How to Tell If Wood Furniture Is Worth Refinishing
Is that flea market find worth your time and elbow grease? Our expert helps you decide.
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.
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.
Although the next photo isn't the same chest, it could be: it's a fully refinished manufactured oak dresser from 1910.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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."