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Furniture Rehab and Repair

How to Tell If Metal Furniture and Decor Is Worth Refinishing

Should you spruce up those rusty old pieces or simply buy new? Our expert has the answers.

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Courtesy of Lynn Coolen

Have you ever eyed an old set of 1950s-era metal lawn chairs and thought, with just a little TLC, those would look extremely cool in my backyard? You're probably right, says refinishing expert Teri Masaschi, author of Foolproof Wood Finishing: For Those Who Love to Build & Hate to Finish. The real question with metal pieces is: Do you actually want to make them look good as new? And if the answer is yes, how much time and effort will it take to restore those pieces to their former glory?

Leaving Well Enough Alone

The first thing you want to consider with metal furniture, Teri says, is whether you even want to remove rust and other signs of wear. "The industrial look is really hot right now," she says. "If you have a piece like an old metal workbench from a factory where they manufactured parts, and the metal has taken a beating and there's an old rusty, dirty patina with hardly any paint left, well, people are putting those in their kitchens now. You don't want to touch that, because it will hurt the value of it. The most you'll want to do is wash it with soap and water."

This may be especially true for old metal lighting with clamps, candlesticks, and brass and iron beds, so look at them through a contemporary lens before you decide to refinish. If you can't incorporate them into your own look, you might want to sell them instead. Check out vintage stores on sites such as Etsy.com to get a feel for what people are buying; good keywords to use are "vintage," "rustic," "rusty chic" and "industrial."

Rusty old metal pieces are a hot ticket on Etsy.com, including this clothing hook (Image 1), old milk bottle box (Image 2) and service bell (Image 3) from Vintage Lancaster.

Working Up a Sweat

Some metal furniture, on the other hand, needs improving. Your decor may not call for a shabby touch, and some pieces — such as lawn chairs — will come into too much contact with bare skin to make leaving rusty edges practical or safe. But know that you're in for some sweat (and maybe tears). Assuming you want to paint them, you'll have to get rid of all of the rust first. “You need to get down to new, clean metal,” Teri says.

For a candlestick, that might not be a big deal, but for a neglected set of four lawn chairs, rust removal could take you several weekends to complete. You'll need a wire brush for the first round, and then a sander with 60- to 80-grit sandpaper to smooth out the surface. "It's a tremendous amount of work," Teri says. "But some people love that."

Design blogger Andrea Clem, of Oasis Accents, tackled her grandmother’s rusty old lawn chair as a DIY project. Image 1 shows the chair after Andrea sanded it down to clean metal. "I thought my arms were going to fall off," she says. Andrea used a wire brush and a cordless drill with wire attachments for rust removal (Image 2). She applied a rust preventive primer and several coats of light green paint to make the chair good as new (Images 3 and 4).

Calling in the Big Guns

If you can't face the prospect of that much elbow grease, you'll need to take your piece to be professionally sandblasted. (Sandblasters are usually listed as such in the phone book, but sometimes an auto body shop is a good resource as well.) A set of four lawn chairs, depending on the condition they’re in, will run you at least a few hundred dollars.

After your surface is rust-free, what remains is simple: painting. Spray paint works as well as anything else, Teri says, but be sure to use a primer specifically for old rusty metal or previously painted surfaces. (And for lawn chairs, use paint marked "indoor/outdoor.") Follow the instructions on the can closely, paying special attention to the window of time it recommends between coats. Plan to use a couple of coats of primer — with scuffing in between to give the paint a surface to adhere to — and a couple of coats of color. It's a time investment, to be sure, but the payoff depends on how much you love the piece.

"The sad thing is, those retro lawn chairs that you love, they're reproducing them now in China and you can just buy them outright," Teri says. "But they're not as good as the old ones. The metal is not typically as heavy a gauge and they’re not as sturdy and rugged." You can expect to pay about $100 per chair for a reproduction. You can also find refurbished or good-condition pieces on eBay and Craigslist for a bit less.

If your motivation is making something durable with your own personal touch — not to mention preserving an heirloom or recycling something that would otherwise end up in a landfill — refinishing a metal piece yourself can certainly be worth it. But considering the cost of sandblasting and paint and the time involved, if the look is all that matters to you, you might be better off going with a stylish reproduction or refurb instead.

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