Antiques: Repairs: Refinishing Furniture


It is well known that many collectors seized with the urge to do their own work start with refinishing and gradually progress to repair work. To the beginner, refinishing looks easy-anyone could do it. just keep applying remover until the old finish has disappeared, rub a little with sandpaper and put on a coat or two of varnish or shellac.

But anyone who tries it usually has his doubts about its being "easy" long before the process of removing the old finish has been completed. If he flounders on and sees the work through, according to his preconceived ideas, the result is likely to be a botched job or a ruined piece.

The collector who wants to do right by his antique furniture should remember that a little goes a long way. The nearer a piece can be kept to its original condition, the better. A complete job, starting with remover, should only be undertaken if the old finish has been worn away, badly damaged or buried beneath subsequent coats of paint or varnish. Then, and only then, is it necessary to get back to the wood and build up a new protective coating.

Granted that much antique furniture is found in such rough condition that complete refinishing is obviously necessary, yet there are pieces where the original finish can be preserved. This is true of mahogany, walnut, maple or cherry antiques with the old varnish finish. It also holds with a considerable group of country-made pieces where the original finish was New England red filler or the distinctive off-shade known as "Amish blue." Even painted furniture, including Windsor chairs, done in various colors or in a brownish shade over which a crude graining was applied, sometimes has enough of its original finish so that restoration rather than refinishing is the answer.

Therefore, study your piece well before operating. If there is a chance of preserving the original finish, take it, and know that you are salvaging a valued indication of genuineness. Moreover, although preserving the original finish takes plenty of time and patience, it does not entail anywhere near as much hard work as removing it and building up the new finish. I know, for I have done both.

At this point, I would suggest to anyone who has never tried restoring or refinishing a piece of furniture that he begin with a simple piece, such as a light stand with tapered legs or a chest of drawers without carving, reeding or inlay. Such pieces are relatively inexpensive and it is better for a beginner to try his hand on such a piece, because the work will be easier and if the results are not all that might be desired, something rare and fine has not been sacrificed. I know of no royal road to the mastery of refinishing furniture. It has to be gained by trial and error.

With a piece that looks as if its original varnish finish might be retained, the first step is to clean it thoroughly. This gets rid of the accumulated dirt and grease that sometimes form such a thick coating as to make it hard to determine whether the wood is mahogany, cherry or the "red" Virginia walnut used by eighteenth-century cabinetmakers. It can also hide the fine lines of inlay. Incidentally, this greasy film is not usually so much the result of bad housekeeping as of repeated polishings with low-grade furniture cosmetics, such as the so-called lemon oil, sold in dime stores. These polishes contain little else than a light oil derived from petroleum and a small percentage of paraffin. These, being mineral products, are never absorbed, but remain on the surface catching dust until the piece eventually achieves a true pancake make-up.

For this cleaning I prefer carbon tetrachloride. It can be bought in gallon containers at most paint stores. I find it dissolves dirt and grease readily, does not soften either varnish or shellac and, being non-inflammable, is safe. Benzine or gasoline that is free of the "anti-knock" compound can also be used, but because of the fire hazard, do this washing out of doors and do not bring the piece indoors for several hours, or until you are sure that all the liquid has evaporated. Less expensive than either is plain soap and water, though it should be used carefully; otherwise it may prove to be a case of "penny wise, pound foolish."

Since water will loosen any glued joint, and also tends to raise the grain of the wood, don't attack the piece as though you were washing Fido. Give it a sponge bath, using as little water as possible and wringing the cloth nearly dry. Never use even that on veneered or inlaid furniture. No matter how carefully done, some of the water is bound to soak through and moisten the glue beneath. It may not be noticeable at the time, but a little later places on the veneered surface begin to bulge or come loose and small pieces of inlay will raise up just enough to catch and break. Regluing loose veneer and replacing missing inlay is delicate work; amateurs should not attempt it.

