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

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

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To get an idea of what your piece will look like refinished, find a protected spot where the original wood is visible, such as the back of a solid-wood drawer front, underneath the top surface of a chest of drawers, or the backside of a leaf in a drop-leaf table. Make sure that you like the look of the grain and that you understand what color you’ll come out with in the end—old wood often finishes much darker than newly milled wood.

Here are the characteristics of several common types of wood on older furniture pieces:

Cherry is a very smooth wood with a mild grain that can be stained a variety of colors. “But if it’s 100 years old and you’ve stripped it, it’s going to be very dark,” Masaschi says.

Cherry wood sample

Courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

Walnut has a more lively grain than cherry or maple,” Masaschi says, “but it’s one of the few wood types that actually gets lighter over the years.” The natural rich brown color limits the range of tones you can achieve with stain.

Walnut wood sample

Courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

“With old mahogany, there’s no way around it — it’s going to be very reddish,” Masaschi says. “You can go reddish red or brownish red, but you’ll never get anything else out of it.”

Mahogany wood sample

Courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

Most old pine pieces were painted right away, so it’s rare that you’ll come across one you’ll want to strip and refinish. But if you do, expect a honey brown color that’s darker than new pine.

Pine wood sample

Courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

Maple pieces made from the 1890s through the 1920s are often a beautiful figured bird’s eye or tiger maple and will have a strong yellow tone if you refinish. Plain maple from the 1960s, which was often stained an orangey color, can be stripped and made more modern with a light brown stain.

Maple Wood Sample

Courtesy of Fox Chapel Publishing

Oak: the staple wood of Victorian furniture. “Old furniture is often made of quarter-sawn oak with bold flecking in it,” Masaschi says. “If you refinish it, you’ll get that really beautiful old tiger oak grain that’s golden in color.”

How Complicated Is the Refinishing Going to Be?

Make sure you're prepared for the level of involvement it will entail to restore the piece to its former glory. Here are some signs that your project may require extra steps or advanced techniques:

  • It features deeply carved or applied filigree. "It's usually very time-consuming to strip out the old finish from all the nooks and crannies, and refinishing it will also be very tricky," Teri says.
  • Different parts of the piece need different applications. For example, a chair with ornate sides or slats may need a delicate touch on the ornamental parts, but multiple coats of polyurethane on the arms so they'll be durable.
  • It has slats or spindles set close together. "To strip that off and refinish it, you almost have to use a spray gun," Teri says.
  • It's made from random boards not all from the same tree. "That's one of the ugly surprises you sometimes get after stripping," Teri says. "You'll either have to like it the way it is or spend a lot of time trying to stain it to make it look more uniform. That's a pretty complicated finishing process."

Bottom line: If you aren't sure what you have, consult a competent professional for advice. And just because a piece has potential, don't feel obligated to bite off more than you can chew. "I always tell my students, be prepared to walk away," Masaschi says.

"Buy the piece for what it is rather than what you think you can make it — you can get lost in the fantasy about what it used to be."

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