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Refinishing old furniture
could cost you big bucks
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One word about refinishing antiques is sufficient. Don't. It's not that you can't
physically remove the old finish and put on a new one, the problem is that the old finish,
no matter how dark and ugly, is extremely valuable to antique collectors. The original
finish is part of the provenance, or history of the piece, and therefore can't be removed
without losing the most visible proof of its age.
parts of an antique can be reproduced by experts who professionally repair them for
collectors and museums. The repair and restoration of defects such as, broken legs,
damaged carvings, and missing pulls, or finials are often difficult to detect, even by
other experts. These kinds of repairs do not seriously devalue an important piece and in
some cases, if the piece was badly damaged, the value is greatly improved, but the finish,
Ah the finish, now that's another story. Think about it this way. The finish on the piece
bears the marks of generations of owners who have cared for it. If you scrape away the
finish, the history is gone. Like it or not, much of the value of any antique is in
its rarity, quality, condition, and original finish.
course, this discussion applies only to genuine antiques that are potentially valuable. If
you have a chest that is say, thirty years old and the finish is so badly worn that the
piece is worth very little anyway, then you might just as well go ahead and put a
new finish on it, but before you invest the money and the time, look it over very
carefully. You may discover that the problem is really a matter of removing thirty years worth of dirt and wax. No
matter how much the look of the piece has changed over time, its
appearance can be improved greatly by means other than removing the old finish. Stay tuned
to The Antique Advertiser for more on the subject of cleaning old finishes and in the
meanwhile read the following piece which was written when "gasoline torches"
were "state of the art".
©1998 The Antique Advertiser
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From a book written by Thomas H. Ormsbee and published in
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Cleaning | Feeding | Shellac & Varnish | Paint | Stripping
| Application | Polishing
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 can 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.
Top 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.
Top 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
Top 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 nightstand 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, 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.
Top 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 forms 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 polishing 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.
Top 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. Benzene 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."
Top 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 rise up just enough to catch
and break. Re-gluing loose veneer and replacing missing inlay is delicate work; amateurs
should not attempt it.
Top In washing a piece with either carbon
tetrachloride* or benzene**, 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
tabletop 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.
Top 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.
Top 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.
Top The next step
is what museum curators refer to as "feeding." This can take several weeks, with
long waits in between. By feeding, 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 paintbrush 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.
Top 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
Top 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.
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.
Top 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 syrup 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
Top 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 hairbrush. 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.
Top 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 still stiffer then heavy automobile engine oil, add more turpentine, a
little at a time, and stir thoroughly to get an even consistency.
Top 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.
Top For this polishing, nothing is better
than a piece of white flannel or part of an old lightweight 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.
Top 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 tabletop, 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.
Top 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 re-varnished several times in the course of years, the original
finish underneath is intact. Then, working al- most 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 best known museums to clean a matching Philadelphia highboy and lowboy and bring
back the matchless bloom of their original finish.
Top 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
Top 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.
Top 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 paint-like 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 re-finish 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.***
Top For removing
old finish, two methods are available. The method 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 flammable, 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 benzene** at hand for cleaning
your scraping tools and for rinsing the piece of furniture occasionally as the work
Top 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.
Top 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 benzene** 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.
Top As soon as this occurs, move immediately
to the next spot. Otherwise, the heat will char the wood. When a fair-sized 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
Top 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 stiff- bristled
brush, and pick off stubborn bits of finish with a chisel or knife blade.
Top 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.
Top 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 are. 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.
Top 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. Use 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.
Top 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 that it spreads evenly and none of it remains standing on
Top 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.
Top 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 silky- smooth 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.
Top 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.
Top 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.
* Carbon tetrachloride was found to be a carcinogen in the
60s and is not available today. (The A. A. ed.)
** Benzene and Gasoline are dangerous and are not
recommended as cleaning solvents today. (The A. A. ed.)
*** New England red filler for refinishing furniture is fairly
easy to mix according to Frederick Kelly who is an 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. Kellys 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
painters supplies but the results justify the trouble involved. Substituting either
Venetian or Indian red for it will not result in the same shade and tone." (author)
**** Obviously, we use a propane torch or a heat gun today.
Heat guns are by far the safer and more effective tool for softening coatings and are used
by professionals unless electric power is not available. (The A. A. ed.)
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