In washing a piece with either carbon tetrachloride or benzine, use a small stiff-bristled scrub brush on any places where the caked-on dirt and grease cling stubbornly. One of the dry-cleaning compounds, soluble in either of these liquids, is helpful but should be used sparingly. Whichever cleaning agent is used, work carefully and do a. little at a time, especially until you get the hang of it. Make an initial try of a small area that does not show, such as the under side of a table top between the edge and the bed. Its finish will be the same as the rest of the piece and by experimenting there you will know better how to proceed in cleaning the rest of the surface.

After you have finished cleaning the piece, rinse with fresh liquid, wipe with clean rags and set it aside to dry for twenty-four hours. You will be surprised at how much of the old finish was concealed under the dirt and grime.

Now, in a good light, examine your piece carefully. There may be some small spots or minor areas where the old finish is gone or is badly worn, but if most of it is intact, even though dull and somewhat scratched, it can be brought back with nothing more mysterious than raw linseed oil, turpentine and beeswax. Plenty of time, patience and hard rubbing will be needed, but faithful observation of all three will result in a nicely polished piece of furniture with original finish. This speaks more effectively of genuineness than the best refinishing ever can.

The next step is what museum curators refer to as "feeding." This can take several weeks, with long waits in between. By it, the old varnish and wood fibers beneath, which have become dried out through the years, are renewed. Place the piece where it will not have to be moved and where no dust will blow on it. Then, using a clean paint brush from an inch to two inches wide, coat it with the best grade of raw linseed oil you can obtain. But don't overdo it. just stroke on an even coat that completely covers the surfaces but doesn't stand in pools. The place selected for the piece undergoing this treatment should remain at room temperature (68 to 70 degrees) or more, for linseed oil becomes stiff and thick if it gets cold. A place by a sunny window is ideal, as the warmth of the sun helps the oil to penetrate. I know of one man who puts such pieces in a disused flower conservatory. He finds the sunlight materially speeds absorption and improves results.

The linseed oil for this first coat and others that follow may be warmed in a double boiler for better penetration. Wear a pair of leather work gloves, for a spatter of hot oil can cause a bad burn. Stay right with the brew as it heats, for it catches fire easily. Test it several times by dipping the tip of a brush in the oil. It should never be allowed to boil or become hot enough to scorch the brush bristles.

When you have finished giving the piece its initial coat, rebottle and cork the linseed oil and clean the brush thoroughly with turpentine so that the oil will not thicken or the brush become gummy between times. Let the piece stand for several days to a week, until as much of the oil as possible has been absorbed. Then wipe the piece thoroughly with clean soft cloths to remove any excess, which by then will have become slightly sticky. Repaint with a fresh coat of oil. This may have to be done three, four, or even five times with the same periods of rest between. The successive coats will be absorbed more and more slowly. Stop the oil treatment when the last coat does not seem to be absorbed to any extent after it has stood for at least a week. Wipe the piece thoroughly until no trace of oil can be found on the cloth.

During the resting intervals, some underside spot can be tested to discover whether the original finish was varnish or shellac. For this test, saturate a small piece of blotting paper with alcohol. Place it on the test spot and let it remain there for a few minutes. If the finish was shellac, the alcohol will have softened it and some will adhere to the paper; if varnish, the alcohol will have no effect. With this information, you know what to use in touching up any spots, small worn places or pronounced scratches. Ordinary series of fine scratches are not noticeable enough to be considered, and will be taken care of in the final polishing.

With an old varnish finish, touch up the worn places with a fine grade of new. That known as violin maker's varnish is expensive but produces the best results. Thin it to about the consistency of pancake sirup and apply lightly with a small badger-hair brush to the places where the old finish is missing. A day or so later, when such spotting is thoroughly dry, remove any brush marks from the new varnish and dull it slightly with the finest grade of powdered emery or pumice stone. A good method is to use the tip of a finger or a small cork, first moistened with very light lubricating oil and then lightly dusted with the abrasive. Work very gently, for the purpose is to remove brush marks and "kill" the high gloss of the patching varnish. Such touching may have to be repeated once or twice until spots so treated are not noticeable.

