I Wood If I Could

BY ERIK J. MARTIN ON SEPTEMBER 29TH, 2016

When it comes to vintage furniture, instruments, curios and other collectibles, “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is absolutely right. These wooden pieces were built to last and are worth preserving, thanks to better craftsmanship, materials and attention to detail. That’s why many people pay big bucks for antique wooden creations and choose to restore these coveted objects to their original, functional condition.

While some restoration projects are best left to the pros, diligent do-it-yourselfers can save hundreds of dollars, and earn major bragging rights, by replacing an old or failing wood finish with a new one.

“By stripping it and giving it a fresh coat of stain, you can transform an old piece to enjoy for years to come,” says Chris Johnson, owner of several True Value Hardware stores in Minnesota.

Tal McAbian, CEO of Casa Medici Designs in Sherman Oaks, California, says that refinishing older wooden furniture is worthwhile to sustain the artistry and skill of its creator, nurture the real or exotic woods used, and uphold its monetary or sentimental value.

“It can also be a project that results in shared quality time between family members,” says McAbian, who recommends carefully assessing the condition and species of the wood first. If in doubt, consult an expert before embarking on a refinishing project.

Nicholas Iarocci, owner of Source Development, a remodeling firm based in Garnerville, New York, says the first step is to properly ventilate the area, don rubber gloves and safety goggles and use a rag to clean the finish with wax and grease remover, followed by denatured alcohol. Next, sand down the surface, moving consistently in the direction of the grain. Use coarse 100-grit sandpaper and gradually move down to finer 300-grit sandpaper. Be careful not to rub too hard or deep into the wood. If you’re concerned that abrasive sanding may harm the aged patina of the piece, you can instead apply small quantities of chemical stripper via brush and steel wool and wipe the surface clean with a rag and clean denatured alcohol.

After the old finish is removed, some of the wood may be discolored. To lighten any spots for a uniform color, apply a wood bleach following the product manufacturer’s directions carefully.

“A wood sealer product may then need to be applied to limit the wood’s absorption of the stain, thereby allowing color to be more uniform,” Iarocci says.

Next, apply a carefully chosen shade of wood stain via brush or rag, “after first testing a small area to make sure you like the color,” Iarocci says. “Be sure to give it at least one day to dry.”

Lastly, apply a topcoat of varnish or lacquer using either a spray-on or a brushed-on product – always following label directions closely.

“The varnish should be applied a few times, with fine sanding and cleaning the piece between each application so the coating is completely smooth and even,” McAbian says.

Plan on taking your time with a refinishing project and budgeting anywhere from $50 to over $200 for the materials required, say the experts.

If the cost outweighs the piece’s value, “it may not be worth it,” says Paul Heumiller, owner of Dream Guitars in Weaverville, North Carolina, whose repair team recently restored an extremely rare 1930 Martin OM-45 guitar. “However, restoring a piece that you can handle on your own can be extremely rewarding and even increase its emotional value. Remember to remain patient and don’t rush.”

Also, before getting started, “determine the age and rarity of the piece. Rare, museum-quality furniture that has survived in great condition can be devalued if it’s refinished,” Johnson cautions.

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