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Furniture Rehab and Repair

How to Tell If Wood Furniture Is Worth Refinishing (page 1 of 2)

Is that flea market find worth your time and elbow grease? Our expert helps you decide.

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Courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

This walnut chair poses a difficult refinishing task: closely spaced side slats plus arms that need multiple coats for durability.

When you find a piece of wood furniture that needs a little love, it's really tempting to just fork over the cash and take it home as your next pet project. But wait, says woodworking expert Teri Masaschi, author of Foolproof Wood Finishing: For Those Who Love to Build & Hate to Finish. There are some things you need to consider first before you decide to refinish.

Is the Piece Painted?

"Beware of things that are painted," Masaschi says. "There's usually a reason for that." Paint can hide a multitude of sins, including burns, missing veneer and water stains.

"You're far better off buying something that has old dirty varnish on it that just needs to be stripped," she says. "It's clear, you can see through it to whatever's underneath, and stripping old finish is really easy — it typically comes right off with products you can buy at the hardware store."

Is the Construction High-Quality?

Look for signs that the piece was made before 1950, maybe even 1960. "That’s when particleboard and laminate surfaces and cutting corners came along," Masaschi says. Generally, even mass-produced furniture from before 1960 is sturdier and better made than today's cheap furniture — your find doesn't have to have antique value to be a great vintage piece that will give you years of service.

Still, you should be careful with really old pieces, mostly those made before 1850, because refinishing them yourself can hurt their value. If you have any questions at all about the value of your piece, consult an expert before you get started.

Learn what details to look for when assessing the age and quality of your piece.

Does the Piece Need to Be Re-Glued?

The next thing you need to do is give the piece what Masaschi calls "the rickety test." Put your hands on it, rock it back and forth, and test the drawers, if there are any, to see how much swaying is going on. If the piece isn't sturdy, you'll probably have to take it apart and re-glue it using clamps, and not everyone has the skill for that — or the workspace, for that matter.

If you need an expert to re-glue your piece for you, expect to pay based on how complicated the piece is. "It takes time to knock the piece apart and completely remove the old glue and start over," Masaschi says. "Re-gluing a chest of three drawers could easily cost $350 to $400."

What Will the Wood Look Like When You’re Done?

When a piece has been neglected for decades, it’s tough to tell what it will look like once it’s refinished.

Oak Chest

Although the next photo isn't the same chest, it could be: it's a fully refinished manufactured oak dresser from 1910.

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