If the test has shown that the original finish was shellac, use either orange or white shellac for spotting, depending on whether the surrounding surface is very clear or has a slight nut-brown cast. Cut the shellac with about a quarter as much alcohol, and apply it deftly with a small hair brush. Two or three coats will be necessary, and each one when thoroughly dry should be smoothed slightly with 0000 sandpaper to remove brush marks and surface gloss, just as with varnish spotting.

The final step is polishing the entire piece. There are a number of good prepared waxes that can be bought in paint and hardware stores, but I prefer to make my own, using beeswax and turpentine. I consider it better and know it is less expensive. A quart of it will polish a good many pieces of furniture. Shave a pound cake of beeswax in fine pieces with a heavy knife or wide chisel. Put it in a wide-mouthed glass jar or kitchen bowl. Add about half as much turpentine; cover and place in a sunny spot until the warmth has melted the wax. Then if it is stiffer than average heavy automobile engine oil, add more turpentine, a little at a time, and stir thoroughly to get an even consistency.

With the mixture still warm and liquid, apply very lightly. Let the piece stand in a cool but not cold place, out of direct sunlight, for a day or more until the wax is almost hard. Then, with pieces of light stiff cardboard (I use discarded playing cards), remove as much wax as possible and return it to the jar to be stirred into the mixture and used again. Follow by quite vigorous but not heavy-handed rubbing with clean cloths until no trace of the wax comes off on the cloth.

For this polishing, nothing is better than a piece of white flannel or part of an old light-weight woolen blanket. Whether cotton, linen or woolen cloths are used, be sure that they are free from dust. Fine gritty particles are apt to leave scratches that mar the finish. For a satin-smooth polish, use relatively little wax and plenty of elbow grease. There are circular fabric polishing attachments on the market designed for use with small electric portable drills. If handled carefully, one of these can shorten the time required to get a proper polish. But if too much pressure is used, such a device will do more harm than good, so I prefer the all-hand method, even though it takes longer and is harder work.

Waxing may have to be repeated a second or even a third time to achieve a truly fine polish, but once a piece is finished, a light polishing once or twice a year will keep it in first-rate condition. Also, if water or other liquid is spilled on a surface so treated, such as a table top, the fine film of wax protects it from damage and telltale white spots. As far as I know, there are no short cuts or time savers that can be employed, except the dubious one of a power-driven polishing tool already mentioned. The work is slow and at times distinctly tedious, but the results are worth it.

The all-hand method is the one followed by the large museums in preparing a new acquisition for display. Such a piece may remain in the museum's furniture workshop for months. Sometimes the technicians find that although it has been revarnished several times in the course of years, the original finish underneath is intact. Then, working almost in the manner of a painting restorer and taking a very small space at a time, later layers of varnish are lifted off with bits of absorbent cotton moistened in solvent. After this has been accomplished, the process of oil "feeding" is begun. It is because of such extreme care that many of the pieces in large museum collections look almost as fresh as the day they were delivered to their original owners by the craftsmen who made them. Close to a year was required by one of our bestknown museums to clean a matching Philadelphia highboy and lowboy and bring back the matchless bloom of their original finish.

For a piece on which original painted finish is to be restored, the process is the same as with a varnish or shellac finish, except that the spotting is, of course, done with paint, carefully mixed to match the original.

With antique furniture, where the finish is beyond hope, which is frequently the case with tables that were relegated to the kitchen or were "modernized" at various times with one or more coats of paint, the only course of action is to strip off what is left of the old finish or later paint.

