Text by Nancy Johnston

Almost all of us have one. Maybe Aunt Mabel gave it to you once when you went to visit or you might have picked it up for a song at a garage sale. Maybe you can’t remember where you got it because you’ve had it so long. I’m talking about that old wooden table or other piece of furniture hidden away in the basement, attic or garage. You know — the one you won’t let anyone throw out because you’re convinced of its potential value. All it needs is a little TLC to bring out the underlying beauty.

Refinishing is a restorative process that involves stripping the furniture of all paint, varnish or other sealant, and renewing the look of the object by sanding, painting and or varnishing, depending on the look you are trying to achieve.

A quick rundown of the refinishing process goes like this. First the piece is stripped. Use a gel stripper, scrape carefully and wipe down well with water.

Then if desired, the color of the wood is changed by bleaching or staining and then the finish is applied with a sponge or rag, leaving time for each coat to dry and be lightly sanded before applying the next one. Start with 400 grit sandpaper, then 1000. Wet-sand using 2000 grit in-between coats. Soft woods need a coating of shellac as a base before the stain is applied.

The most common traditional finishes are shellac, paint, wax, lacquer, varnish and oil. Lacquers give the best glossy, transparent finish while most other methods add some color as they coat. The exception is polyurethane varnish which gives the high-gloss finished look of plastic but sanding in-between coats can have disastrous results if an extra light touch isn’t used. After the last coat of finish has dried, a thin coat of polish is usually applied to protect the wood. Buffing with some extra polish will give more shine to it.

But that’s only if the piece you want to restore is aged or is an “antique.” What if the piece of furniture you have is relatively new and you want it to look older, like it has been kicking around for a while. Then you’ll want to consider a different approach to the refinishing process called Distressing. Distressing involves sanding and staining techniques that actually make your furniture appear to be older than it is. Tricks, like whitewashing by applying watered down paint and using various paint, and stain application techniques such as a sponge to create an uneven worn look, or sanding the corners slightly after painting, help achieve the desired effect.

For those who want to take it a step further and have a “real” antique look to their new piece, there is a more involved form of distressing called Antiquing. The piece is first aged by a combination of sanding, staining, with or without using a sponge, denting, hammering, and or repainting and then finished by applying either a faux antique finish or a glaze.

With all the choices of finishes available these days there is going to be a look you’ll like, it’s just a matter of exploring the options until you find it. If you’re willing to give some thought as to what you want the finished piece to look like, and some time to accomplish it, your weekend refinishing project could become a priceless family heirloom. Okay maybe not priceless, but at least something you won’t want to hide away any longer.

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