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Furniture refinishing using guides and experience

Do-it-yourself guides to furniture refinishing are often best paired with your own knowledge gained through your own refinishing experiences.

Guidance to furniture refinishing guides

I have been looking for a good, more or less technical book about furniture finishing, but I can’t seem to find one I can use. I am tired of the fluffy “garage finisher” books and the “sweetness and cute” approach of the home-front divas. I want to know about lots of different finishes, how they are applied, in what order, etc. Can you recommend a book, not a video or a TV program, written by someone who actually does this for a living and knows what they are talking about? — G.R.

A Actually the complete book you are looking for hasn’t been written yet, in my opinion, and I have no intention of writing it. However, there are two that come close to what you are looking for.

When I first got interested in the subject of finishing and refinishing, literature on the subject was thin, general interest was low and the industry was very closed mouth about methods and products. A restoration shop owner wouldn’t (or couldn’t) explain the chemistry behind the finishes and wouldn’t reveal or explain his techniques.

The common response was, “It’s been in the family for generations and I can’t reveal the secret.” Or, “It’s a trade secret only professionals are allowed to know.” What a bunch of you-know-what that was. Most of the time these guys had no idea what they were doing or why they were doing it.

The first really informative book I stumbled across was by James E. Brumbaugh. The name of the book was “Wood Furniture - Finishing, Refinishing, Repairing,” first published in 1974 by Howard W. Sams & Co. of Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a revelation in its clarity and depth.

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Each type of finish is accompanied by a depth chart showing the sequence of each finish, complete with drying times, sanding instructions, information about filling, rubbing out, spraying, brushing – the works. It became my bible. However, as I actually got involved in the work, over the years I had to revise some of his suggested procedures, based on what worked for me and the quantity and quality of products available at the time and place.

Also, new products came along and others disappeared that required a constant regime of testing and comparing both products and procedures. But, all in all, it was the best book I had ever seen on the subject at that time. The book was out of print for a while, but was reprinted in 1979, 1985 and 1992, the last time by Macmillan with an ISBN number of 0025178717. It is available at for less than $5 plus shipping for a used paperback. Well worth the investment.

The other, more current book that I have mentioned before is “Understanding Wood Finishing” by Bob Flexner, published by Reader’s Digest, revised in 2005, found on for under $20. This book is state of the current art, encompassing things that Brumbaugh never heard of, such as water-based poly and water-borne lacquer and gel stains. Flexner also devotes a lot of time to making sure you understand some of the chemistry behind what you are doing – like why a thinner is not necessarily the solvent for a given finish. Bob has done this for a living and knows what works – for him.

There you have two books to keep you busy. But remember, what works for Flexner or Brumbaugh or anyone else at a given time and place with a given product, may not work for you. You have to develop the skill on your own, using the experience of people like Flexner to give you some guidance.

Not quite Renaissance Revival

Renaissance Revival dresser

With a design that is a little off the classic lines of Renaissance Revival, this dresser may be a ‘cottage quality’ piece from the late 1800s. Submitted photo

Q I’m new to antiques and I found this old dresser that I fell in love with. I bought it, but I don’t know anything about it. My first question is: Is it really an antique? Then is it a vanity or a dresser? I have been calling it a “drop center.” Is that the right term? Can you tell me approximately how old it may be, how much it’s worth, and what kind of wood it may be made of? Here are pictures that should help you assess the dresser. Thank you. — S.G., Spotsylvania, Va.

A Your dresser is in the Renaissance Revival style which was produced in the second half of the 19th century. Does that qualify as an antique? That depends on your definition of “antique.” From that period, it is definitely called a dresser, but there is no precise term for the form. “Drop center” is the most common descriptive term but since this is the most prevalent form of Renaissance dressers, most people just assume it has a drop center when they hear “Renaissance.”

It was the primary style shown at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876. Most pieces of this style and era were produced in factories in the Midwest and were made of walnut. However, yours appears to be handmade judging from the joinery and the drawer bottom. It also does not appear to be walnut, but I can’t tell what it is.

Rather than “factory made,” yours could be referred to as “cottage quality” indicating probable rural origins. The stylistic features are off slightly from traditional Renaissance Revival so that would indicate that it may have been made by a country craftsman, probably trying to provide his family with an “uptown” piece. He did a nice job. Similar pieces from such well known sources such as Berkey & Gay or Mitchell and Rammelsberg are worth several thousand dollars. I would suspect yours would bring between $500 and $1,000 at auction.

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