or a very mild soap, sponges, towels
- Paint stripper
- Lacquer thinner
- Power sander
- Sandpaper in multiple grits
- Plastic or metal paint scrapers
- Epoxy putty
- Wood sealants such as wax, varnish, or polyurethane
- Wood stain or paint
- Drop cloths
- Safety goggles
- Chemical-resistant gloves
- Vacuum cleaner
- Paintbrushes with natural bristles
- Painter's tape
- A bucket for clean water
- Stir sticks
- Empty paint or coffee cans
- Glue and clamps in case of needing to repair or reinforce furniture
Our Best Refinishing Tips
The most fundamental step of furniture refinishing or renewing is thoroughly cleaning and prepping the piece. Without proper cleaning or prep, stains, paints, and sealants may not adhere and can cause issues with refinishing.
You don't need harsh chemicals or heavy-duty cleaners before refinishing; the simplest and easiest way to clean your antique is a bit of water, a very gentle detergent, or the soap oil method we detailed above.
Scrub gently with a clean cloth and use a natural bristle paint brush to remove any grime if there are detailed carvings or moldings. Once finished, rinse thoroughly with a damp sponge or cloth, then pat the piece dry with a towel.
Assess While Cleaning
As you clean, you'll have eyes and hands on the piece, which can give you not only a better idea of the scale of the refinishing project you are facing but may also reveal missed water rings, stains, dents, chips, or other damages you may not have been aware of.
When you assess while cleaning, you can note if you need all the supplies we suggested above. For example, if your piece is not painted, you won't need a paint stripper. You probably won't need epoxy if there are no holes or dings.
Begin Removing Old Finish
For those of you who have never attempted to remove a finish, you will no doubt be wondering how to start. There are two main ways to do so. The first is to sand it off, and the second is to use a chemical stripper.
Sanding is generally best for unpainted, antique wood furniture that does not have a shellac finish. You start using coarse sandpaper with a block or a power sander to strip the finish off until the surface is accessible. Then, you will switch to medium grit sandpaper to smooth out the wood to ensure every trace of finish is moved; then, you will sand it a third time with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth out the wood.
If your antique has been painted or shellacked, chemical strippers have been designed to nearly effortlessly strip the finish from wood. You can choose a liquid or semi-paste-like product. Chemical strippers may or may not contain MC or methylene chloride. Use a chemical stripper, brush it with a bristle brush in an even coat, and follow the instructions. It's also critical to note that if you use chemical strippers, ensure you wear protective gear such as eye goggles and gloves and use the chemical stripper in a well-ventilated area.
If you choose to sand your antique, remember to wipe it down with a damp cloth until there is no sawdust remaining, and whether you are sanding or chemical stripping, allow your furniture to dry for 24 hours.
After stripping or sanding your piece and letting it fully dry, you can begin to move on to coating it, or if you noted damages during the assessment, this is the time to fill in any grain or cracks you like.
Once filled and dried, you will want to seal the wood to prepare it for staining. Sealants protect the wood and create a base for the stain to spread evenly. Apply a thick coat of sealant and allow it to soak into the wood, wiping any excess and dripping with a clean, lint-free rag.
Allow the sealant to dry thoroughly according to instructions before taking fine-grained sandpaper and sanding down the sealant gently, then ensure to remove any sawdust that may be left behind.
Paint or Stain
After the sealant has been applied and sanded, the next step is to paint or stain it. Painting or staining is a personal decision that isn't necessarily right or wrong. If you are unsure whether to paint or stain, ask yourself the following questions to help you make up your mind:
- If your piece is an unusually rare antique, you may not want to paint it to preserve its authenticity.
- If you dislike the current color or grain of wood, then you may like the look painted.
- If your antique is part of your daily routine or placed in a very high-traffic area, sealing and staining may help the furniture be more damage-resistant than a coat of paint
- If you realize your antique was not repaired well, was not constructed from the same type of wood, or was shoddily built, painting it will most likely hide these flaws and make it look much better.
There are many colors and options to choose from regarding stains. There are water-based oil-based gel stains. You will also find products that boast two-in-one, both color and finish. Whichever you choose, please always follow the product instructions on its label before beginning.
