Home Improvement Published April 06, 2011 By Mauri Wills
Refinishing Wood: Simple Touchups You Can Live With

Refinishing furniture is an art, but with simple, cost-effective methods you can make many old pieces of furniture glow like new.

Furniture finishes—from varnish to tung oil—bring out the beauty in wood. At the same time, finish on wood protects furniture from deteriorating and falling apart. Often just by cleaning a surface or touching up a damaged section, you can restore even dilapidated looking pieces. But when old finish is peeling or damaged, it’s time to do a thorough refinish by stripping layers away and applying a new finish.

The extent of your refinishing will vary with each unique piece—depending on its value, the particular type of finish and the final look you want.

Evaluate Before You Refinish
Before you clean or strip away old finish, make sure you are not ruining the integrity of the piece. A common myth is that refinishing furniture automatically diminishes its value. But unless you have a rare or well-preserved high-end piece, refinishing or restoration usually adds to its perceived value—when done well.

Leaving inferior finishes on most standard antiques and older pieces only exposes them to greater damage and warping from moisture, sun, dirt, stains and scratches. Old furniture, which has taken everyday abuse, can be refinished or repainted according to your taste and imagination.

Finishes, whether shellac, lacquer or varnish, can all become brittle over time, cracking and peeling. You can sometimes restore a shellac or lacquer finish by redissolving it with a solvent and re-smoothing the surface. Varnish, which is tougher, is harder to restore, but imperfections like scratches and marks are easy to hide with touchups.

With quality products and care, you can restore an old heirloom or turn a find from the dump into a treasure. For the health of you and your wood, use the least toxic products—like water-based, low or zero VOC (volatile oil compound) stains and paints. There are a myriad of traditional and innovative green products you can use for cleaning, stripping and protecting wood.

Try Cleaning First to Restore Old Finish
Cleaning or a coating of finish is sometimes all a table or chair needs to look new again.

Use a mild liquid detergent solution or orange oil to cut through grime without harming the wood. Wipe with the grain using a soft cloth.

If the finish still looks hazy or murky after mild cleaning, try a rougher cloth with a little elbow grease. Or try applying a solvent, like mineral spirits or turpentine. Denatured alcohol works well on varnish or lacquer finishes, but not on shellac, which is less durable.

If cleaning works to rejuvenate the wood surface, you can add a layer of new finish or a polish with a beeswax or olive oil-lemon combination.

Strip Old Layers Away if Finish is Too Far Gone
A quality furniture stripper will remove old finish or several layers of paint.

Nontoxic water-based paint strippers are highly effective, while non-damaging to wood and safe for your health and the environment. They are biodegradable, odor-free and contain no methylene chloride, caustics or hazardous toxins.

Even low-VOC products can contain chemicals, so apply products with gloves in a well-ventilated area.

Use a plastic or metal scraper with rounded corners—pushing away rather than toward you, to remove layers without harming furniture. For removing layers from curves and hard-to-get-to crevices, use a soft bristle brush. To help further remove stubborn residue, apply lacquer thinner lightly with steel wool. Wipe smooth with a tack cloth.

Stain or Paint on New Surface
Before staining or painting, smooth the newly unfinished surface with sandpaper. Use light grit sandpaper with care not to damage the wood.

Apply stain or paint made with low or zero-VOC ingredients. Products made from natural raw pigments and seed oils feed the wood without harming it, you or the environment.

ReFinish Clean Dry Surface
Finishes come in a wide selection of time-proven, nontoxic ingredients, from waxes to lacquers. Choose products without petroleum thinners or heavy metal dryers.

Applying layers of finish evenly, while gauging drying time, can require patience—but the results are long lasting. Depending on the finish you choose, consult with a professional for best results.

Waxes, like beeswax or Briwax, offer the least protective finish, but help keep wood sealed when reapplied every few months. Products combining beeswax with linseed oil make for a more protective, lustrous finish.

Products made with linseed oil combined with varnish—a natural resin—are a highly durable finish.

Tung oil, made from Chinese tung tree seeds, is a longtime favorite among antique refinishers. Applied in several layers with a cloth, it forms a tough hard finish and penetrates wood grain for richly enhancing color. The more layers you apply, the better. Every few months, clean the wood surface and reapply another layer or two of tung oil to get the most life out of your furniture.

For a high-end more formal glossy finish, apply tung oil mixed with a gloss varnish.

Many refinishing pros prefer lacquer, a material made from a Chinese tree sap, more often sprayed on. Applied in several layers with sanding techniques, lacquer is highly durable with many possible gloss effects.

If you are unclear on which finish to use on your furniture, consult with a professional. At the least, use a good wax or tung oil to protect the wood.

Enjoy Your Unique Refinish
Whether you are showing a house or living in it, furniture is part of the function and finish of your décor. You can often transform an old piece of furniture even without fumes, newspapers and peelings. Natural cleaners and oils can resuscitate old wood finishes, turning drab pieces into showpieces.

If you refinish a piece of furniture, whether with stain or paint, use quality products along with your imagination. Follow the directions and enjoy a professional finish.

QUICK TIPS

  • Furniture finishes—from varnish to tung oil—bring out the beauty in wood and protect furniture from deteriorating and falling apart.
  • Cleaning or a coating of finish is sometimes all a table or chair needs to look new again.
  • When old finish is peeling or damaged, it’s time to do a thorough refinish.
  • The extent of your refinishing will vary with each unique piece.
  • Unless you have a rare or well-preserved high-end piece, refinishing or restoration usually adds to its perceived value when done well.
  • Leaving inferior finishes on most standard antiques and older pieces only exposes them to greater damage.
  • You can sometimes restore a shellac or lacquer finish by redissolving it with a solvent and re-smoothing the surface.
  • There are a myriad of traditional and innovative green products you can use for cleaning, stripping and protecting wood.
  • Use a mild liquid detergent solution or orange oil to cut through grime without harming the wood.
  • Nontoxic water-based paint strippers are highly effective, while non-damaging to wood.
  • To strip wood, use a plastic or metal scraper with rounded corners—pushing away rather than toward you, to remove layers without harming furniture.
  • Use light grit sandpaper to sand with care and not cause damage to the wood.
  • Finishes come in a wide selection of time-proven, nontoxic ingredients, from waxes to lacquers.
  • Tung oil, made from Chinese tung tree seeds, is a longtime favorite finish among antique refinishers.
  • Many professional refinishers prefer lacquer, a material made from a Chinese tree sap.
  • Depending on the furniture refinishing you choose, consult with a professional for best results.

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About Author

Mauri Wills is a modern-day Renaissance man with extensive experience in a variety of areas. His broad range of knowledge is truly an asset to the National Fix and Flip Network.


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