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The Truth About Do It Yourself Furniture Refinishing

Aug 17, 2007
Hear it all the time, the tone of semi disappointed do it yourselfers after they spend countless hours on their refinishing project "it doesn't look like we hoped it would." Like so many other times in life, when good folks find themselves disappointed. It really isn't their fault at all, all they did was read the brochure, and then the theater of the mind took over. I hear them say, "we followed the instructions to the letter, so why does it not look at all like we were hoping?"

Here is why, Restoration by the very definition of the word, requires that the restorer understand from what condition the original finish has fallen. To put it another way, if you don't know what it was, how can you know what it should be? So it's another situation of not even knowing what questions to ask because the idea of there being some other way isn't even there.

It is true that some furniture is finished with a really simple process, perhaps a coat of stain and then three or four coats of polyurethane, and for home woodworking projects and other simply functional stuff that will do, but if you have a nice medium, or high-line piece and you expect it to look as spectacular as it did when it first came to your home using a simple one or two step treatment, you may not know it now, but soon you will, it's not going to look anything like you are expecting. Where the harsh reality and the hoped for dream collide, that is where disappointment lives.

What you were hoping for was something a little more. For example, the finish that one would expect to find on furniture from a company like Baker, Henredon ,Drexell or Gramco, is really, really sophisticated. It is done by Master finishers with decades of experience. Even the apprentices in an environment like this possess knowledge of the ways of the "force". Artistic finishes like this sometimes require as many as twenty or more steps to achieve the depth and richness that people have come to expect from top drawer brands like these. When you see the fantastic catalogues and well lit showrooms it may be hard to imagine that even though there are many layers of finish, sealer, glaze, cow tails, spattering, brush-graining and finally several coats of topcoat hand rubbed to a deep rich glow, it is still quite thin. That is what gives the furniture that really refined classic look. When you compare the two different methods you begin to see that there is no comparison at all.

On one hand the single step stain followed by multiple coats of oil-cured polyurethane you end up with a monochromatic, thick, plastic finish, the one up side to all the mill thickness is that these oil-cured poly finishes are pretty durable.

However, if you are looking to achieve a finish that has real depth and character, one that people look at, and just get lost in, that will require a lot more, a whole lot more. At a minimum, A base dye of the required intensity, followed by a wash coat of sealer, hand rubbed then glazed, followed by another wash, rubbed again, then add the light distressing and rag work, wash coat and rub once again, followed by gun shading and highlighting. All that by hand free form to match a specified sample before the first application of topcoat is applied. That process is not one that comes off the shelf. It is derived from a lifetime of touching the wood, looking at how the light dives into the wood and knowing what comes next, it is the difference between a pop tart and a fine French pastry.

Refinishing furniture can be a really exciting and fulfilling thing to do when all goes well and the results are what you were expecting, but when it does not it can be a bad way to spend your vacation time. So next time you are thinking about taking on a refinishing project do your homework before you begin, ask for professional advice. If all the lights are green, go. If not, and you still want to go for it, maybe you should consider an apprenticeship in our restoration shop, who knows in four or five years you too may be a member of this quirky band of brothers known as Wood finishers.
About the Author
John VerHines is a seasoned restorer and the president of Gramco. With over 40 years of experience in the craft of furniture restoration.
To learn more visit http://www.GramcoFurnitureRestoration.com
Copyright Gramco furniture restoration LLC.
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