Restoring timber furniture
In my opinion, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing an old piece of timber furniture brought back to its former glory through restoration. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how to do it.
These instructions assume your furniture is solid, the joints are firm and no parts are missing—if you do have problems in this area, the answer may be found elsewhere in this chapter. Usually, most old timber furniture has been painted or varnished, so you’ll need to remove this first. If your piece has no coating at all, count yourself lucky!
My main piece of advice is don’t be too heavy handed. An old piece that’s been completely stripped, sanded and refinished will often come up looking like it’s brand new—but what’s the point? If this is the look you’re after you may as well save yourself the time and trouble and buy new furniture. The secret is retaining the history—that’s what makes old furniture interesting.
Which solvent to use?
You may have to test a few solvents to see what type of stripping chemical will be required:
- Traditional old shellac is easily removed with the aid of methylated spirits. Apply the metho with fine steel wool or a synthetic abrasive pad; some gentle rubbing will soon soften and dissolve it.
- Nitrocellulose lacquers were popular with furniture manufacturers in the middle part of the twentieth century; for these you’ll need to use a lacquer thinner in much the same way as metho on shellac.
- For thick coatings of shellac or nitrocellulose lacquer and for most other finishes a paint stripper may be required—this is painted on with a brush and left to react for about ten minutes before scraping off the excess and scrubbing away the residue with steel wool soaked in metho, or on bigger jobs metho mixed with warm soapy water.
WHAT YOU NEED
- appropriate solvent (if the piece has paint or varnish on it)
- old paintbrush (it’s OK to use one that’s gone a bit stiff)*
- paint scrapers—standard and profile
- medium and fine steel wool
- methylated spirits
- bucket of warm soapy water
- medium and fine wet and dry sandpaper
- electric sander if you like.
* I always have a couple of paintbrushes that have gone a bit stiff lying around, so I’ll use one of these to paint on the stripper and that way I’ll soften and save the brush as well.
WHAT TO DO
1. Remove any existing paint or vanish with the appropriate solvent— make sure you wear protective gloves for this. If there’s inadequate ventilation where you are working make sure you wear a respirator. In the case of paint stripper, make sure you let it soak in and do its job; don’t be tempted to take it off as soon as you see the old coatings bubble, but don’t leave it on the job too long.
2.Time for some scraping. For flat surfaces like tabletops and square stool legs, use a standard straight-edged scraper. Starting at one edge, carefully scrape away the stripper (and old paint or varnish). Keep the scraper at a maximum 45 degree angle and make sure you use a smooth continuous movement so you don’t scratch your timber. Wipe the paint scrapings onto a piece of old newspaper for easy disposal.
3.Use a profile scraper (which has a point sticking out sideways at the top and concave semi-circle on the side) for corners, curved sections and hard-to-get-at details. Spray the scraper with cooking oil before starting for easier removal. If you tilt the semi-circled part of the scraper at an angle it can be made to fit a range of outwardly curved shapes. Again, be careful not to jab or press too hard. Another handy tool for hard-toget-at spots can be made from a small section cut from a wire brush.
4.After you’ve removed what you can with the scrapers, the remaining stripper and old finish can be removed with a pad of 00 grade steelwool soaked in metho. (For big jobs like a wardrobe or dining table you can use coarser steel wool like grade 1 and a mix of metho and warm, slightly soapy water.) Mix up half a bucket full of water and half a litre of metho and use the steel wool to scrub away the residue of the old finish, wiping off the excess with a rag while it’s still wet.
5. You’ll most likely find a few spots that will need an extra application of stripper. If there’s still paint and varnish on the piece once you’ve been over it with the scraper, you may need to repeat the process, but only on the stubborn bits of the old finish.
6. Once the timber dries, any remaining dark spots can be removed with sanding, but don’t get too carried away—you don’t want to remove ALL the little stains and dings! The idea is that if you’ve done a good job stripping, then you only need to do a fine smoothing sand (no coarser than about 220 grit), avoiding the dangerous scratches you can get from coarse sandpaper. There’s a great range of soft sanding pads and sponges available at hardware stores these days that are great for sanding shapes and details. You can use an electric sander for the flat areas but remember that orbital sanders will leave pigtails (small spiral marks made by the circular motion of the sander) that have to be removed with a final hand sanding. Once you’ve worked your way down to the fine-grade sandpaper (400 to 600 is ideal), clean to remove all the dust.
7. There’s a range of ways you can finish your furniture—the decision will be dependent upon its use. Items such as tables and benches that are used for food preparation or eating, or that cop a lot of wear and tear like drink spills, will need a protective coating such as a satin polyurethane, which will mean it’s washable and reasonably spillproof while still retaining that lovely natural timber look.