Taking a shine to old wooden furniture Economy fuels surge in refinishing projects

May 30, 1993|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Contributing Writer

If you've never done it, refinishing a wood chair or table sounds easy enough. Just strip off the old finish to reveal the wood's underlying glory, do a little sanding, apply some stain if the wood needs it, then put on the new finish. Voila.

Question: Is refinishing a piece of furniture really that simple?

Answer: Of course not.

A good refinishing project is a long, painstaking process that requires patience, dedication and an eye for detail. Yet in spite of the time and effort it takes to strip, stain and refinish wood, retailers report a dramatic increase in sales of furniture refinishing products such as paint and finish removers, cleaners, wood stains and finishes.

"The popularity of refinishing old furniture has more than doubled in the last five years," reports Jeff Duvall, inventory manager at the Hechinger store in Security Mall. "It's because of the economy -- everybody wants nice furniture but can't afford a $2,000 table. So they spend $50 in materials to refinish an old piece picked up at a flea market for $100."

The economy, however, isn't the only reason for the recent surge in refinishing.

"It's a very satisfying task," says Page Nelson, a professional cabinetmaker and furniture refinisher. "You take the old finish off, sand it and add some color to the wood. It makes you feel like you're really smart. You've taken something ugly and made it beautiful."

Katie Hamilton, who with her husband, Gene, has written eight books on furniture refinishing and home improvement, says many women enjoy the solitary task of restoring the glow to an old piece of furniture -- as she discovered 20 years ago.

"I bought a little oak secretary at the Salvation Army in Chicago for $56," recalls Ms. Hamilton, who lives in St. Michaels. "I needed a small piece of furniture to hold my dishes and didn't want to spend a lot of money. It didn't occur to me that I couldn't refinish it."

Subtle rewards

Not that she harbored any illusions that it would be a neat task. "It seemed like a simple, if messy, process," she says. "But refinishing doesn't require big tools. Maybe that's the reason women seemed to get involved in refinishing more often then men. It's a nice thing to do at home."

And, she adds, it's a job that offers subtle rewards: "It's a very serene thing to do. With the radio on, refinishing a piece of furniture is peaceful and rewarding -- it's just you and the object. And if you're prone to swear . . . you swear!"

Today, beginners at refinishing will discover that the process isn't nearly as messy -- or toxic -- as it used to be. "New products on the market aren't bad for the environment," Ms. Hamilton points out. "Refinishing used to be a major project, but now the new products are easy to use and not dangerous. You don't have to do it outdoors or in a specially ventilated area anymore."

But don't rush off to the hardware store yet -- the experts would like to share a few words of advice for first-time refinishers.

"The first rule is, don't waste time on furniture that isn't going to look good when it's done," advises Mr. Nelson, of Adajian & Nelson, a Baltimore furniture-building and restoration firm. "The second rule is to lavish your love on something you like."

If you're scouring antique stores in search of your first refinishing project, look for pieces that aren't painted. "A painted piece is a mystery because you don't know how many layers you'll have to remove," Ms. Hamilton says. "And to strip something made of crummy wood is very arduous -- and you'll end up painting it again."

More advice for novices: Pick something small for your first project. "Certainly nothing bigger than a chair," Ms. Hamilton adds. "You want to complete your first project. Get something you can work on in your kitchen. The most important thing is to get that baby done."

Natural beauty

After you've selected a piece for refinishing, keep in mind that your goal is to bring out the natural beauty of the wood. "Rembrandt's paintings have depth because you're looking through five layers of paint," Mr. Nelson points out. "It gives a see- through effect."

You can achieve the same result as the Dutch master, he explains, by applying a clear finish over beautiful wood: "It gives a lens effect that's very pleasant as your eye mixes the color. You're looking into the wood."

Now get set: With a small piece of unpainted furniture that needs refinishing, a work space and the basic tools and refinishing products, you are ready to begin. But first, a rundown on the five basic steps in refinishing . . . and some more expert advice.

Step 1: Remove the old finish. "Get Mr. Formby's kit from the hardware store," Mr. Nelson advises. "Thin solutions are good for stripping an entire piece, while gooey solutions can be controlled if you only want to strip part of the piece. If you're not changing the color, why do the whole thing?"

Step 2: Smooth the surface by sanding. "Generally, people sand too much," Mr. Nelson points out. "Stopping short is often good."

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