Should You Ever Refinish Antique Furniture?

Antique furniture features a lovely patina on the metal and gentle wear on the wood. So should you ever refinish it? That depends...

May 1, 2017

By Christina Almonte 
Staff Writer


So, you have found a piece of furniture at a yard sale, in your parents’ attic, or one of those other places people typically go in search of inexpensive furniture. Is it trash? Well, unless you actually found it in the trash, probably not – after all, most people don’t keep items that are unsalvageable. Maybe it looks like trash, though, and if that’s the case, you may need to do a bit of work on it before it’s ready to present to visitors. How do you know what to finish and what to leave alone? Keep reading.


Modern Furniture

Much of the furniture made over the last few decades looks like wood, but is actually particle board covered in a very thin, paper-like veneer. This type of cheap furniture really isn’t worth the bother. You’ll be devoting your time to something that is never going to look good, because even with priming, paint will never stick effectively to the piece.


Modern red table


Wood Veneer on Plywood

If you should happen to find a piece that has wood veneer over plywood, you may be able to refinish it provided that the veneer has not been damaged overly much. You could fix small dings and gouges with plastic wood, sand the repaired areas, and then paint the piece. You would be better off to paint than to stain, though, because often, veneer is too thin to tolerate sanding.


High quality, classic style design with front and upper board made in masive oak or beech wood. Side boards made in veneer


Valuable Furniture

Antique furniture will often diminish in value if they are refinished. Unless the finish is seriously damaged, you would be better off to leave it alone. And if it is significantly damaged, unless you are an experienced refinisher, this is a job best left to the pros.


An Old Damaged Vintage Purple Armchair


Now, having said that, let’s define value. We are not necessarily talking about a monetary figure here. You may have a piece of furniture that you inherited from a parent or a grandparent that holds a lot of wonderful memories for you. To a collector, it might not be worth a whole lot of money, but you would never part with it because of its sentimental value. This is another situation where it would be best to see a professional refinisher – you would no doubt be heartbroken if you took the job on yourself and botched it, so unless you are 100% sure you can handle the job, don’t risk it.


The Best Wood for Refinishing

If you feel like taking a chance on a DIY refinishing project, choose a factory-made piece from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. These pieces are not old enough to be extremely valuable, so you won’t ruin something priceless if the job does not go the way you expected. Also, you won’t run into any of the problems we have outlined when it comes to refinishing cheap, modern furniture. Look for a nice, sturdy piece.


Now, you’ll need to decide whether you are going to paint or stain. Really, it’s up to you. Of course you are going to encounter people who will tell you that it would be a crime to paint a piece of solid wood furniture, but if you don’t like the look of stain, and something in bright lemon yellow or pretty cream is just the thing you want to accent a room, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t paint. If you feel guilty, you can always strip it down and refinish it later – you’ll just be getting more experience!


Painting old wood furniture


Think about how you are going to use the piece too, though. For instance, if you are using the item in your kitchen, you need to know that if you place something hot on a painted surface, it could bubble. Also, if you are placing your finished piece in a high-traffic area, then you will need to think about damage from chipping and wear. Latex finishes are not very durable, but a gloss paint or enamel will generally hold up. If you decide to go with stain, then you will need to work with a piece that has not already seen heavy damage or chipping.


Specialty Finishes

If you are creatively inclined, you may want to experiment with things like crackle finishes, sponge painting, decoupage or stenciling. You can find plenty of ideas for furniture refinishing on sites like Pinterest, or by visiting your local building supply store. And of course don’t forget hardware, if you are refinishing a dresser or cabinet – the right set of knobs and handles can really add personality to a refinished piece.


Pinewood cabinet door with handle, near focus


Valuable wood should not be a DIY refinishing project unless you are very, very confident in your ability. Whether the value is monetary or sentimental, anything that is important to you is usually best handled by an expert. If you want to try your hand at refinishing, there are all kinds of older pieces of furniture that you can pick up, often at little or no cost. Then, you just have to decide what type of finish you want to use, prepare your piece, and create something beautiful out of the item that you found.

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