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How to Restore Wooden Furniture Finish

Overcoating Old Furniture Finish

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

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.