Most professional refinishers and antique restorers will tell you that if someone ever wants to take a sander to your antique furniture, RUN for the hills and find a “real” refinishing service! I, on the other hand believe it’s all relative. Some people love antiques because of their history, the rich patina and more importantly, the name behind the finish. But what about when you have a nice piece of furniture that’s trapped behind an aging yellowing crackled disgusting stain and top coat? What if someone down the line was too lazy to refinish it and they slapped some cherry or mahogany stain over oak, maple or pine? What if you just want a nice piece of older well made furniture to grace your décor and you don’t care about the maker or the patina, for now?
Let me tell you a little secret, the patina will return with time. And unless it’s a Stickley or some other high-end piece or an heirloom of some type that’s worthy of a small fortune, the “refinish” is entirely up to you. Personally I like to take it back to its original splendor without all the notches and stains. I prefer to sand it down to the raw wood and bring out the grain again. Smooth out the nicks and grooves and give it a whole new luster. I have spent many hours chemically stripping furniture and if necessary I will spend many more, but for the most part…my 3-in-1 sander is my bestest friend!
Here is a prime example of a diamond in the rough. I found this great big oak dresser online for $75 (Craigslist is my favorite hunting grounds). I thought it was a good deal when I read the ad and upon inspection it was much larger than any other I had seen. I could sort of see the tiger oak pattern underneath the gray dull varnish…but it would require some elbow grease to make it shine again. It was a solid piece that was only missing one bail pull, which again in my naivety, I figured would be easy to find and replace. So I paid the lady and left wondering “what have I done spending that kind of money on a dresser that needed so much stripping?!?”
The boyfriend and I both looked it over when I got it back to the shop and we both agreed it needed to be stripped and sanded if I was going to make it look at all attractive. That dense gray finish was not very complimentary until it was sanded entirely down to the bare raw gorgeous tiger oak. Once the layers of old (and probably original) finish came off it began to take on a new life and had an altogether different feel about it. The lovely grain that was hidden underneath popped off the wood all the way down to its sexy curvy queen anne legs. I was amazed at how beautiful the piece was and could hardly wait to put some stain on it!
Once again I used a 60 or 80-grit paper to bring it down and then 220 to smooth it out. The wood used to build this particular piece was sO amazing it was smooth as silk and took the stain so well. I don’t think I’ve ever had another piece that was so easy to process. We put 2 or 3 coats of Minwax Golden Oak (my favorite) and then topped it off with Minwax Gloss Polyurethane. There were a couple of areas on the platter (the ridge along the top edge) that didn’t take the stain and the poly coat very well because I hadn’t stripped enough of the old finish from the grooves, so I had to hand sand a few spots and fix it. It was a little frustrating because I had to do it 2 or 3 times in the same area.
*Be certain before you stain or poly coat anything that you have completely stripped, cleaned and tack clothed the entire piece ESPECIALLY the in-between spots and grooves that might be hard to get to. The polycoat will sometimes “bubble” and not hold in these spots. The extra work up front is worth it so you’re not cussing at it later! *
The final step was to find a bail pull that would match the others. I really liked the ones that it came with so I was determined not to change them. After searching at every architectural, antique, and hardware store in San Diego I finally decided to use a pull someone gave me and modify it to look the rest. It was longer than the others but still had the nice swan like shape. So I had to get the ol’ dremel out and clamp it down to saw off the extra length. Then I had to “clip” and smooth out the fat ends so they would fit in the round dealys that hold it on the drawers. I was successful but learned that it was a lot of work to find an original piece and should be a little more suspect in the future!
In the end we decided the dresser was a keeper and just too rare of a piece to sell and I swapped it out the very next week. What you see is a lot of hard labor and lots of footwork looking for hardware! But it’s a majestic addition to my bedroom and I’m glad I dropped that $75 to take a chance!
- Considering Refinishing an Antique or Vintage Find (apartmenttherapy.com)