How to Restore Wooden Furniture Finish

furniture restore
Trying to restore those beautiful old wooden shairs? Tom Grill / Getty Images

Before you start restoring a piece of furniture, you need to know what finish is on it. If you don't know what the finish is, you could end up damaging a perfectly good finish or wasting your time on a technique that won't work. This knowledge is also essential in repair work; determining the finish is especially helpful when you're matching one finish to another. For restoration purposes, the only distinction that really matters is the difference among the three basic natural or clear finishes: shellac, lacquer, and varnish.

The pigmented finishes, such as paint or enamel, are easy to identify. The only other finishes you may encounter are oil, wax, and penetrating sealers, identifiable by touch and the absence of a high gloss. These finishes can be restored only by reapplication. On most furniture, a clear finish is one of the basic three: shellac, lacquer, or varnish.


Before you do any work on the finish, you must identify it. First, test the finish with denatured alcohol; rub a little alcohol onto an inconspicuous finished area. If the finish dissolves, it's shellac. If it partially dissolves, it's probably a combination of shellac and lacquer. Test it again with a mixture of denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner; this should completely dissolve the finish. If alcohol doesn't affect the finish, rub a little lacquer thinner on an inconspicuous finished spot. If the area turns rough and then smooth again, the finish is lacquer; if the finish crinkles and doesn't get smooth again, it's a type of varnish. If neither alcohol nor lacquer thinner affects it, the finish is varnish.

After identifying the finish, you're ready to restore it. Whether the problem is dirt, cracks, discoloration, or overall wear, it can often be solved by the following restoration techniques.

Cleaning Techniques

The easiest restoration process is cleaning; what first appears to be a beat-up finish may just be dirt. Over a period of years, even furniture that is well cared for can acquire a dull, sticky coating of wax and dust. In many cases, this coating can be removed with an oil-based commercial wood cleaner/conditioner. These cleaners will cut through layers of dirt and wax. They are available at furniture stores, supermarkets, and paint stores.

Following the manufacturer's instructions, apply the cleaner generously with a soft cloth and let it stand for an hour or two. Then wipe off the cleaner with another cloth. Repeat the process, using plenty of cleaner, until the wood is clean and lustrous -- this may take up to four or five applications. Buff the clean wood lightly to remove excess oil.

If a commercial cleaner/conditioner doesn't do the job, remove the built-up grime with a mild solution of warm water and liquid detergent. Use sparingly and work quickly; don't soak the piece of furniture or pour the solution over it. Water can cause a white haze to appear on a shellac or lacquer finish, the same haze that appears when a glass leaves a white ring on a table. When the furniture is clean, rinse off the detergent with water and then carefully and thoroughly dry the wood with a soft cloth or a towel.

Let the wood dry completely. If there's a haze on the finish, you may be able to remove it with steel wool. Buff the surface lightly, with the grain of the wood, with No. 0000 steel wool. Then apply a commercial cleaner/conditioner and lightly buff the wood again.

If detergent cleaning doesn't work, use a solvent -- depending on the type of finish -- to clean the wood. Solvent cleaning is the last resort to consider because it may damage the finish. Use mineral spirits or turpentine on any finish; use denatured alcohol on varnish or lacquer. Do not use alcohol on shellac or on a shellac/lacquer mixture. Working in a well-ventilated area -- outdoors is best -- apply the solvent with a rough cloth, such as burlap or an old towel. Then wipe the wood clean with another cloth. Finally, apply a commercial cleaner/conditioner, and buff the wood lightly.

Detergent and solvent cleaning can also be used to rejuvenate wicker and rattan furniture. Use the same techniques mentioned before, but be especially careful not to use too much water. Let the piece of furniture dry thoroughly; if possible, set it in the sun to dry. If the old finish is very thin or worn, apply one or two coats of spray varnish, spraying carefully to cover the wicker or rattan evenly. Let the new finish dry for several days before using the furniture.

If your furniture finish is cracking, scratched, or showing an alligator-type texture, you'll find another option to make it look like new in the next section.


