Frequently Asked Questions

Should my piece of antique furniture be refinished?
Will the value of my antique depreciate if it is refinished?

These are questions we should ask ourselves - before the finish has been stripped away. The answers are not always easy, nor are they always what we may want to hear. I would like to explore these questions with you. I will attempt to assist you in preserving your antique furniture, not only for our generation, but for future generations as well. After all, we want to enjoy our furniture both today and in the future.

Too often, we remove the original finish on a piece of antique furniture quite unnecessarily. By doing so, we may be devaluing the piece by removing the patina and therefore the history forever. Patina is a term that has been adopted by antique furniture enthusiasts. It originally referred to the tarnishing of metal. The term patina is described as the hew of the wood, that is, the beautiful deep colour and “used appearance” furniture acquires as it ages and is exposed to everyday usage. Devaluing our antiques and heirlooms is obviously not what we have in mind when we decide to restore or refinish our treasures.

In North America, we are much too quick to strip off the existing finish, sand the wood with a power sander and re-coat the piece with a commercial lacquer that often resembles a plastic coating. When a piece of antique furniture is stripped, we are often destroying the patina that has taken decades and sometimes centuries to develop. Instead of having a valuable antique, the process of stripping the finish could leave you with a piece of furniture that now, to the untrained eye, may pass as a reproduction.

Unquestionably, there is a place and need for refinishing furniture and antiques. We must be careful to weigh other options available to us on a piece by piece basis.

Many pieces of furniture that originated in the 20th century, for example, may warrant refinishing with a modern finish. Some finishes that were used in the 1930’s and 1940’s were actually inferior to finishes that were used in earlier decades and centuries. These inferior finishes are now often cracking, checking, or possibly flaking off. One method that was frequently used was the mixing of stain with the finish. When this mixture was applied to the wood, it left an opaque finish that actually hid the beauty of the wood grain underneath. As this type of mixed stain and finish ages, it becomes soft and often sticky, resulting in an unsightly surface. Obviously, such an inferior finish is not suitable to most 21st century home owners.

In such cases, refinishing is most likely the best option. Proper restoration and refinishing in these situations will actually increase the value of your antiques rather than decrease it. By using modern products, we are able to enhance the beauty of the wood grain with stains and finishes that penetrate into the wood. When sealed with a varnish, oil or perhaps lacquer, we preserve and protect the piece in such a way that it will be enjoyed for generations.

When you decide to refinish your antique, consider leaving some of the old dents or scratches. These marks add to the history of the piece, and often look quite nice when the old wood is stained and finished.

In summary: If your piece of furniture originates prior to the early 20th century, conservation techniques should be used rather than refinishing – especially if the item has the original finish. The methods to be used should be left to the professional restorer/conservator. Keep in mind, that when refinishing a piece, it is very easy to do too much. Proper care must be taken in order that no harm is inflicted upon your heirloom, resulting in it being devalued.

Collecting and refinishing antiques, from the pursuit of that next treasure to the final touches in the refinishing process, is a pastime that is enjoyed by many. One of the most important things to remember is to simply have fun.

I have imported some furniture from Asia. Should I oil it regularly to keep it from drying and cracking?

This is a common problem as we move about the globe. Moving wood items from a humid climate to a dry climate will often result in the wood cracking. Wood is constantly contracting and expanding with the fluctuations in humidity, oiling the wood will not help. When we apply oil to wood it will only penetrate a millimetre or so. In other words, the oil remains mostly on the surface. The humidity level affects the wood from the core or centre of the wood. The only way to stop the furniture from drying and possibly cracking is to keep the humidity level constantly between 55%-65%. In Calgary and Southern Alberta, this is an almost impossible task. One possibility, it is sometimes helpful to keep a bowl of water in or underneath a cabinet.

For these reasons, I will generally suggest clients wait two full winters before I restore any furniture items which were brought here from a more humid climate.

I am in the market for a buffet/sideboard for my dining room. I already have a walnut table and chairs, which I understand are solid walnut. Most of the buffets I have come across seem to be constructed of veneer; does this mean they are not as valuable?

To answer your question, I would say no, the veneered buffets are not necessarily less valuable. If you are fortunate enough to find a buffet that is of similar design to your existing chairs and table then the fact that it is not solid walnut is not important.

Veneers have been used since the early 1300s. The Germans cut veneer as early as 1322. Because this early veneer was hand cut, it was, of course quite thick, especially by today’s standards. Veneer was used extensively during the 1700s Baroque and Rococo periods as furniture makers realized the value of fine wood grain, especially for inlay and marquetry. Over the centuries, as cutting veneer has evolved from cutting by hand to machine, veneers have become extremely thin. Today veneer is often used for the simple reason that it is cheaper than using solid wood. Another reason we use veneer is to simply conserve our precious trees.

