Craftsman, Woodworker, Antiques Refinisher, Columnist, Author and Television Host
"Can an old finish be saved?
Once considered unimportant,the finish on any antique is now subject to a great deal of scrutiny as collectors attempt to determine whether or not it is original to the piece. Original finishes can create a dilemma, for some finishes darken as they age. For decades people considered stripping a piece - and destroying the original finish - as an acceptable price in order to better see the grain of the wood. Today we regret losing those original finishes and seek means of restoring and preserving those that we find.
Q. - I have heard that refinishing actually reduces the value of an antique. Is that the case?
A. -- Of a true antique, yes. Of used furniture that will never be considered antique, no.
Collectors of any era of antiques value an original finish, regardless of its condition, over a new finish, for not only are these antiques extremely rare, they are considered 100% intact. If an antique had previously been refinished in an inappropriate color or finish, you can improve its appearance and increase its value by a second and more sensitive refinishing, which this site will describe.
Q. - How can I tell if an antique has been refinished?
A. -- Take out all the drawers, pull it away from the wall and turn it upside down. In short, look where the refinisher hoped no one would look. If it has been refinished you will see the evidence:scars from the stripper on the underside or back, runs from the stain on the drawer bottoms, drips of finish on the edges of boards or sanding scratches where they shouldn?t be. Check the slots of any screws:if scratched or damaged, they may be telling you that someone removed the hardware to either replace it or to refinish the wood around it.
Q. - What should I do to clean an antique with its original, but dirty finish?
A. -- Very little. As I said in my opening, "less is more."
If it is extremely dirty, you can try cleaning the original finish using just a soft cloth dipped in warm water with a little mild liquid soap. Do not use steel wool or abrasive pads, for they will scratch a brittle finish. If the grime is stubborn, use a commercial furniture cleaner on your cloth, but NOT a floor cleaner and not TSP (trisodium phosphate). Do not use anything with even a whiff of ammonia, for it will strip an old shellac finish. Do not use mineral spirits, lacquer thinner, denatured alcohol, paint thinner, turpentine or any solvent, for these can soften an old finish. And above all else, first test whatever you are using in a small, inconspicuous spot.
Q. - What do you recommend to protect an original finish?
A. -- Nothing other than a high quality paste wax. By itself, paste wax is not a very strong finish, but it is the only acceptable finish you can apply that will strengthen and preserve the original finish without harming the antique value. Afterwards, make sure your antique is not exposed to direct sunlight and will not be subject to rude guests, pets, children, houseplants, alcohol or water.
Q. - I saw a description in an auction catalog for a Stickley table with an "enhanced original finish." What is that and is it as good as an original finish?
A. -- A museum curator or advanced collector would scoff at the term "enhanced" original finish, for purists believe that if it is not 100% original, then it is not an original finish.
In most cases an "enhanced" original finish means that the original finish and color was nearly worn off in places, causing someone to then wipe a coat of stain or dye over the worn area. Collectors expect to see some wear in any antique; when the wear isn't there, a closer examination generally reveals a touch-up, an enhancement. This, however, is less troublesome to collectors than a finish which is described as "topcoated original." In this case a clear finish has recently been applied over the original finish. Since the original finish and color still exist, technically the piece has not been stripped and refinished, but the original finish has been sealed beneath a new coat of a modern finish.
This is not to say that you should not buy either an enhanced or topcoated piece. It only means that you should pay less than you would for one which is 100% original.
Three Important Rules: Always follow the manufacturer's directions, take all safety precautions and first test every product in an inconspicuous spot.