Reamalgamation of an Old Finish

An alligatored finish, usually the result of excessive sunlight or temperature changes, shows a pattern of many small intersecting cracks. It can often be restored by reamalgamation.
©2006 Publications International

Reamalgamation is a grand revival technique that can make alligatored, crazed, cracked, and scratched furniture look like new. Basically, reamalgamation is the near-liquefication of a marred finish so that it dries solid and unblemished. It works like magic, it's easy, and it can eliminate the need for a refinishing job. If it doesn't work, you haven't spent too much time and effort trying.

Alligatoring, crazing, and cracking are all basically the same thing. They're all caused either by sunlight or by temperature changes, and they can all be eliminated by reamalgamation. Alligatored finishes have lots of small lines intersecting into a rough pattern; crazed finishes have erratic lines running everywhere; and cracked finishes have larger lines, or just one line, running across the surface. Scratched finishes can be reamalgamated only if the scratches don't go below the finish. If the scratches are in the wood itself, you'll have to refinish the area.


The type of finish on the furniture determines the solvent used for reamalgamation: shellac is reamalgamated with denatured alcohol, lacquer with lacquer thinner, and a lacquer/shellac mixture with a mixture of three parts alcohol and one part lacquer thinner. Varnish usually can't be reamalgamated.

Before you work on the finish, clean the piece of furniture thoroughly with mineral spirits or turpentine to remove all wax and dirt. Don't work on a very humid day if the finish is shellac; the alcohol used to liquefy shellac can draw moisture out of the air and into the finish, resulting in a haze or blushing.

The secret of reamalgamation is to work fast, especially with lacquer. Start with a small area to get the feel of it; once you're satisfied with your results, go on to reamalgamate the entire finish. Apply a moderate amount of solvent with a brand-new, absolutely clean natural-bristle brush. Purchase a store-bought amalgamator or mix your own. Use denatured alcohol on shellac, lacquer thinner on lacquer, a three-to-one mixture of alcohol and lacquer thinner on a lacquer/shellac mixture.

To reamalgamate the finished surface, apply solvent along the grain of the wood in quick, long strokes; work quickly, and don't let the brush get dry. Don't try to brush out all the cracks or scratches at this point; many of them will disappear as the finish dries. If you work on individual marks too much, you may actually be removing the finish instead of liquefying it.

As the solvent dries, the finish will have a high gloss, and then, after 30 minutes or so, will become very dull. If the reamalgamation was successful, the scratches and nicks will have disappeared, and the finish will look solid.

Reamalgamation is not always a one-step process. If the cracks in the finish are deep, it may take two or three applications of solvent to remove them. If repeated reamalgamation doesn't work, the problem is probably in the wood; you'll have to refinish it.

After the reamalgamated surface has dulled, lightly buff the finish with No. 0000 steel wool, working in one direction along the grain. Don't exert much pressure, just lightly polish the finish. Then wipe the surface clean with a clean cloth. If the reamalgamated finish is very thin, clean the surface with a tack cloth and apply a new coat of the same finish, right over the old one. Let the finish dry, buff it lightly with No. 0000 steel wool, and then wax the piece of furniture with a hard paste wax. Buff the waxed wood with a clean cloth.

Salvaging a Discolored Finish

Blushing, a milky discoloration in the finish, is a common problem with shellac-finished furniture and can also be a problem with lacquered wood. Varnish finishes are not affected by blushing. Blushing is caused by moisture -- prolonged high humidity, exposure to water, or just age. If the haze isn't too deep in the finish, you may be able to remove it with No. 0000 steel wool and oil or by reamalgamating the finish. Deep-set blushing, however, can be eliminated only by refinishing.

When blushing is present in an alligatored or cracked finish, try reamalgamation first; this may remove the blush as well as eliminating the cracks. If the finish is not cracked, or if reamalgamation doesn't remove the blush, use steel wool to remove the discoloration.

Before you start, make sure the surface is clean. Remove wax and dirt with mineral spirits or turpentine. Then dip No. 0000 steel wool in mineral oil, linseed oil, or salad oil, and rub it gently along the grain of the wood. Work slowly, and make sure the steel wool is always well oiled. The abrasive is removing the top part of the finish, leaving a clean finish behind. Dry the wood with a soft cloth and polish it with a hard paste wax. If the blushing is only in the top part of the finish -- and it often is -- this steel-wool rubbing will remove it. Otherwise, you'll have to refinish the wood.

What happens if your furniture finish wears down?  We'll discuss how to overcoat a worn finish in the next section.


