Furniture restoration falls under three basic processes: clean, repair and refinish. Each process requires specific equipment/tools, supplies and knowledge necessary to obtain the desired results. Picking the right process for the item to be restored is a process within itself and should be approached with deliberation and decided upon with conviction.
The restored item will not only bring you pleasure at it’s appearance but in your newly developed skills and confidence towards other projects.
A thorough knowledge of the item you are looking to restore is essential to the final outcome. Take pictures of the item before you do any work on it. This will help if you have to replace or repair anything during the restoration.
Restoring an antique is usually best left to the professionals in order to keep its value. If you are unsure the item is an antique or not then seek the advise of a professional.
Knowing the type of finish that is on the wood will help in determining the best way to restore it. Again, if you are not sure, ask. Some of the most commonly used natural clear finishes shellac, varnish and lacquer. Some of the most commonly used true oil finishes include: tung and linseed oil, urethane and paint.
Knowing the type of finish that is on the wood will also help in the decision making process for the type of restoration you do. Restoration may include upholstery as well, which still falls under the “clean, repair or refinish (replace)” processes. The basic requirements for all three processes are the same and following them will make the restoration much easier and go much faster.
Have a clear work space where you can move around the item without having to move it any more than absolutely necessary.
Cover the work area with a disposable cloth or paper for protection and ease of cleanup.
Wear protective clothing, eye protection, gloves, breathing mask and shoe covering (or old shoes you intend to dispose of).
Ensure good ventilation prior to using and chemicals or doing any sanding.
Make sure someone knows you are working on this process and checks up on you regularly.
Utilize the help at your local hardware store or home center to understand the chemicals you need and how to best use them for the process you will perform. Read the instructions and follow them closely for best results.
Set aside one hour for set up and one hour for clean up for any restoration job. The length of time for any project depends on the size of the item, your skill level and how much work the item will require. If the project will take more than six hours then plan the restoration in stages and take your time. Hurried projects usually require being redone.
Step 1: Cleaning
Cleaning an item to restore it is just as important a process as repairing or refinishing it. Cleaning chemicals and/or a combination of cleaning chemicals can seriously damage the item if not properly used. The container should tell you what the product will clean/remove, what type of surface it works best on and what equipment/tools and supplies you will need to accomplish the task (only use products that supply this information).
Working from the top down, clean the item in the order you have preplanned the work (whole or partial areas). Remove the cleaner as soon as the area is cleaned and before moving to the next area to be cleaned. Allow the item to dry thoroughly before your final inspection as it will look different when dry and may need additional work in some areas.
Any areas that do not clean up to your expectations may need a different type of cleaner or process to correct the problem. Check with your local hardware or home center help section to see if cleaning is still an option or if you need to do some repair work. See Step 3 if, after cleaning, you need to “refresh” the finish by reapplying a new coat.
Step 2: Repair
Repairing an item to restore its finish or covering is usually something that is done in a small area on the item. If you have multiple areas on the item that are in disrepair then you might want to investigate cleaning or refinishing (recovering). Repairing falls in-between cleaning and refinishing as well as physical repairs such as gluing, nailing or tacking.
To repair an item by gluing, nailing or tacking remember to remove the old glue first, don’t nail or tack back into the same hole and protect the finished surfaces when clamping. Make sure you use the correct glue for the repair and if the joint is loose you will need to use some sort of filler to make up the gap. Check with your help section at your local hardware store or home center to determine the best product to use.
Step 3: Refinish
Refinishing an item to restore it is probably the most time consuming of all the restoration projects and requires the most aggressive chemicals and processes. If at all possible, try to refinish the item by lightly sanding and reapplying a new coat of the same finish. Some finishes will reactivate the surface of the old finish if they are the same type. Check with your local hardware store or home center to see if there are other finishes that will cover the old finish without disrupting it’s bond with the surface.
There are only two ways to remove an old finish, chemical or physical (sand/scrape). It is always best to use eco-friendly strippers when you can but sometimes you have to use a more aggressive stripper to get the job done. Regardless of the type you use, it is very important to be safe and protect yourself from these chemicals. Using a wire brush to remove the stripper is not recommended as it will spatter it everywhere and could damage anything it lands on. When the stripper has been removed from the item and been neutralized, the item must be allowed to dry thoroughly before any further work can be done.
Sand all surfaces with 220 grit or finer sandpaper to remove any raised fibers. Clean with a tack cloth or rag soaked in mineral spirits to ensure the surface is ready to be refinished. Follow the instructions on the container for the best application and final finish. Do not skip any instruction concerning sanding between coats as you will just be wasting your time and the finish will not look smooth.
If the refinish at this point is to re-upholster then use the old cloth you removed as a pattern, replace the padding with comparable material, keep the material pulled tight and don’t use the same tack holes when replacing the tacks.