What is Furniture Restoration?

Furniture restoration is the complete process of revitalizing a piece of furniture to its full potential. It is not about making the piece look new again, because if that is your goal, you are best off just buying a new piece of furniture. Restoration takes into account that the furniture is old and has a certain character that comes only with age. That character is something to be appreciated when you start considering your first restoration project and is generally something that you should want to preserve or you will end up with a piece of furniture that has lost all of its vintage or antique appeal (more to come on the difference between vintage and antique later on). It can be hard to describe in concrete terms but there is a certain “je ne sais quoi” antique and vintage furniture has, which comes only after decades of use and enjoyment but can be destroyed in minutes with a poor restoration job.

However, after saying all this, perhaps you don’t care so much about the antique qualities of the furniture, or the piece has little or no value as vintage furniture, or maybe the piece has surface damages beyond fixing, but the structural integrity is still good and the overall form of the furniture is pleasing to you, then by all means, there are things you can do and will learn to do in this course that will allow you to transform any piece of furniture you have into something you will love. It can be fun and interesting to incorporate modern and contemporary design elements into vintage and antique furniture, so allow your imagination to guide you.

The restoration process generally includes repairs to the wood and joinery, replacing or cleaning hardware, removing old finishes and applying new ones, lessening the appearance of damage and ensuring the piece is level, sturdy and rigid (i.e. doesn’t twist, sway or lean in a way that is not intended). Furniture restoration is about taking something that is unusable to you, either because of damage or outdated styles and making it useable to you.

You might be interested in furniture restoration because you have a specific piece you are hoping to restore or change, or because you are looking for a hobby and like working with your hands, perhaps you get fulfillment from taking something old and tired and making it beautiful and useful again or maybe you are hoping to one day make a living restoring furniture. Either way, this course will help you build the foundational skills needed to be able to restore your very own furniture.

What's it all about Alfie..................

About Wood

It is important to know that wood, even once it has been cut from the tree, milled, dried and turned into a piece of furniture, will always act as though it is alive in certain ways. Wood is very susceptible to changes in humidity in the air and something that is warped in summer might be perfectly flat in the winter. Wood expands across the grain when moisture increases, this is also important to know. While every type of wood is going to react differently, a board of wood with the grain going lengthwise is not going to get longer but will get wider as humidity increases and this can cause warping and cracking. The variances are minor to the naked eye, but can often be enough to pull furniture apart at its joints so if you are having trouble getting something back together, try moving it to a dryer location for a few days and you might find it becomes easier. This could be most prevalent for you in one of the most common kinds of joinery methods used called mortise and tenon. The mortise is the hole and the tenon is the pin. Once the pin is glued and fitted into the hole it swells to form a very strong bond. You might find that these loosen over time and if you are having trouble fitting it in, try drying out both sides and it might fit better.

Basic Supplies and Tools You Will Need

While there are endless tools a woodworker or professional furniture restorer might have in his or her shop, you will be fine with some basic yet essential tools and supplies needed to complete most restoration projects. You will see what each of them are, what they are used for, an approximated cost you might expect to spend and any important details on the safety and efficacy of their use.

Wood Glue:

Also known as carpenters glue or cabinetmaker's glue, it is important to use glue specifically intended for wood. The way wood glue works is it raises the grains of the wood on each piece when it is wet, then those wood fibers cross and get entangled, as the glue dries they flatten down again but are permanently interlocked creating an ultra-strong bond between the two pieces. For best results make sure there is a nice even layer completely covering both surfaces that are to be glued together.

Wood glue is not expensive and a 500ml bottle should be around £3 to £5. There are specific types for outdoor use, as wood glue will soften again when wet, so if you are working on outdoor furniture it is a must that you use outdoor wood glue. Because wood glue is water-soluble, it makes clean up easy and you don’t have toxic fumes like you may with epoxy type glues.

Why Restore Furniture?

There are a lot of good reasons to begin restoring furniture. Restoring furniture is not always going to be the easiest, cheapest or fastest way to get yourself something new, but there is something to be said about the feeling you get from taking a piece of furniture that is worn out and tired and bringing new life back into it. It is always recommended to take a before and after photo of the piece so you can really see the transformation you have just made.