I purchased a pine blanket box at an estate sale. The finish (paint) is almost non existent. It appears as though the blanket box was stored in a barn for a few decades. The hardware is intact, but some of the wood moulding is missing. I would like to refinish it and try to replace the moulding. Do you have any suggestions?

Pine blanket boxes have become extremely popular over the years. They are quite suitable for many uses, from coffee tables to storage chests, or even as TV stands. I have a pine blanket box that was handed down from my great grandfather. The boards used to build the box are 18” wide with wonderful hand cut dovetails on the corners – simple but beautiful. When I was a boy, the box was hidden away in our basement and housed our canvas tent. Now, it is displayed prominently in our living room. When I received the box it was in similar condition to yours, so I stripped off the old paint and gave the wood a light sanding. These boxes are best left in a light colour, so I left mine natural with a couple coats of shellac. I followed this, by rubbing it with fine steel wool dipped in wax to smooth and protect the finish. I also had to replace one piece of wood moulding. This was a simple, rounded profile, so I was able to cut and shape it by hand. New pieces of wood on an antique often look new and can sometimes be aged by making a few dents, scratches or rounding the corners. At the time when I restored our blanket box, my oldest son was still a toddler. I knew that if I left the piece of moulding in good condition, (without artificial aging) it would only be a matter of time until he and his future sibling would age it naturally for me. It worked, years later it is difficult to determine which piece of moulding is new.

I have a mahogany table that has several pieces of veneer missing. There is also a spot where the veneer is starting to lift. Can this be repaired?

This can generally be restored quite easily. The first step would be to reglue the loose and lifting veneer. Begin by injecting some glue underneath the loose veneer, (either fish glue, or white or yellow carpenter’s glue). The next step is to lay a piece of waxed paper over the area. Now, take a piece of wood slightly larger than the area being glued and place it over the repair. Carefully apply pressure to this piece of wood with a clamp. Let the glue dry for 24 hours and voila, the veneer is no longer loose.

Replacing missing veneer is not quite as simple. This might be best left to a restoration professional, but the method would be as follows: The first step is to find some veneer of the same wood type. Once you have found some suitable veneer with a similar grain pattern and pore structure, you need to cut a piece in a shape that will blend easily with the existing table. For example, if the missing piece is on the table end, then a triangular shaped piece is often best. Take your new piece of veneer and cut it slightly larger than the missing piece. Cut the new piece in the shape of a triangle so that the wood grain is in the correct direction. Now lay it over top of the area where the piece is missing. Use a sharp carving knife and cut along the edge of the veneer, so that the new piece will fit into the area of the missing piece. Essentially, this is similar to making a jigsaw puzzle. The new piece of veneer should now fit perfectly into place. Apply some glue to the area, and carefully fit the new veneer into the hole. Using a clamp, block of wood and some waxed paper, apply pressure to the area. Allow the glue to cure for 24 hours. You are now ready to sand, stain, and finish the table.

I have a set of chairs that are becoming loose and squeaky. When we have friends over, the chairs are an embarrassment as well as dangerous. Is there a quick fix before my husband throws them away?

Loose chair joints are a natural occurrence. As chairs age, the pressure on the joints from people shifting their weight works towards loosening the chair, and over time the joints become loose. Humidity fluctuations may also loosen wood joints. Sometimes, if the chairs are constructed with dowels, the dowels may break. There are, in my opinion, two ways to re-glue a chair, the correct way or the incorrect way. Let’s touch on the incorrect way first: this would be to inject a “special” chair glue into the joints and begin using the chair a day or so later. The problem with this method is that this is just a quick fix, and the chair will likely loosen again within weeks.

The correct method involves dismantling the chair wherever there is a loose joint. In my shop, we will dismantle the chair completely, and carefully remove the old glue with a file or sandpaper. If the chair is made using dowels, we replace any that may be broken before re-gluing the chair. In most cases, I will use a carpenter’s glue which has been thinned approximately 20% with water. Once the chair has been re-glued and reassembled, we apply clamps to hold the joints tightly while the glue is drying. The glue should be given 24 hours to cure.

Please note that one should never attempt to glue an antique using a hot glue gun. If the repair is not successful, this glue is extremely difficult to remove.

I have a Victorian sideboard/buffet with the original mirror on the back. The mirror has many imperfections and gives a somewhat hazy reflection. Is it advisable to replace the mirror with a new one?

I do not recommend replacing mirrors, as this will definitely devalue your antique. There are several glass companies that will re-silver the mirror, which would be my preference. My first choice, however, would be to leave the mirror as is. I always prefer an original piece to one which has been given a new look and appearance. In my opinion, the older imperfect mirror, is far more valuable than a new one. One other note: If you are a baby boomer like me, a hazy reflection in the mirror is not a bad thing – it helps to disguise those wrinkles, graying hair etc.