How to do up old furniture?

Attic24: New-Old Furniture

Heading for an auction or thrift shop? While you're there, take a second look at those old tables, chests, and whatever shoved back in odd corners . . . and don't be overly turned off by ugly paint or varnish. What's under the surface may be a quality piece of furniture that will make a fine addition to your own home or which can be a welcome source of extra cash.

Often, the difference between junk store dust catcher and collector's item is just one simple step: refinishing. I've put some time into learning this skill and find it very useful and profitable. My house is full of old furniture which I bought for next to nothing and made beautiful at low cost . . . and down in the basement right now is a piece which set me back $90.00 and should sell easily for over $300 when I've finished with it. The work isn't exactly fun, I'll admit, but now that I've perfected my methods I do find this home business to be truly absorbing and rewarding.

My first and most important piece of advice to anyone who wants to copy my success is, "Forget all the refinishing guides you may have read." Most such directions make impossible demands on your time and money. A perfect high-gloss finish, for instance, is difficult to apply and a waste of effort. The same goes for the majority of "grain fillers" and sealers. Ditto for oil finishes, which are fragile. Forget all that and let me tell you about my favorite method of how to restore old wooden furniture . . . a quicker, less expensive technique that lets beautiful old wood look like beautiful old wood.

Your Stock in Trade

What you want to look for in secondhand furniture is good wood hiding under layers of badly applied paint or varnish. The more thoroughly its quality is concealed, the more valuable the piece will be when you're done. Many smaller items, and almost anything that is lightly finished, will be bid out of sight . . . so your best bets are the big gummed-up uglies.

Material, construction, and general appearance of old furniture are more important than detail or present state. I've even bought pieces that were failing apart, as long as the wood wasn't cracked and the joints themselves — as distinct from their shaky fastenings — were in decent shape.

Look at undersides, chipped places, etc., to find out what the wood's like, and don't be fooled by veneers (they peel and split and bleed, and pieces so covered aren't worth much at best unless they're unusual for some reason). The following are my favorite materials, listed in order of preference: oak, walnut (even though it may streak in finishing), pine, maple, and birch. Mahogany bleeds badly and is very soft. Other woods may be OK for all I know, but you're not likely to run into them.

Furniture Restoration Shop and Tools

First, you'll need a place to work that is decently lighted and ventilated . . . away from fire, kids, and livestock. An old shed is fine as long as you don't care about the floor. (Paint stripper not only eats straight through any finish but also devours newspapers, cardboard, and plastic.)

You'll be using a lot of semi-paste stripper and a little of the liquid type. Avoid "wash-off" products . . . they're messy and can ruin furniture. Also steer clear of homemade brews, which work but are often more dangerous than commercial caustics and may be harmful to wood. Keep in mind that any paint remover is mean stuff. . . and treat it accordingly.

The varnishes you buy should be high-gloss polyurethane or epoxy only, since they're the most durable and easiest to use. You'll certainly regret any flirtations with cheap dime-store finish or "varnish stain". I'd avoid "antiquing", too. It's a bad trip when put on nice-looking wood, and if a surface is damaged I'd rather cover it with oil paint applied over heavy primer.

What about stain? Most old wood doesn't need it . . . but if you do buy such a product, be sure it's compatible with the varnish you use. Ask the man at the paint store (and be sure it is a paint — not a dime or hardware — store, if you have a choice of dealers).

The following is a list of necessary tools, roughly in order of use:

[1] Goggles. Always, I mean ALWAYS, wear them . . . and long-sleeved work clothes.

[2] Cloth gloves. I haven't found any rubber or plastic that really stops paint stripper. Leather is also useless.

[3] Hand cream, to be applied before you put your gloves on and after you wash up. If you skip this precaution, your skin will keep you awake at night.

[4] One large, flat, and dull metal scraper (like a pancake turner or spatula), and many smaller homemade wooden ones.

[5] A goo bucket to catch all the mess, even if you don't care about the floor of your work area.

[6] A small wooden brush with fine stiff bristles (for use with wet stripper).

[7] A toothbrush (to clean dry surfaces only).

[8] No. 2 and No. 0000 steel wool.

[9] Rags and string, for cleaning up and improvising clamps as needed on glued joints. Also a lintless cloth, if you can find one, for the application of varnish.

[10] Glue. White glue is easy to use, but almost any kind will work. Forget hide glue, though, and be wary of high-solvent adhesives which can stain or mar a finish.

[11] Screws, etc., as needed.

[12] Other tools? There's just one rule: Don't buy anything expensive unless you're sure you want to go in that deep.

Finally, the most important tool of all . . . the one you'll need the most of: patience. All the way through every job, work gently (lovingly, if you can).

Preparation of Furniture

Disassemble the table or whatever as much as you can by gentle means. If its joints and screws are solid, that's fine . . . don't maul them trying to get them apart. Any fastenings that are at all loose should be undone. Old glue, etc., can then be cleaned out, and the parts left separated until the refinishing is complete.

Stripping Wooden Furniture

First of all, wash an inconspicuous part of a piece with soapy water to see what comes off. Sometimes "black paint" turns out to be only water stain, and you're home free. (Never wet bare wood, though, or you'll raise the grain.)

No luck with the water treatment? Then flow on semi-paste stripper, heavily but gently, with a rag swab. Wait an hour . . . and when the chemical has raised the paint, push off the coating (large areas first and details later). Please note: I said "push", not "scrape". The object is to remove the paint without hurting the wood. Use as little pressure as possible, rather than trying to force off the softened gunk. The stripper is the real tool, the scrapers only extensions of your hands.


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