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.