A new finish for tired-looking furniture

By Tom Phelan - Staff Writer
Feature Article - posted Fri., Feb. 18, 2011
A new finish for tired-looking furniture

There are only so many work-around techniques you can use to avoid replacing or refinishing wood furniture in your home. And you can only move the doilies, runners and glassware into different configurations so many times. Like you, your furniture is getting old, and, like your body, it might need some maintenance, instead of cover-up.

You won’t be able to make it look showroom new, but you can get it to look like a well-preserved piece of fine furniture. Don’t look at it as a tear-down and build-up project, however. Take a good look at the distressed finish on that cherished piece of furniture before you rev up the orbital sander. You may get off easier than you think. 

Many minor blemishes on your furniture have quick and easy solutions. If the top surface of your piece is scratched, using a stain marker is a simple solution. You only need to find the color that is closest to the stain of your furniture. Carefully brush on the coloring with the applicator tip, moving along the length of the scratch. Wipe off the excess using a soft cloth.

If you need to make a small hole or deep scratch go away, look in your woodworking or home store for something that looks like a marking pencil. The crayon-like material is waxy and soft enough to rub into a deep groove or hole. It can be blended with the surface, and the excess can be rubbed away. This is a bit of a TLC exercise. So take your time, and repeat the process, if necessary.

Dents in wood can be brought back from the deep by laying a lightly-moistened towel over the surface, and briefly applying the laundry iron. The steam from the iron will swell the fibers of the wood enough to raise them up. When it looks right, wrap an ice cube in a piece of plastic wrap, and slide it across the area you just heated up. Be very careful that you don’t let the wood get wet.

Very old furniture that has had to endure lack of proper care and variations in temperature and moisture in the air tend to take on the look of an alligator’s skin. This is because the finish coat has dried up enough to separate into little islands of finish. But you can probably re-blend the finish by dissolving it so that it hardens to a smooth coat again. You will need to determine if your finish is shellac or lacquer. For shellac, brush on some denatured alcohol. If the topcoat is lacquer, use lacquer thinner instead. Varnished surfaces are a bit more complex. They require a mix of varnish, varnish thinner and linseed oil.

Toothpaste, cigarette ash or auto polish are good sources of abrasives that can be used to remove some white rings and other surface stains. Apply the abrasives in light household oil on a soft cloth.

Shellac is a good all-purpose finishing topcoat for most furniture in the event that you have to refinish the entire surface. Shellac is inexpensive, as well as being easy to apply. It is available in varying shades, from clear to amber to dark red. You will find liquid shellac on the shelf at your hardware or paint store, but pros and DIYers in the know mix their own, combining shellac flakes and denatured alcohol. Mixing allows you to control the concentration, or ‘cuts,’ of shellac being applied. Shellac is generally durable, and unlike the ever-popular polyurethane, you can repair it pretty simply. If you need to remove it to put on a fresh finish, it will come off with denatured alcohol. It’s impervious to oils and most stains, but water will cause it to cloud over, and alcohol will dissolve it. It is probably not a good choice for the top of your frequently-used kitchen table.

The ideas discussed here only will give you an idea of the possible remedies and a feel for the complexity of certain solutions. Do your own research to get enough detail on the solution you think will work for your furniture. By all means, take adequate precautions with any materials you choose, and think about getting a professional to work on a valuable antique.



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