How to Refinish Antique Furniture

Valuable tips on refinishing antique furniture. Tips to refinish like a pro without damaging the integrity or value of the piece. Maintain your investment.


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    Confirm that you are not removing the patina from an expensive antique. What you don’t want is to take a $1,000 table and refinish into a $100 table.
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    Before you begin always read and understand instructions on all labels of the chemicals and solvents you are using and always work in a well-ventilated area. The fumes can cause dizziness or death if not used in a properly ventilated space. Also, your local hardware specialist can serve as a great source of information with this project, its steps, and material needed.
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    Wash vs. Strip: Decide whether the old finish should come off or if a thorough cleaning will do. Perhaps a rejuvenating coat of varnish will bring it back to its original luster. If cleaning an unpainted piece, hand cleaner containing pumice used with a toothbrush to get into crevices works well. After cleaning you will know better what you are working with. In many instances you can save a lot of work by just refinishing parts of the piece i.e. the drawer front and top of a table or bureau or maybe just the arms and seat of a chair and then rejuvenating the rest of the piece.
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    Strip/Paint Remover: Always use rubber gloves and a mask when using stripper. Use lots of remover and do not brush back and forth. Put on a thick layer of stripper with one stroke. The stripper will form a skin, like pudding. Place plastic trash bags or newspaper on top of the stripper to help keep the stripper from drying out. Always position the piece so you are working on a horizontal surface, this also keeps you from doing too much at one time. Place a piece of masking tape over the backside of any key and knob holes so the stripper doesn’t spatter the back of the drawer.
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    Don’t remove any stripper until you can rub with one finger (without scraping) down to bare wood. If the piece has a carving, plan to leave the stripper on those areas longer.
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    Removing the Stripper: Periodically peek under the plastic to determine how quickly the stripper is working. You may need to flow on additional stripper if it the finish is thick. When the finish is soft, scrape it off with an expired credit card or a putty knife, but a credit card is less likely to damage the wood.
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    Wash: When the stripper has softened the finish, scrape off as much as possible, so you can wash down the piece with the appropriate solvent or water. It is very important to read the container to determine appropriate washing liquid. Scrub with a stiff brush with course wood chips, hamster bedding from the pet store will work just fine! This will clean and dry the piece around spindles and carvings. If the piece you are stripping is veneered, be careful when using water as to not lift the veneer. When refinishing, it is more desirable to make every effort to bring forth the original surface and not produce a new one.
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    Sand/Sandpaper: To remove light scratches, which is all you should do, use fine grit sandpaper. As a novice, the finer the sandpaper you use, the longer it will take to make a mistake. 120 C open coat aluminum oxide will do nicely. To remove any stripper residue and set the wood up to accept a finish, 220 open coat aluminum oxide is good. To sand various shapes and moldings on your piece you can use old felt. Shape it and cover it with sandpaper. (Important information on sandpaper: The 120 refers to the grit size. The lower the number, the coarser the paper.)
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    Stain: Your best bet is to purchase the leading brand of pigmented wiping stain, which are color fast, direct-to-wood stains formulated to develop and highlight the grain of all wood species. They can be cross-mixed to achieve different tones i.e. adding mahogany to walnut for a reddish brown color or ebony to walnut for a deep dark brown. Brush the stain on, leave it for a moment and wipe it dry. Make sure to use rubber gloves and a mask during the staining process as well.
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    Remember to place all used rags in an approved airtight container. Do not leave them on the bench all bunched up, as spontaneous combustion may cause them to burst into flames! If you do not have a container, lay the rags out flat to dry, preferably outside. Any rags containing solvents are extremely dangerous.
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    Finish: Now your piece is ready for the finish. To keep it simple the best method is a wipe on finish. There are even wipe on polyurethane finishes for optimal protection. Just put the finish on with a soft cloth keeping it wet until it doesn’t seem to want to absorb any more finish, then wipe it dry. Wait 24 hours and then give the piece a light sanding with 320 sandpaper and apply the finish again. You can do this as many times as you wish, but three or four coats should suffice. Start out with a gloss finish and the last coat should be a semi gloss. Your piece is now ready for that special spot in your home.

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Categories: Furniture and Cabinets