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    How to Revive an Old Furniture Finish

    Stripping and refinishing a piece of furniture is a nasty job. Harsh chemicals, hours of tough work, and no guarantee of the outcome mean that perhaps refinishing should be used as a last resort for hopeless pieces. Case in point: the chest of drawers in my bedroom. Built in the 1930's, my humble mahogany chest has been scratched, dinged, and just generally abused over the course of the past eight decades, but the finish isn't so far gone as to require a complete stripping down to the bare wood.

    Most of the factory-made furniture built in the 20th century was finished using lacquer. You can test your own pieces by rubbing a bit of lacquer thinner on an unobtrusive area. If the finish comes away, you're dealing with lacquer.If it doesn't, try the same test using denatured alcohol. If the finish rubs away in this case, you've got a shellac finish. In either case, here's a simple way to rejuvenate a worn out furniture finish. This is a tried-and-true method practiced by finishing pro Jeff Jewitt.

    Remove Wax and Grease

    Paint thinner removes residual wax polish.

    Remove paste wax with mineral spiritsBegin by removing any loose dust on the surface. Next, use a textured rag such as terrycloth to remove any built-up wax or lemon oil. Jewitt dips the cloth in mineral spirits and then rubs the surface in small circles, paying special attention to small crevices and corners that often contain lots of built up wax and grime. Don't forget to remove drawer hardware and other items that might get in the way during the rejunvenation process.


    Clean the Surface

    No need for specialized cleaners. Dish detergent does the trick.

    Clean old furniture using dish detergentWith the accumulated wax removed, now you can get down to actually cleaning the surface of your furniture. Dilute about 1/2-oz. of dish detergent in a pint of lukewarm water. Dish detergent usually contains grease-cutting chemicals known as surfactants that do a great job of cutting through grime. Just be sure to wring out your cloth well (you don't want a dripping wet rag) and change the cloth frequently. When you're done, wipe the surface one more time, using some distilled water to remove any soap residue.

    Sand it Smooth

    Level the surface with a light sanding.

    Sanding a lacquer or shellac finishReviving a shellac or lacquer-based finish is much easier than working on an oil finish, becuase you don't have to add any finish. It's a lot easier to level what is already there than to try brushing on a new, level coat. Once you've completed the cleaning process, dry-sand the finish lightly with P600-grit stearated sandpaper. If the finish is slightly crazed (rough and cracked), you might try sanding it back as much as you can without sanding through the stain to the bare wood. Be careful however, older pieces like my chest of drawers are often built using veneer, which is easy to sand through!

    Retouch Missing Color

    Mix your own custom colors for perfect touch-ups.

    Use furniture pigments to mix a custom shellac for touch-upsIf the piece was originally dyed or stained, you may have to retouch scrapes and dings with new color. Jewitt mixes dry furniture pigments with a dewaxed shellac called SealCoat (available at most hardware stores). The edges of a piece are often the most worn. Jewitt mixes the pigment with shellac and then uses a number 4 artist's brush to lay it on over heavily worn areas. The alcohol-based shellac will dry super-fast, allowing you to proceed to the next step within about an hour.

    Finish with Wax

    Add color and luster with a tinted paste wax.

    waxing furnitureThe final step in the process is wax. Be sure to use a tinted wax (in this case dark brown) that blends with the piece's natural color. Apply a coat of paste wax, allow it to glaze over (about 2 minutes), and then buff it clean. The wax will leave a bit of luster to the furniture.