Furniture Detective: Furniture repair success takes product, patience and pride

When you embark on any project involving older or antique furniture, whether it’s just a simple repair, minor adjustments or a major recondition or refinish, your recipe will call for three main ingredients, the three “Ps” of successful work: product, patience and pride.


At first blush it might seem that the choice of the correct product to use in the project would be the most important step. After all, you can’t mend a chair without the right kind of glue. But after you know that a chair repair calls for water-based wood glue, not contact cement, not epoxy, not super glue, etc., how important is the choice of which wood glue to use? If you are a restoration professional, you surely will have your favorite, based on cost, workability, drying time, availability, reliability, and so on. But not all of these things are as critical to a collector or homeowner as they are to a professional. It is very true that there are differences in wood glues, but in the long run are they significant? Probably not. If used correctly, they will all hold a properly cleaned, properly clamped joint, given the right amount of drying time.

The same can be said for sandpaper. While silicone carbide paper is recognized as the “best” paper for working furniture, it is not the only kind of paper that can be used, and a good job with another kind of paper is still a good job. Silicone carbide paper is generally used in shops because of its consistent sharpness of grit and durability, despite its high cost and lack of general availability to the public. That may not be important to everyone.

What is important is the recognition of the fact that when the job calls for it, a piece must be sanded. The ultimate choice of paper is a small detail.

Finishes and finishing products fall in the same category. Once you decide whether to apply a penetrating finish, such as Danish oil, or a surface finish, such as varnish, urethane, shellac or lacquer, does it matter the brand within each category? Surely there are differences in brands of urethane, such as drying time, ease of cleanup, smell and cost, just to mention a few, but are they significant to the ultimate outcome of your work? Again, probably not.

The point about the choice of “product” is that product is the least important ingredient in your recipe. Virtually all products sold will perform at some satisfactory level. A mediocre product in the hands of a knowledgeable and caring craftsman will yield a much better result than the absolute best, most expensive product in the hands of an inexperienced, or, more importantly, an indifferent worker. That leads to the next point.


Patience is the next ingredient and often the most elusive. Patience is the ability to understand that most inanimate objects will do what you want them to do if  they are correctly manipulated by you within the range of the laws of nature and physics. For example, no matter how much patience you have, you can’t make a brick float. But, you can do lots of other things with a brick.

Patience is required most especially when you are in a hurry. When applying a finish, no matter what it is, the tendency, when rushed, is to apply a thick coat of finish. Any experienced finisher will tell you that it takes less time to apply two thin coats of finish than one thick coat, because the thinner coats dry quicker and allow you to recoat sooner. It makes sense, but it’s hard to do in real life when you are in a hurry. Its also hard to let the glue dry. Especially if you just clamped up the chair and company is coming for supper. The label says the glue dries in four hours, but in your heart you know it needs to sit in clamps overnight or you will be repairing that chair again as soon as company leaves.

Sometimes patience is measured in longer intervals. I once acquired a mahogany Empire buffet, circa 1835, that needed some restoration. Over its life of nearly 160 years, it had sagged in the middle, because it was a heavy piece and had no center support. Since it took that long to sag, it certainly wasn’t going to straighten out in a day or two or 20.

A center support with an adjustable foot was inserted under the center of the piece, and, every six months or so, the adjustable foot was ratcheted up one-eighth of an inch or so. After a little more than five years, the piece was nearly level, not perfectly so, but close enough to finish the restoration and produce a usable piece. Patience is indeed a virtue, as well as a key ingredient in your recipe, but not the most important.

The MOST important ingredient is …


This is the ingredient that makes you take the extra step to “do the right thing.” This is what makes you clean out the joints of a chair before you glue it. This is what makes you sand the underside of a chair rung. This is what makes you mix together three cans of expensive stain to get exactly the right color.

This is what makes you apply the fourth coat of finish when three actually looks pretty good. This is the realization that anything you work on has your name on it forever. If you cut corners on your work, you will see it every time you look at it, even if no one else knows, sees or cares. You will know and you will care.

If you take “pride” in your work, then “product” is a detail and the “patience” comes naturally. ?

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


Great books, CDs, price guides & more

Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2011 Price Guide

Interact with other antique collectors in Antique Trader’s online forum

Browse hundreds of FREE online classified ads

Sign up for your FREE email newsletter

For more columns and features for antique dealers, restorers and collectors, get your own subscription to Antique Trader magazine