Start by making a test at some inconspicuous place so that you may know what the conditions are. What is the wood? Is it a veneered piece? Is it decorated with inlay? It is important to know as much as possible about the conditions that face you. Then adapt your methods to meet them. For instance, if it is an early tavern table with pine top, a steel scraper should be used very sparingly. It is too apt to bite into such soft wood and destroy the time-mellowed patina of the surface. If it is a veneered or inlaid piece, using one of the home-concocted remover solutions of lye, soap powder, ammonia and water would be fatal. If the piece is of curly or birds-eye maple or other fancy-grained wood, there is hard work ahead in removing the old finish from such irregular texture. If the piece was originally covered with the red paintlike mixture known as New England filler, removing all traces of it will be a big undertaking. It was put on boiling hot, and consequently struck deep into the pores of the wood. Sometimes, with coarser grained woods, it penetrated as much as a sixteenth of an inch. Under such conditions, it is better to refinish with a paint that approximates the tone of the old New England red rather than to try to "bring it up" in natural wood color.*

For removing old finish, two methods are available. That usually followed is to use one of the prepared removers that can be bought at paint or hardware stores. All contain fairly quick-acting substances that soften paint or varnish so that it can be wiped off with cloths or scraped off with a putty knife or steel scraper. If the piece, as too often happens, has several layers of varnish or paint, or a combination of both, you may have to brush on the liquid remover several times. In using any remover, read the directions on the can and follow them closely. Most of them are inflammable, so do not smoke as you work. Also, since most removers evaporate quickly and give off fumes that can make the eyes smart or bring on a headache, don't work without plenty of fresh air. Have at least one window open, or better still, do the work out of doors. As a further precaution, protect the eyes with driving goggles against a chance spatter, and wear rubber gloves and a work shirt with long sleeves, since some removers can cause an uncomfortable burn. It is also a good idea to have a can of benzine at hand for cleaning your scraping tools and for rinsing the piece of furniture occasionally as the work progresses.

As the reader may have inferred, I do not especially enjoy using prepared remover, but when veneered or inlay-decorated furniture must be stripped, I know of no other method. For pieces made of solid wood, I prefer the one painters have followed for years-that is, remove the old finish by burning. Use a small gasoline torch to "fry" the old finish so that it can be peeled off readily with a putty knife. It is not difficult to learn how to handle one of these torches, and if one works carefully old paint or varnish can be removed without scorching or charring the wood beneath.

If you have never used such a torch, practice on a piece of discarded furniture until you have learned the knack of working with one. If possible, get the smallest size-one-pint capacity. Larger sizes are heavy and hard to handle. Use either benzine or untreated gasoline for fuel. Never use automobile gasoline. Its "anti-knock" ingredient fouls the torch burner and extinguishes the flame. By sweeping the surface of the piece a little at a time with the flame, paint or varnish will soften and begin to bubble about like syrup dropped on a hot griddle.

As soon as this occurs, move immediately to the next spot. Otherwise, the heat will char the wood. When a fairsized area has been so treated, remove the burned coating with a putty knife or scraper. Stubborn spots may need to be touched again with the flame, but this should be done cautiously, lest the surrounding wood be scorched. A safer way is to attack such spots with a well-sharpened scraper.

In using a burning torch, don't apply the flame directly to a glued joint. Its heat can quickly bake the life out of the glue and loosen the joint. Also, keep it away from direct contact with hinges or other bits of metal. The latter absorbs the heat much faster than wood, and either a warped hinge or scorched wood can result. One more don't-never use a burning torch on wood carving, fine reeding or delicate moldings. Clean these with liquid remover and a small stiffbristled brush, and pick off stubborn bits of finish with a chisel or knife blade.

Having cleared away the old finish, either with remover or torch, the next step is to make all surfaces smooth. This also rids them of any traces of old finish that may remain. A good scraper is needed for such work. Most hardware stores sell small block scrapers with replaceable blades. These have just enough curve so that the ends of the blade do not gouge into the wood. I have found such tools much easier to use than the older pieces of saw steel. Also, when a blade becomes dull it can be replaced quickly.

In scraping, do not dig in and rip off ribbons of wood. With them go all the mellowness of age. Scrape lightly, and remember that some woods are softer than others. When all surfaces seem to be reasonably smooth, the scraper can be laid aside in favor of either sandpaper or bats of steel wool. Whichever is used, have an ample supply, ranging from slightly coarse to the finest. I have found that excellent results can be achieved with a combination of both, alternating as the immediate situation requires. Use coarser grades sparingly for the rough spots, then shift to the finer ones, and finish with 0000 sandpaper or grade zero steel wool.

