We've all done it - found a piece of worn wood furniture at an estate sale or flea market and thought "I'll just refinish this and it will be brilliant".
When you find a piece of wood furniture like this, it's really tempting to pull out your wallet and slide it in the truck. Often times though, we don't realize how much work this may equate to. It may also far exceed the cost of simply buying new (in some cases). There's a handful of things you need to consider before making the choice to refinish wood furniture.
Is it high-quality construction?
This is the most important thing to consider. Wood furniture pieces that endure the ages are a high-quality build. Its hard to find these days in modern furniture design, so you are probably running across these in estate sales or grandma's attic. Know your construction standards.
You'll want to look for signs that the piece was made before 1950, maybe even 1960, but really no later... It was after this time period that particle board and laminate surfaces began cutting corners and cheapening production cost. By today's standard, even furniture that was mass produced on an assembly line in the 1950's would be much sturdier and of a higher quality than today's cheap furniture.
Your find doesn't have to have antique value to be a great vintage piece that will give you years of service, but still, you need to be extra-careful with really old pieces. There are a lot of vintage pieces of wood furniture out there made before the 1850's and attempting to refinish them yourself can really hurt their value. If you find a piece like this and you inevitably want it, consult an expert before starting this project.
Is the piece of wood furniture painted?
Put on your expert eye here. You should be leery of things that are painted - there is usually a reason for that. If a piece of wood furniture had run its course, the owner may have painted it to cover water damage or stains, burns, filled holes, etc. It could ultimately reveal a double-time job and not yield the result you were expecting.
You are probably better off finding something that an old stank on it, like aged dirty varnish that just needs to be stripped off. You can typically see through varnish at what lies beneath - there shouldn't be too many surprises. It's also easy to do with some basics from the hardware store; it should come right off.
Does the piece require re-gluing?
Next up. Give the wood furniture piece the rocking test. Put your hands on it and rock it back and forth, test drawers, look for sway, sit on it, etc. If the piece is not sturdy, you will have to take it apart and re-glue it using clamps. This isn't necessarily everyone's lane, so if you don't have the skill or workspace for that, you'll need to hire a professional woodworker to help with the job.
It does take time to knock a piece of wood furniture apart and completely remove the old glue and start from scratch. If you need to hire an expert to re-glue this piece for you, you can expect to pay a nice penny for it. For example, a chest of three drawers can easily run you $350 - $400.
What will it look like when it's done?
It's really hard to know what the piece of wood furniture will look like once it's refinished. To get an idea of what your piece will look like refinished, find a protected spot where the original wood is visible, such as the back of a solid-wood drawer front, underneath the top surface of a chest of drawers or the backside of a leaf in a drop-leaf table. This is where you can determine if you like the look of the grain and that you understand what color will emerge in the end. Wood that is older will often re-finish much darker than newly milled wood.
Make sure that you like the look of the grain and that you understand what color you’ll come out within the end—old wood often finishes much darker than newly milled wood. Here are the characteristics of several common types of wood on older furniture pieces:
Walnut has a more lively grain than cherry or maple. It is one of the few wood types that can actually get lighter over the years. So the range of tones that you can achieve with stain can be limited by the natural rich brown color.
Cherry is a very smooth wood with a mild grain that can be stained a variety of colors. If the wood furniture piece is 100 years old, however, and you've stripped it, the refinished wood is going to be very dark.
Mahagony is a love it or lose it wood type for many. No matter what you do to it, you are going to expel a reddish color during the refinishing process. It may be brown-red, but in the end, it will be red in appearance. For some, this is defining and unique, elegant and rich. For others, they couldn't imagine it in their home. You decide.
Most pine, regardless of era, would have probably been painted right away. So in this case, it's pretty rare that you'll run across one that you'll want to strip and refinish. But who knows... If you do, you can expect a honey-brown color that is darker than new pine.
Maple pieces made from the 1890's through the 1920's are often a beautiful figured bird’s eye or tiger maple and will have a strong yellow tone if you refinish them. Plain maple from the 1960's, (which was often stained an orangish color) can be stripped and made more modern with a light brown stain.
Oak was the core element of Victorian furniture. "Old" furniture was often made of quarter-sawn oak with a bold flecking in it. When you refinish the type of oak wood furniture, you can get a beautiful old tiger oak grain that appears golden in color. Very royal!
Will the refinishing job be difficult?
If you a DIYer, its all about the process for you, but you need to be prepared for the level of involvement in this project in order to restore a piece of wood furniture to new. Just be on the lookout for a few signs that your project may require extra work, advanced techniques or help from an expert.
- The piece has slats or spindles that are very close together
- Different parts will need different applications.
- It's made from random boards that are not from the same tree.
- It has deeply carved or applied filigree. (Time-consuming...)
The bottom line
Be prepared to walk away. Not every piece you find will be an amazing story of restoration. It could just end up being a tremendous headache and expense. It starts with a time investment into some furniture history, tell-tale signs and some patience in your quest. If you can exercise these things, you'll find your gem in the rough.
If you've acquired a piece but you are not sure what you have, then consult an expert. You may also want to contact professional restoration specialists to help bring it back to life before your journey gets too treacherous.