Refinishing Antique Furniture – Should I do This?

We owned a furniture refinishing shop for many years and the question we got asked the most was, "Should we refinishing antique furniture....?" This got asked more often after "Antique Roadshow" started saying a certain antique lost 75% of its value because it had been refinished. So everyone didn't want to devalue their own antique.

One of the most important factors is the age of the antique. If your piece was made around the turn of the century, it was most likely mass produced.

So whether you refinish one of these or not is a personal preference. The traditional American oak tables were produced by the hundreds of thousands, so they are never going to be a priceless antique.

If you want it to look like it did when it was first made, then by all means, get it refinished. Now if you have antiques from pre 1850, then you might want to think hard before refinishing them. it is OK to re wax them but you don't want to remove that original patina that only comes through age.

Once you determine that you want to refinish your piece of furniture, what and how do I do it. That will be covered next.

How to Refinish Furniture

Of course the easiest way to refinish a piece of furniture, antique or not, is to take it to a refinishing shop. But if you want to tackle it yourself, how do you do it?

  • First, is the piece painted or not? If it is painted, does it have the original finish under the paint or was it originally painted? Furniture that has been stripped and then painted or furniture that was originally painted is extremely difficult to strip, especially without commercial stripper.
  • Unless you have a lot of patience and don't mind a lot of hard work, consider getting a furniture refinishing shop to strip it for you. They have the strong strippers and the proper equipment to do the job. Paint on raw wood gets deep into the pores of the wood and is really difficult to get stripped completely clean.
  • On the other hand, if a piece has a clear finish, you can probably handle the stripping yourself. Especially for your first project, I strongly suggest you choose a piece with a clear finish unless you hire the stripping done for you. Be sure and read the section on safety.

What Do I Need to Refinish Furniture?

  • After your piece is stripped, we need to get it ready for staining and finishing. The first thing you need to do is sand the piece completely. This, in my opinion, is the most important step. If you don't sand properly and thoroughly, your will never get a good, smooth finish. You need a good electric sander for this. I prefer a 1/4 sheet palm sander for this, but that is my personal choice.
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    Be sure and sand with the grain. Depending on how rough the finish was after stripping, start with sandpaper with a 150 grit, or maybe even 100. Then use a 180 and then 220 grit. You want it to be real smooth to the touch. Don't rush through this step!
  • Now you are ready to apply your stain. To be sure you choose the right stain color, try it out on a place not seen, like the bottom. Sometimes the color you think you will be getting, doesn't look the same once it is applied to the wood. After it is dried, wipe it with a wet cloth to see what it will look like with the clear fininsh. When applying the stain, be liberal with the stain, you don't want streaks. Have a clean cloth (old t-shirts work well) handy to wipe off excess stain and watch for runs. Be sure to give it plenty of time to dry, read the instructions on the can. If it is cold, allow extra time.
  • Next it is time to apply the finishing coats. In our refinishing shop, we used commercial sprayers to apply the finish. A sprayed on finish just gives a better finish than a brushed on finish unless you are a pro. If you are going to do this very often, you will love the finish these sprayers give after a little practice.
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    Before that we used a spray can lacquer. But with all of the problems with people sniffing things to get high, it is getting more difficult to get spray cans that do a good job. But I would try this before using a brush on finish. And I love to use lacquer. It is definitely my finish of choice. We also sprayed a coat of sanding sealer first. This helps seal the wood and is a soft first coat that sands very easily.
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    Then we sprayed two coats of lacquer for the final finish. We sanded between each coat with either 320 or 400 grit sandpaper. We usually used semi gloss unless the customer wanted a little more shine, then we used gloss. You will not be able to get a "mirror" finish without filling the pores, which can be tough for a beginner. We messed this up more than I want to admit. So I wouldn't suggest trying this.

Few Important Safety Factors

  • When refinishing furniture, be sure you are in a room (outside is better) with plenty of ventilation. The fumes and odors form the stripper, stains and finishes can be quite strong. Wear the right protective gloves, goggles, and clothing. Some strippers can be very caustic and will burn your skin and severely damage your eyes if not protected. You think it will never get in my eyes if you are careful, and wearing those goggles is not comfortable, especially when it is hot. It is not worth losing your sight, use goggles.
  • Be sure to close up the cans or bottles when you are finished. If you have a cat, keep them away. It is so frustrating to wait on the last coat to dry and you come in and see cat foot prints across your finished piece. We often had a shop cat in our antique stores. It is frustrating enough to find a hair or something similar. Even flies seem to love to land on a wet finish. I have all of those things happen to me, so you have been warned.
  • Just read all of the warnings on any of the products you use and also use plenty of common sense. This is definitely a case of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Final Thoughts

Please Leave Questions or Comments About refinishing antique furniture. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post, I hope you found it worthwhile. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. I try to answer any questions in a timely manner.

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