Out of all the different types and styles of unfinished furniture, how do you know which pieces are worth buying? In this article, we'll discuss what to look for when selecting unfinished furniture, what work you'll have to do to get the piece ready, and how to fix what you've bought.
Price, unfortunately, is the first indicator. You really get what you pay for with this furniture. Before you buy any unfinished piece, comparison shop to get an idea of what's available. Most unfinished furniture is pine, but some is made with other woods. Whatever type of wood is used, the quality of the wood and the workmanship that goes into the piece can vary tremendously.
When you find a piece of furniture you like, take a good look at it. Is the wood clear or full of knots, smooth or rough? Cheap furniture is usually knotty and sap-streaked; the more expensive pieces are made with better-quality wood. What state is the wood in? Cheap furniture is probably raw, and may have rough edges and deep saw gouges. Good unfinished furniture is often already sanded, ready for finishing.
Another important consideration is how well the piece of furniture is made. Most unfinished furniture is assembled with staples driven by a power staple gun. Unless the stapling is carefully done, the joints may not be secure. How sturdy is the piece? Does it have wobbly legs, or are parts of it poorly fastened together? You can fix loose joints, but it's hard to salvage a piece that's badly matched or falling apart completely.
Are doors and drawers aligned properly, and do they work smoothly? If they don't, is it because they're the wrong size for the opening or because of loosely or inaccurately fastened hardware or drawer guides? You can deal with mechanical problems, but a part that's too big or too small can never be adjusted. Examine all moving parts to make sure they're cut, joined, and assembled properly. Finishing can do a lot, but it can't remake a shoddy piece.
The style of the funiture also is important. Look at the style. Do you like the lines of the piece? Will it do the job you want it for? Don't settle for a piece of furniture that's the wrong size or style; it isn't worth working on something you don't really want. On the other hand, a piece of furniture that's basically right can be given any character you like with different hardware, trim moldings, decorations, or special finishes.
Before you make a final decision, assess the work you'll have to do to get the piece ready to finish -- cleaning out knotholes and sap pockets, regluing legs, renailing drawers, repairing splits, smoothing splintered edges, changing hardware. How much time and effort will it take? How much hardware and trim will you have to add? Are the size and style right? Do you like the wood? How much are you saving by buying the piece unfinished? It all comes down to one basic question: is it worth it? If you choose carefully, it is.
Once you've selected a piece, you're all set to take on all those little problems. Learn how to get your wooden furniture cleaned up and ready for finishing in the next section.
How to Repair Surface Damage on Unfinished Furniture
No matter how carefully you shop, unfinished furniture is likely to have a few problems. The joints may be loose; moving parts may stick. There are usually a few knots in the wood, and these will bleed through the finish if they aren't sealed. There are almost always rough edges or saw marks. Before you prepare the wood for finishing, take the time to deal with these problems. Your results will more than justify the effort.
Loose Joinery and Poor Assembly
The first step in working with unfinished furniture is making sure it's solid. Examine the joints to locate any weak points; drawers are especially likely to need refastening. If the staples or other fasteners are solid, renailing may not be needed, but if they're off-center or don't look very secure, reinforce them by driving finishing nails next to them. Drill pilot holes for the nails to keep the wood from splintering. If the staples are loose, pull them out with pliers, and renail the joint. Fill the staple holes with wood filler.
Loose legs, rungs, arms, or spindles should be reglued. Test all parts of the piece to make sure they're secure, and reglue or refasten any loose part.
If the piece has drawers, they should work smoothly. Check the drawer guides, inside the frame, and the runners on the bottom edges of the drawer. They should be square and securely fastened, with no protruding nail heads. Refasten the guides or runners, if necessary, and countersink protruding nail heads with a nail set.
Knots and Sap Pockets
Examine the wood carefully for spots where sap has flowed or resin beaded on the surface. Scrape off hardened resin, and clean knots and sap pockets with turpentine on a soft cloth. If large knots are loose, remove them entirely; then apply carpenters' glue around the edges and replace the knots, flush with the surface.
If small knots are loose -- pin knots -- remove them completely and fill the holes with wood plastic or water putty. Seal all knots and sap pockets with a coat of 1-pound-cut white shellac; if the shellac is completely absorbed, apply two or more coats, as needed, to seal the knots completely.
To correct surface roughness, sand the edge smooth. If there are low spots or gaps in an edge, fill them with wood filler or water putty and then sand the filler smooth. Square edges should be very slightly rounded before finishing; smooth and round them with fine-grit sandpaper on a sanding block. Do not plane edges; planing could splinter the wood.
Saw Notches and Splinters
Dull saw blades leave notches and splinters, and you're likely to find these problems anywhere the wood has been cut or joined. If the notches are very shallow, you may be able to sand them out. In most cases, you'll have to fill them with wood plastic, and then sand the filler smooth.
Special Finishing Steps
Unfinished furniture requires the same preparation and finishing as stripped furniture, but it also requires a few preliminary steps.
First, sand the wood very thoroughly. Unfinished pieces are usually rougher than stripped pieces; start sanding with medium-grit sandpaper and then work up to fine-grit. Make sure all edges, knot faces, joints, and door and drawer interiors are completely smooth.
Raw wood must be carefully sealed. Unsealed wood absorbs moisture, and this can cause serious problems. If the piece of furniture has drawers, seal them inside and out with a coat of thinned white shellac or sanding sealer, to prevent warping and splitting. Seal all hidden parts -- drawer guides, side and bottom panels, and any other exposed wood. Seal the entire piece of furniture, and then lightly sand it again to remove any tooth from the surface. Any further finishing you would like can be done at this time.
Unfinished wooden furniture can turn out to be a bargain if you know what to look for and which minor surface damages are easy to repair.
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