Overcoating Old Furniture Finish

To touch up a worn spot, apply oil-based stain to the bare wood with a brush to match the rest of the piece.
©2006 Publications International

Any material wears down over a period of time, and furniture is no exception. Sometimes the entire finish is worn, sometimes only heavy-use spots; worn spots are most common around doors and drawers. On an antique, wear is part of the patina of the piece and is used to date and determine the value of the furniture; it should not be covered or restored.

The same consideration applies to almost any piece of furniture: Wear and tear adds a certain character. But a thin, old finish can be recoated. And where refinishing is the only alternative, you may be able to repair the worn spots.


First, clean the surface carefully with mineral spirits or, for lacquer or varnish, denatured alcohol. If the entire finish is worn, clean the whole piece of furniture; you must remove all dirt and grease. Then apply a new coat of the finish already on the wood.

If you're touching up worn spots rather than recoating an entire finish, clean the worn surface, then sand the worn spots very lightly with fine-grit sandpaper. Be careful not to exert much pressure.

Once the wood is bare, it must be refinished. If the piece of furniture isn't stained, this is easy; if it is stained, you'll have to restain the bare spots to match.

To touch up the worn spot, use an oil-base stain that matches the stain on the piece of furniture. You may have to mix stains to get a good match. Test the stain on an inconspicuous unfinished part of the wood before working on the worn spots.

Apply the stain to the damaged area with an artists' brush or a clean cloth, covering the entire bare area. Let the stain set for 15 minutes, and then wipe it off with a clean cloth. If the color is too light, apply another coat of stain, wait 15 minutes, and wipe again. Repeat this procedure until you're satisfied with the color. Let the stain dry according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Lightly buff the stained surface with No. 0000 steel wool, and wipe it clean with a tack cloth. Apply a new coat of the same finish already on the surface -- lacquer, shellac, penetrating resin, or varnish -- over the newly stained areas, feathering out the new finish into the surrounding old finish.

Let the new finish dry for one to two days, and then lightly buff the patched areas with No. 0000 steel wool. Finally, wax the entire surface with hard paste wax, and polish it to a shine.

Decoration Alternatives for Old Finish

Restoration -- cleaning or reamalgamating, spotpatching or steel-wooling -- is the easiest way to make old furniture look better, but it isn't always a success. If the old finish is basically in good shape, you can often salvage a dull old piece of furniture with decorative accents or special finishing effects. If the old finish is damaged, you can cover it completely with enamel instead of refinishing. Before you remove the old finish, consider the alternatives; you may not have to refinish to give an old piece of furniture new life.

Special-effect finishing can do a lot for a dull piece of furniture. Antiquing, flyspecking, stencils, decals, and painting stripes can add interest and charm to many pieces and are especially effective for country-type furniture. Where you want a bright, distinctive accent piece, an enamel finish may be the answer. Enamel can be applied over an old finish, and it hides a lot of flaws. It also lends itself well to further decoration.

Hardly anything we do is 100 percent successful. But if you try some of the techniques mentioned in this article, you will find an easy way to restore the old finish on your furniture.

©Publications International, Ltd.


Restore Wood Furniture FAQ

How do you restore wood furniture with vinegar?
Use 3 parts vegetable or olive oil to 1 part vinegar. Shake the mixture in a jar. Soak a soft cloth in it and wipe it on your furniture. Or you can pour the mix into a spray bottle and spray it accordingly.
How do you remove cloudiness from wood furniture?
Soak a soft and clean rag in mineral spirits. Use the cloth to wipe the cloudy part with long strokes that align with the wood’s grain. You will see that the wax finish starts to look dull and hazed while being removed.
Does vinegar ruin wood furniture?
Since vinegar is acidic in nature, it can damage wood if used directly on it. However, if mixed with oil or other ingredients it is fine.
How do you rejuvenate wood furniture?
The first step is to clean it with lemon-oil or orange cleaner, like Murphy's Oil Soap. Avoid using furniture polish – it is not effective enough. Let the cleaner sit on your furniture for 10-15 minutes before removing. Then make an oil and vinegar mix of 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar and rub it on your furniture. To take out scratches, open a walnut and rub the meat on your furniture on any dings you find. It should look almost new after these treatments.