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Furniture Restoration Tips and Advice

Learn furniture restoration and refinishing tips and advice from Alan Karzen of Karzen Restoration. Alan's decades of antique and furniture restoration experience gives you the benefit of expert advice. Don't ruin your family heirloom.... ask Alan for advice and get it right from the start.

Restoring, refinishing; what’s the difference? I want my furniture to look good

Alan Karzen - Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Restoring furniture or refinishing furniture – it’s all the same, right? Actually, that’s not correct. The two are distinctly different processes. Yes, both can start with making old furniture look better. Whether refinishing or restoring, you want your furniture to look, if not new again, at least good again with all the warmth and charm you had come to expect of it. Or, maybe you’ve just purchased an old piece needs a little tender-loving care.

You might say the biggest difference between the two is that, with refinishing old furniture, you’re starting from scratch. With restoring old furniture, you’re working with what you’ve got, trying to make it better.

  • Refinishing: With refinishing, generally speaking, the old finish comes off. This means sanding or otherwise removing the paint and whatever varnish was on top of it. You’ll probably use methylene chloride. After stripping, the wood needs sanding. This reduces scratches or imperfections. Starting with 180-grit and then using 220-grit sandpaper works best. At that point, you’ll have a nice, smooth texture on the wood.

    While you can sand the surface down to reduce any scratches or imperfections, you can only go so far. Sand too far and you’ll have a dip in the wood. This won’t do any good for the value of furniture unless you happen to like dips. You probably don’t want to sand too much around the edges. On an older piece, indentations are natural. They show the character of the wood. If you sand too much you’ll start to lose the personality of the piece.

    Then you complete the refinishing process of that piece of old furniture by staining the surface. Keep in mind that the value of furniture, in terms of antiques may suffer when refinishing if you intend to sell the piece. When you intend to keep a piece, the value of furniture is a more personal matter – make it look the way you want it to look.

  • Restoring: Restoring takes more time and, therefore, rather naturally, it costs more unless you’re restoring a piece of antique or old furniture yourself. Restoring is a better way to ensure that you maintain the value of furniture. You’re not going to strip off the finish; you’re going to enhance it.

    When restoring, as opposed to refinishing a piece of furniture, you’re generally addressing one particular spot on the piece. Maybe there’s a scratch or a ding that spoils the appearance of the piece. Some imperfections add character to a piece of furniture but, let’s assume you want to remove this imperfection.

    Start by cleaning the area. Usually, you’ll want to use Naptha or mineral spirits. Once the area is clean, you may be tempted to add some kind of filler to the spot. Be careful about doing so. Filler is awfully hard to hide, particularly if the scratch runs across the woods grain.

    The next step is to blend the spot back into the finish of the piece. If you’re applying stain, or using a colored wax furniture-patching stick, you’ll want to match the surrounding area as closely as possible. 

Unfortunately, perfectly matched color is all but impossible to achieve. This is less of an issue if the scratch is on the side of a piece. In such a case, if the scratch is where the sun doesn’t shine, a repair has a better chance to go unnoticed. Your eye doesn’t catch it.

When a scratch or imperfection is on the smooth top of a surface, it’s harder to hide with restoration. That’s where you really want the help of an expert. Restoration is more of an art than refinishing. Fine craftsmen can do amazing things restoring old furniture.

Ultimately, when deciding on restoring or refinishing, it comes down to a question of just how badly the furniture is damaged and, in terms of a particular piece, how you rate the value of furniture. If it’s an antique you may sell some day, you’ll definitely want to opt for restoration. In any other case, it’s a pure question of how badly the piece is scratched or dinged. If it’s too bad, you may want to consider refinishing the item.

Touch up is the alternative furniture repair when refinishing goes too far

Alan Karzen - Wednesday, March 27, 2013
If you decide you’re refinishing a piece of furniture, there is some work involved but it’s fairly straightforward. You need to strip the furniture. Once stripped of any varnish or paint, this is a good time to repair furniture. A little sanding will go a long way to remove dents and scratches. Keep in mind, you don’t want to sand too much. If you do, your furniture repair will become a furniture disaster.

If, however, a piece of furniture is generally in good condition, refinishing is not required, a more limited furniture repair is the ticket; a touch up is in order.

When you repair furniture, a touch up is focused on one particular spot. With refinishing, you’re redoing the entire piece. When refinishing, it’s easy to achieve a uniform appearance. But, when you repair furniture with a touch up, blending the furniture repair in with the rest of the piece is the trick.

The effectiveness of a touch up furniture repair depends on particular factors, such as:
  • Where is the piece located in your home or office?
  • Where is the furniture repair required on the particular piece?
  • Where does the sunlight strike the piece during the day in relation to the touch up?
  • How badly is the piece of furniture damaged?
  • Is the scratch across the grain of the wood?

If you repair furniture on the side where the sun seldom or never shines directly, it’s more likely people won’t notice the repair. If the damage was on the top of a smooth surface, particularly if the sun will shine on that surface, effective furniture repair is considerably more difficult to attain.

Assume you will not achieve perfection from your work. This is actually not much of a stretch. For instance, how do you propose to match the finish around the touch up? If the surface is painted or stained, the likelihood you’ll have a perfect match is rare at best. Even if a can of the original paint or stain is still available, over time, the finish on the piece of furniture has changed. It no longer matches its original shade.

Still, if you’ve decided that a scratch, ding or dent is beyond what you might otherwise consider as adding character to the piece, then a limited furniture repair may be in order.

You’ll probably want to start by filling the offending injury. For this, you may use wood putty or a lacquer stick. Here at Karzen Restorations, we use an iron to melt the lacquer stick material into a scratch and leave a smoother surface. However, practice this technique on a piece of scrap wood before taking an iron to your favorite chair or table.

Once the scratch is essentially smooth, you’ll want to match the finish. No furniture repair is worth the time if it stands out like a sore thumb when you’re finished. If you can’t avoid this you may want to reconsider refinishing the piece.

A craftsman skilled in working with furniture will use a lubricant and fine steel wool to rub and work the area requiring furniture repair. Still, in some cases, a truly effective furniture repair touch up is not possible. At that point, the owner of the piece has to decide if the value of the piece will diminish if we opt for refinishing.