To refinish, or not to refinish? That is the question

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Restoring furniture is one of the most satisfying things that I do at Shady Lawn Antiques. There is no greater thrill than to totally restore a piece that was on the way to the landfill. It is my way of preserving, and therefore honoring, the work craftsmen put into the original construction of the piece.

I’ve found I have to talk myself down from doing the total reclamations I’ve done in the past. Sometimes they just don’t make economic sense, but, emotionally, every once in a while I still sneak one in.

Every January the Shady Lawn Antiques sales area is closed, and I spend the month (and a bit of February) restoring furniture.

Anyone who has watched the Antiques Roadshow on television has heard, “this piece of furniture would have been worth a lot more if it hadn’t been refinished.” Further, even a cleaning that removes the patina or the rich, mellow, old look a piece acquires over time will reduce its value.

This is especially true for furniture built by individual craftsmen prior to the age of mass manufacturing (about 1850). However it is always better to leave original finishes intact even on pieces built in the 1900s.

It is these late 1800s to early 1900s mass produced pieces that I restore. Repairing them and extending their functional life another 100 years is my focus. My philosophy is to ‘use the lightest hand possible’ when restoring furniture.

My first priority is to make any piece structurally sound and functional. For example a dresser should be solid, and not wobble when you touch it. The drawers should slide easily and the drawer bottoms should be solid, with no cracks or holes.

Then I evaluate the finish. When the original finish is in good enough condition to protect the wood and is still visually attractive, I keep it. When the finish has completely deteriorated or is extremely damaged, I repair or replace it.

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate:

I restored two China cabinets I had purchased at the same auction. They were very similar. 

Both were built between the late 1800s and the early 1900s.  They were both oak, had curved glass sides and doors, oak shelves and an interior mirror near the top.

The first cabinet had several minor issues.  The glue blocks supporting the legs were loose, and had to be reglued.  All glass was loose and needed to be reinstalled.  The original finish was in good condition but needed the “barn dirt” lightly cleaned off. Then it was waxed.

The second cabinet required a complete restoration. All the glass was falling out, every glue joint had failed and the finish was dry, flaky, and in poor condition.  As it was, it was worth no more than what I’d paid. I took the entire cabinet apart, removed the finish, lightly sanded each piece, and then reglued every joint.

I applied a new finish, waxed the cabinet and reinstalled the glass.

Now a cabinet that had been in shaky condition at best should easily last another 100 years.  This time the refinishing actually increased the value of the piece.

Another was an oak Arts and Crafts-era desk built by Stickley about 1910. In good original unrestored condition, it would have had a value approaching $1,000.

However, it had been used in a service station and the top had more than 35 cigarette burn marks on it. I had to sand the top flat and refinish it to have any chance of someone wanting it.

It took a restoration to sell it, but only for $300, far less than if it had been in original condition.

Despite the warning against refinishing, sometimes a piece would be worth a lot less if it hadn’t been refinished.

So consult with a professional before you restore an antique.

Dave Emigh owns Shady Lawn Antiques and is a fifth-generation Walla Wallan. He writes about antiques and life in the “Valley of the Two Wallas” on his blog: www.wallawallalocal.wordpress.com.

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