Professional furniture restorers and hobbyists alike all have one thing in common: the desire to pluck a piece of furniture from a garage sale or self-storage auction and restore it to its former glory. What’s not to like? You’re saving something from a landfill and if you are going to sell it, maybe putting a few extra dollars in your pocket as well. The former owner only saw a table with broken legs but you see the possibilities.
So here are 10 tips to keep in mind when restoring old furniture.
- Make Sure You Have The Time To Complete The Project
Often, it’s more than just a facelift — it’s making the item usable again and possibly even adding value. It’s important to remember that a small side project can quickly turn into a time-consuming chore, depending on your restoration skills and how many free hours you have to devote to the work. The more complex the task, the longer it’ll take to finish, so be sure you have enough time in your schedule — or are willing to give up several weekends — to finish your project.
- Do Your Research
Do a little research to determine the value of the piece you want to restore. Is it worth it? Inspect it for marks or labels that may indicate its origin. If you suspect it’s worth some money, consult a professional before proceeding with any work. Take photos of any markings or tags for your records. Removing a collectible antique’s finish could lessen or void its value, so hold off on stripping or sanding until you know exactly what you have.
- Set Your Budget
Once you’ve determined whether your found treasure is actually worth any money, you need to decide how much cash you want to sink into it. Yes, you might love the challenge of furniture restoration, but if the piece isn’t valuable, you’ll need to figure out how important it is to you. Is it something that can be repaired relatively inexpensively? Will the project cost you less than buying a new piece? Is it worth your time?
- Know What You Want It to Look Like
It’s happened to every restorer: You pull a wooden table off the curb, thinking its color will nicely match the rest of the furniture in a given room, only to discover after restoration begins that the piece is actually made from lighter-colored wood and doesn’t match at all. Luckily, with a little examination, you can get an idea of the true grain’s color. Find a spot that’s been protected from everyday wear, such as the back of a drawer front. Taking a peek at an unworn area will give you an idea what the finished product will look like.
- Safety First
When embarking on a furniture restoration project, be sure you have safety in the front of your mind. The last thing you want to do is have a splinter of wood accidentally lodge itself into your eye or be overcome by harsh fumes. Make sure you wear long-sleeved clothing to protect your skin from harmful chemicals found in wood strippers and varnish. Use safety glasses to shield your eyes. If you’re stripping or varnishing a piece, wear a mask and work in a well-ventilated room to keep strong vapors at bay.
- Clean It Before You Start
Before whipping out your sandpaper and paintbrush, give the piece a thorough cleaning. After years of neglect, it’s likely to have a patina of dirt and grime. Removing the buildup can reveal a nice finish underneath, so a good cleaning and buffing may be all that old table needs to look new again. Give the furniture a thorough scrub with a sponge and some vegetable-based oil soap and warm water. For detailed pieces, use a soft toothbrush to get into the nooks and crannies. If you need to use steel wool on some stubborn wax buildup, go with 0000 grade (the finest grade available), and use a light hand. Too much pressure can dull the finish.
Next, repair or replace any broken parts. You may luck out and stumble across a identical leg or knob at an antique store, estate sale or on eBay, but don’t count on it. In most cases, a perfect match will require custom-made parts. Additionally, unless you consider yourself pretty handy, you may need a professional’s help with tougher repairs like leg replacements or almost anything relating to the structural integrity of the piece. However, tightening screws may fix wobbly tables and chairs. Find the culprit by turning the piece over and inspecting each leg where it meets the body. If it shakes, check out the screws. If they’re in good shape, tighten them down. If they’re rusted out, carefully remove and replace them. Join small breaks with wood glue, and fill in small cracks with like-colored wood putty. If you plan to use stain as your finish, make sure you buy a stainable putty.
- Refinish It Or Paint It?
Refinishing the piece means taking off the old finish and creating a new one. It’s physically demanding, so be prepared to use some elbow grease for this messy and cumbersome job. For a do-it-yourselfer, it’s best to use a combination of chemical strippers and sanding. Above all, be patient, even though some finishes can be stubborn to remove. Trying to speed up the process could result in even more repair work. Research the type of stain you’ll need for your wood. If it’s not worth staining, you can always paint the surface. Just be sure it’s not a valuable piece, because it won’t be once you paint it. Before painting, sand the finish to smooth out any bumps. Regardless if you’re staining or painting, you’ll want to give the piece another good cleaning once you finish stripping and sanding to ensure that you end up with a professional-looking finish.
- How-To Guides and Youtube
If you haven’t done much furniture restoration, you’ll likely find it helpful to keep a guidebook on hand so you can quickly find answers to any questions that come up over the course of your project. The library is an excellent resource for manuals and other furniture reference materials. Of course, The Internet is also a great resource for information and videos in which experts guide you through each step of the restoration process.
- Tools Of The Trade
You’ll need some tools to make your project happen. Take a trip down the sandpaper aisle and get a variety of grits. Buy both the moderately rough stuff (80 to 120 grit) and the finest grades (300 to 600). Get a couple of putty knives, one plastic and one metal. Also pick up some 0000 steel wool and a liquid stripping gel. You’ll need Phillips head and flathead screwdrivers for tightening joints and a small hammer and rubber mallet, which will allow you to adjust the wood without leaving a mark.