Wednesday, October 17, 2012

To Refinish or Not to Refinish...That is the question


                                                              "Help me..."

Aside from the cheesy title, it's a real dilemma sometimes.

I'm an advocate of refurbishing and restoring an antique piece of furniture when necessary. I'm talking about the sea of factory made furniture produced from 1920 to 1950 mahogany, walnut, satinwood and some maple pieces that were made in the Chippendale, French, Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Empire styles. They can be found in most antique shops, malls, and auction houses.
                                                               HANDS OFF!!
Very important: Please know you should almost NEVER refinish, strip, paint sand or touch the original undisturbed finish of a period piece of antique furniture. By stripping off the two hundred years of rich warm, intact patination on a Chippendale chest or Queen Anne highboy, you will effectively destroy the value by up to 90 percent. It will turn a rare $200,000 highboy into a $25,000 piece of used furniture. A $4500, Queen Anne tea table into a $500. shameful topic of conversation. Collectors pay a premium for original unmolested pieces. No matter how compelled you feel to paint that Pennsylvania Dutch chest pink to match your daughter's bedroom, DON'T DO IT without first contacting a professional. Or contact me to talk you out of it. This includes Mission Oak furniture. Leave it alone.

With that said, there are exceptions. Twentieth Century production pieces. The veneered pieces that you buy with chips, peeling tops and drawers, dry lacquer or varnish and covered in scratches. The gently used bedroom and dining sets. Those can only improve the value with a little work. "Little" being the operative word. I have done both.


This is the process of removing the original finish with chemical stripping agents, dipping, or sanding. It takes the piece down to the bare wood leaving it ready for repair, new stain and choice of finish.

It is time consuming, and involves handling toxic, stains, vapors and fumes of chemicals and sprays. You will need gloves, mask, a clean well ventilated work area and storage area while drying. 

Pros: The result is an immaculate, new looking, house ready piece that is easier to sell if done properly. No apologies for the asking price.

Cons: Cost, time consuming, messy, handling of toxic chemicals. Generally this should only be done if the piece is too far gone to do a quick refurbish and you paid very little for it. You will need proper tools including bar clamps, C clamps, wood glues, fill sticks, wood putty along with an assortment of drills, sanders, screws and conventional tools. The list is long.

Refurbish / quick clean up:

I used to set up a the large monthly antique market in Atlanta Georgia. The booths across from me were occupied by a furniture dealer Paul S. I learned more about maximizing profit on furniture from Paul than all the books I've read regarding the subject. He refinished some of his pieces, but most of what he sold was quick cleaned and stained. I would watch him buy structurally sound dressers with beat up finishes for $75.00 to $150.00 at the show, bring them back the next month looking brand new, without completely stripping or refinishing them repriced priced $450.00 to $600.00.

His technique is surprisingly simple on pieces conducive to this method. If they don't need veneer filled or regluing or repairing and only have cosmetic issues such as surface scratches, dry rough surface and/or missing hardware, this is the way to go.

1) Clean piece with Murphy's Oil Soap. Let dry.

2) Can of Minwax matching color of furniture (walnut, mahogany etc.). With a lint free rag, stain entire piece and wipe down with clean rag. Let dry. (I prefer Minwax. You can use stain of your choice.)

3) Seal with lacquer in aerosol spray can. Replace hardware if needed. Done.

                              The finshed product is impressive and much less work. 
(Note: I stay away from furniture polish products that have stain in them. I found they are greasy, slow drying, streaky and uneven and worst of all, will stain clothing permanently. Your buyer won't be thrilled with the smears left on their shirts after loading it in their SUV. Not the best shortcut.)

Pros: Quick, cheap, less work, less mess, higher profit margin.

Cons: Not exactly museum quality finish.

There is still some work involved yet compared to stripping, letting dry, sanding, filling, sanding sealer, staining, let dry, sealing and sanding the final 2 spray coats, the results I found were remarkably similar.

I've sold fully stripped pieces for the exact same amount as the quick cleaned refurbished piece.

No one even noticed that I didn't go to the extra steps. I saved time and money. The quality under close scrutiny is definitely not the same standards but the money and time saved is the huge. Most buyers  understand the piece is "antique" and don't mind a few flaws.

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