Antique Furniture Restoration Tips

August 18th, 2010 by

You’ve just brought home a piece of antique furniture and underneath a bit of grime or an ugly coat of paint, you recognize an item that may be valuable, or beautiful, or possibly both. What do you do next?

Will a simple cleaning and restoration suffice? Or would you prefer a complete refinish?  How can you decide?

The First Step: A Closer Look.

Examine the piece carefully for clues about its origins. Search every surface for anything that looks like a signature or manufacturer’s label. If the piece isn’t antique it may still be valuable, and we’ve all seen episodes of Antiques Roadshow featuring refinished American masterpieces that should have been allowed to retain their original patina.

If you find a mark that you aren’t able to interpret, take the piece to a local museum curator for an expert opinion before you do anything to the finish.

Next: Cleaning.

Clean the piece thoroughly and gently using water and a bit of oil soap. Cleaning alone may bring a beautiful piece of antique furniture back to life. Add a little glue to the loose joints and replace the brass fixtures and this may be enough to win over a skeptical spouse and help the new-old furniture find welcome in your home.

Stripping the Old Finish Off

If you’ve decided to go forward with a refinish, your best and safest option is have the work done by an antique restoration professional. But if you’re comfortable with the risk and have the tools and a ventilated space in which to work, few DIY projects are as satisfying as this one.

Some Notes About Strippers

Furniture strippers are highly toxic to breathe and should not be allowed to come in contact with skin. Methylene chloride based strippers work the fastest, but are also the most dangerous. Gel strippers are a safer and slower alternative, but neither of these options can really be considered “safe.” Work outdoors if possible, wear gloves, and dispose of any rags or stripper-soaked items outside since they’re highly flammable and can spontaneously combust. Always read and adhere to package directions.

Furniture strippers develop a waxy skin when exposed to air. This keeps the product from evaporating before it can sink into the wood. So if you’re trying to remove a thick coat of paint, apply one generous layer of stripper—don’t keep brushing or you’ll break the skin and allow the product to evaporate.

Then let the stripper work. Be patient. Before it dries, test with a plastic scraper to see if the old paint is ready to come off. If you wait too long and the stripper dries out, just apply another coat.

When you’ve tested a section and the old finish comes off easily, go forward and scrape all of it off. For hard-to-reach grooves and spindles, use a piece of string or a toothpick to work the old finish away. You can go back and reapply stripper to any stubborn patches.

After the entire piece of antique furniture is stripped, clean it with denatured alcohol and let it stand for at least twenty-four hours.

The New Finish

After that, you’re ready to sand the piece, prime it, and apply a new finish or coat of paint. Research historically appropriate finishes or paint colors if you like. Otherwise you may want to match the new finish to another piece of furniture or an existing room in your home.

Remember: just like furniture stripper, varnishes and paints are toxic and should always be used in areas with good ventilation. Read the package carefully for safety warnings, disposal rules and application instructions.

By Erin Sweeney