When all surfaces feel satin-smooth, the piece is ready for its new finish. Shellac is used for pieces in the natural color of wood; paint, when New England red filler, old Amish blue of Pennsylvania Dutch provenance, or the dull bottle green of old Windsors is to be simulated. Here it should be stated emphatically that one of the chief secrets of a smooth surface is several thin coats.

For either shellac or paint, have the solution thin enough so that it flows readily from the brush. Orange shellac is used for most furniture finished in the natural color, but white shellac is best for maple or other light-colored woods. Add a quarter as much alcohol by volume to the shellac, so that its consistency is about that of thin salad oil. Dust the piece thoroughly, as well as the place where the work is to be done, before starting to apply the shellac. Be sure your brush is clean, free from loose bristles and absolutely dry. A brush two to three inches wide is about right for most furniture. With even, straight strokes, all in the same direction, apply the shellac so it spreads evenly and none of it remains standing on the surface.

For good results, work quickly. When finished, let the piece dry for a day; then give it a light sanding with 0000 paper to remove any traces of brush strokes. Repeat for at least three coats. Five may be needed if the pores of the wood require that many before they are thoroughly closed. Be sure to follow each coat with light sanding, and add more alcohol if the shellac thickens even slightly. After the final coat is dry, the sandpaper should be moistened with kerosene or other very light oil. This reduces its cutting capacity, so that this last sanding is in the nature of a gentle buffing. Apply no pressure. The oil-moistened sandpaper should practically glide over the surface. Then wipe the piece thoroughly to remove every trace of oil, and a satin-like finish now emerges.

For a paint instead of a shellac finish, the work proceeds in much the same way. After the paint has been mixed and tried out for correctness of shade on an old piece of wood, not on new lumber or cardboard, be sure it is thin enough so it will flow easily and spread evenly. If too thick add turpentine, about a tablespoonful at a time, until the consistency is right. With a clean dry brush, using the same straight parallel strokes, apply the first coat. Let it dry thoroughly. Remember paint is much slower in drying than shellac. Give this first coat the same light sanding with 0000 paper and follow with at least two more coats, each carefully sanded. Finish with the oil-moistened sandpaper and the result will be a silkysmooth surface with no noticeable gloss. If a high gloss, approaching that of an automobile body, is wanted (but I advise against it), it can be achieved by a single coat of clear spar varnish kept nearly as thin as the paint.

Sometimes, with painted furniture, such as a stenciled Hitchcock chair or Boston rocker, after the decorative detail has been retouched the entire surface may be given a coat or two of thin white shellac or clear spar varnish. This preserves the original finish and does not change the color tones beneath it. Here again, each coat should be sanded lightly.

After such refinishing, a light coat of wax does no harm to any piece of antique furniture. It is hardly necessary to go to the extreme of painting the wax on, removing the excess and then polishing. Enough wax for this purpose is still on cloths already used for the process described earlier. What is important is to take time enough and rub hard enough so that this very slight film of wax will be evenly distributed.

*New England red filler for refinishing furniture is fairly easy to mix according to J. Frederick Kelly, authority on Connecticut colonial architecture. The pigment to be used is Spanish brown, a natural earth oxide of a brownish-red color that has been mined in Spain for centuries and widely used by Americans all through the colonial period.

Mr. Kelly's directions as published in Old Time New England for October, 1943, are: "Mix the pigment with enough raw linseed oil to make a thin, creamy paste, and allow to soak for several days. Then add, for each pound of pigment, one ounce of brown japan drier, and add enough turpentine to make a quart. Stir thoroughly before using, and from time to time during use as the pigment is heavy and inclined to settle in the thin vehicle."

This Spanish brown is not as widely used as formerly and can only be obtained from dealers handling a wide variety of painter's supplies but the results justify the trouble envolved. Substituting either Venetian or Indian red for it will not result in the same shade and tone.

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