Old furniture is worthy of a facelift

By Tom Phelan - ReminderNews
Featured - posted Wed., Aug. 28, 2013
- Contributed Photo

When my wife kept our oval cherry coffee table in hiding after the holidays last year, I decided it was finally time to treat it to a facelift. I really like this piece of furniture. We bought it a long time ago, didn't pay a lot of money for it, but it was good solid wood, and structurally it has stood the test of time and family.

You may have a piece of furniture or two that you feel a little closer to than all the others. You may have come across something in a tag sale or an estate sell-off that caught your attention, but was less than perfect to the eye.

Even if the surface is made of hardwood veneer, consider salvaging the finish. What do you have to lose? If you are going to just make it shiny, and hope for the best price you can get at a tag sale, first give it your own best effort. It's not that hard to do. If there are so many dings, dents and scratches that the entire visible surface needs reclamation, you will need to determine what finish was used on the piece originally (or last) in order to remove it.

Surfaces that look like parched earth can usually be dissolved and recomposed into a hardened finish. For shellac finish, brush on a little alcohol. If your treasured furniture piece is coated with lacquer, use lacquer thinner instead. On varnished surfaces, use a mix of varnish, varnish thinner and linseed oil. Determine if you have a polyurethane finish by one of two tests. Scratch an inconspicuous location. If this produces flakes, the finish is lacquer or wax, while polyurethane produces crumbles of finish. Instead of scratching, test the area with lacquer thinner. If it does not dissolve, the finish is polyurethane.

You will do best to stay with the same finish applied by the maker. Varnish and lacquer finishes can be 'revived,' as indicated earlier. Polyurethane should be sanded lightly, and recoated. If you get down to the bare wood, you can choose almost any finish to suit your fancy. Polyurethane is easy to apply, and is quite durable. Shellac is a good all-purpose finish for most furniture. It’s impervious to oils and most stains, but water will cause it to cloud over, and alcohol will dissolve it. That makes it not a good choice for the top of anything you use frequently. What's more, you can add a little color to the finish. Shellac is available in shades from clear to amber to dark red.

Finishing expert Bob Flexner says you can use steam to raise up most dents in finished wood. Put a drop of water in the dent, and let it soak in a while. Then touch the water droplet with a hot object (soldering iron, tip of a clothes iron) to cause the water to steam, laying a slightly moist towel on the surface and applying heat from the household iron. Steam should swell the wood fibers enough to fill up the void. You can then cool the area by wrapping an ice cube in plastic. Do not let the wood get wet, however.

By the way, there are several easy solutions for those minor blemishes. Using a stain marker is a simple solution for scratches. Find the color that most closely matches the stain color of your furniture. Brush the applicator in the same direction as the scratch, and wipe off the excess with a soft cloth. Take these steps first to give yourself some confidence.

One final bit of advice is in order. If your treasured furniture piece has more than sentimental value, especially if it is a bona fide antique, take it to a professional, who can preserve that value with the proper skill and materials.

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