Apply The New Finish Coat
Applying a finish coat is the last step in this intensive and careful process. There are several different finish products for you to choose from, and your choice should depend on the following information:
- What wood furniture look do you desire? Do you like the look of dark, ebony wood? Do you want to enhance the grain and beauty of your mahogany?
- What durability do you need?
- What type of wood is your furniture
- How will the item be used, and how frequently
- Your skill level
These answers are essential because specific finishes are meant to be sprayed on, and these would require additional spray tools to finish the piece. If you are a beginner or have never completed a piece of furniture, we recommend using a finish you can wipe or brush on.
Some examples of brush or wipe-on finishes are:
- Oil finished, which is very easy to find and very accessible to use. Oil finishes also tend to be exceptional at soaking into the wood, making for easy cleaning or refinishing later. Oil finishes, however, offer little to no surface protection, so these are best used on antique pieces that aren't in high-traffic areas.
- Wipe-on varnish products can be applied in multiple coats if you so desire, allowing you to control the level of sheen your furniture will have. Note, however, that any excess drips or mistakes may need to be sanded to be corrected between any coats.
- Oil-based brushes on polyurethane varnishes are durable and can protect your antique furniture from scratches and dents for many years. This finish is best used on furniture that sees a lot of use or in high-traffic areas, such as coffee tables, living room chairs, and dining and kitchen tables, as they tend to suffer the most wear and tear. It is important to note that polyurethane can take on a yellowish or golden tint over a long period.
- Furniture wax combines oil-based and natural ingredients like carnauba or beeswax. The wax can be applied with a clean, lint-free cloth or paint brush and appears dull initially. When you buff it with a cloth, it will turn into a beautiful satin sheen.
- Water-based sealants such as polycrylic dry rapidly and do not have any toxic fumes. Water-based sealants also dry clear and will not yellow with age, but they can take on a milky appearance if you accidentally apply them too thickly on top of dark wood.
- Created from a durable resin secreted by lac bugs, shellac wood finish is hard for floors, furniture, and antiques. Shellac appears wax-like, is mixed with a solvent, and may need to be thinned before applying.
We know this is a lot of information to process and gather, but when it comes to your most precious antiques, we believe that taking your time and learning all you can beforehand will set you up for a successful refinish should you choose to do it yourself without the heartbreak of disaster or mistakes. Once you've selected the best finish for your antique furniture, gather your supplies and apply paint, stain, or a finish. You can then add a coat of paste wax, if desired, to enhance the luster and further protect it from future scratches.
Other Tips for Refinishing Wooden Antique Furniture
- It's important to always wipe down your furniture after sanding and use lint-free cloths or brushes to apply any stain or finishes to avoid accidentally trapping lint, sawdust, or dirt within the finish, which may force you to start all over.
- Always try to paint, stain, or finish in whole or natural light so that you can see and catch any drips or missed spots before it's too late.
- While you are amid furniture refinishing, keep an eye on your workspace and keep it as clean as possible, including vacuuming dust after sanding. Keep paint brushes or stain cloths dust-free to prevent dust from becoming trapped in the wood surface and under stains or topcoats.
- Never shake any container of stain or finish. Instead, gently stir each time you use it to ensure all ingredients are properly dispersed and not on the bottom. Shaking your stain or finish creates unsightly air bubbles.
- Never rely on what a sample tells you! Test the stain color on a discrete area of your furniture before deciding to apply it all over, as there is a chance that the stain may not look as it is presented in a sample.
Helping Preserve the New Finish
When the hard work of refinishing is over, you can extend that finish's luster and longevity by ensuring you maintain dusting and cleaning. You should dust your antique at least every week, and if that is not possible, gently wipe it down with a damp cloth at least every three to six months to prevent grime build-up.
We hope our detailed guide to refinishing antiques has helped answer any questions you may have had and guide you to the right decision for your antiques. Suppose you are seeking to invest in the highest-quality antique reproductions for your home. In that case, we encourage you to browse our inventory here at Laurel Crown to see our stunning collections of handmade mahogany reproductions with gorgeous finishes that will last for generations.
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