Bringing antique furniture back to life without stripping

This article was originally published in Antique Trader
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19th century spool tableRather than damage the worn spots on the surface of this 19th Century spool table, the new owner could apply paste wax to the top and then repaint the base and legs. This table sold for $100 at a Nov. 19, 2011 sale held by Copake Auctions of Copake, N.Y.

There are lots of things you can do with your newly acquired family treasure of an older or antique piece of furniture – starting with just ignoring it. But most of us just can’t seem to do that. We feel the need to do something to it if it needs more than just cleaning, even if it is just to put our mark on it:

RE-Finish

The most obvious thing that comes to mind in connection with an old, less-than-stellar piece of nice old furniture is to strip off the old finish and begin again. This was the accepted practice without further thought for many pieces for many years until the fairly recent past and may well be the prescription for a piece today given adequate consideration to the particulars of a given case.

In spite of the current prevailing common wisdom (which is more common than wise) that no piece should ever be stripped of its original finish, there are times when that is the right answer. Don’t worry about losing all the value of a piece. Most of what we see today has little or no intrinsic value anyway. Just be sure you know what you are looking at and if in doubt get an expert opinion; not your brother-in-law’s, but a real expert such as a licensed appraiser or a reputable dealer.

A factory-made, mass-produced, mahogany-veneered dining table with a poplar base from the Depression era that has a dark crackled, scratched ugly original factory lacquer finish will never be worth as much as the same table properly refinished. That’s just a fact – so get on with it and ignore the experts on the TV shows who tell you to leave the original finish alone.

But there are other things that can be done to a potentially nice older piece short of stripping and refinishing if it is not quite that bad. Or maybe you just aren’t exactly sure what you want to do other than make it look better.

RE-Coat
One thing you can do that will greatly improve the vitality of an old lifeless piece is to recoat it: Put a new finish over the old one. This, of course, can only be done after it has been thoroughly cleaned with mild soap and water to remove dirt and scrubbed with mineral spirits to remove old wax and oils. The piece should also be disassembled just as it would be if it were being completely refinished (i.e. hardware removed from doors and drawers, drawers removed from the case, doors dismounted, glass removed, upholstery secured, etc.)

Then you need to determine what type of new finish to use. That is primarily determined by what type of original finish you are dealing with. Most surface finishes like varnish, urethane, lacquer and shellac will adhere to a fully cured and cleaned penetrating oil finish without difficulty. That means you can recoat the old “Danish modern” chair with just about anything as long as you clean it first. On the other hand, oil finishes won’t work on an old surface finish; they can’t penetrate enough to do any good. An old shellac finish can be top coated with more shellac or lacquer but not urethane or varnish because it won’t stick.

Neither will urethane or varnish stick for long to a lacquer finish; it can’t get grab on it but a lacquer finish can be recoated with either shellac or more lacquer. Urethane and varnish can only be recoated with more urethane or varnish and not lacquer. The solvents in lacquer will cause an underlying coat of varnish or urethane to wrinkle.

Check your proposed new finish on an inconspicuous area before proceeding just to make sure you have something that will work.

But, as long as you are going through this much trouble you may as well take the process one step further and do a complete …

RE-Condition
This process entails several of the steps you would perform in a refinish, but you just do them over the old finish instead of on bare wood. After the same thorough cleaning you would do for a simple recoating, you lightly sand the old surface with 320-grit sand paper.

This step does a couple of things for you: It removes the top microscopic layer of oxidized finish from the surface and it smoothes out small imperfections like hairline scratches and small dents. As you sand the piece you will probably see small areas that need further attention like veneer repair or small chips. Now is the time to pay attention to the small details but don’t overdo it. You want to leave some “character.”

After the good sanding, clean the piece with a tack rag and do any needed repairs and touch ups, replacing and base coloring any missing wood or trim. Then apply a coat of oil based stain wiping uniformly over the piece. The color should be nearly identical to the original background color.

This reconditioning process is not designed to make drastic color changes. After applying the stain, remove it immediately before it dries. Where the surface is intact and no color is needed it will come off cleanly. Where the surface is damaged or penetrated the stain will be retained, adding color and uniformity where needed. Now let the stain dry overnight.

Don’t worry that tomorrow when you look at the piece it will look muddy. That is the remnant of the stain on top of the finish. It will disappear when you apply your new finish. A couple of new coats of finish and you have achieved your objective – the look of a well cared for but obviously older piece of furniture.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or visit Fred’s website. 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 info@furnituredetective.com.

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