Most vintage and antique furniture was built differently than a lot of furniture today is built, and there are certain styles of furniture that are hard to come by these days. Restoring older furniture is a great way to get yourself a quality piece of furniture that you would not be able to find anywhere else. You will have something truly unique at the end of your restoration project. As previously mentioned there is usually a certain charm, patina or “je ne sais quoi” that furniture gets as it ages, and you can enhance this with the restoration process. This is something you just can’t find in brand new furniture.

Another interesting reason to restore old furniture is that the wood used 100 years ago actually looks different than wood used today. In the past trees grew in nature at their own pace and were often decades if not hundreds of years old when they were cut down. Because of this, there was a distinctive pattern in the wood grain. Today trees are being grown as fast as possible to keep up with demand and are being cut down at a younger age. New wood tends to have a wider grain and a different look to it than wood coming from old growth forests.

Restoring furniture is also more sustainable than buying something new. There is so much furniture that ends up in the landfills every year as styles change or people move, and the more of it we repair, refinish and restore, the less we have to make and toss away. Style and décor trends change faster than trees can grow and currently we are tossing out wooden furniture faster than trees are able to grow. We often think wood is abundant and endless, but we forget that most of the furniture we have is made from something that use to be living and takes years to grow large enough to use. There is also no reason to toss out furniture that is still structurally sound but is only in need of a new surface finish. Similarly, a crack in the wood, or loose joints, is not reason to toss a piece of furniture when those are simple problems to fix

Antique vs. Modern Restorations

There are few differences to keep in mind when you begin furniture restoration in regards to antique, vintage and modern furniture. By definition, antique furniture is more than 100 years old, and vintage furniture is more than 20 years old, however, antique and vintage furniture are often grouped together and in real-life there aren't such hard definitions of what is modern and what is antique. We also think that antique furniture has certain characteristics in regards to how it is made, what it is made of and the style it is made in, but we should remember that in time, everything that lasts will become an antique. There are some differences between antique and modern furniture you should know about before starting a restoration on either new or old pieces.

You first might ask how you can even tell the age of your furniture. The style is going to be a major factor for sure, but there are so many reproductions of older pieces that even that is not a sure-fire way to know. Look under, inside and behind the piece. Often the sections that don’t face outwards will give you a clue to its age. If these parts look new, it is likely any aging on the front facing sections was faked and the piece is not as old as it was made to appear. You can also find clues in the glass or mirrors used. Old mirrors might have a fogginess to them and old glass could appear wavy or have tiny air bubbles in it. The hardware can also give you a clue to its age. Antique furniture will generally use a “slot head” (or flat head) screw because Robertson (square head) and Phillips (star head) were not commonly used until much more recently. The hardware in true antiques will generally be of a better quality, being solid brass as opposed to brass plated, or will just generally be more substantial and heavier in weight than a lot of the cheap alloys used today. Another thing to look for is an actual date of manufacture. Antique furniture was more likely to be stamped with the date and place of manufacture, a practice that is generally not done anymore with modern furniture.

So, you might wonder why you would even need or want to know the approximate age of the piece of furniture you are working on and there are couple examples of why that information might be important. The first thing to consider is that older furniture was painted with led-based paint, and there are extra precautions you will want to take when removing old paint that could contain lead. It has already been advised not sand old finishes off, but this is especially important when dealing with lead based paint. You do not want lead laden dust flying around the room. Even when stripping off led paints, you will want to ensure adequate ventilation and takes breaks in the fresh air when possible.

It is also important to know that sometimes modern furniture might look like real wood, but in fact, it is a paper-thin sheet of wood applied to a composite material like MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) or particle board. You will want to know beforehand if the piece you are working on is real wood all the way through or not.

Even a light sanding on a modern piece of wood that is not in fact real wood, can reveal whatever composite material lies beneath the illusion. Secondly, composite materials are especially prone to water damage that is often irreversible. It should be noted that some wood stains are water based and will have the same negative effect on the wood product as actual water, which is generally bubbling, puckering and swelling of the affected area. 

Working with types of wood

Understanding wood grain and the way it reacts is to moisture will also help you when you have to do a repair with wood glue.

End grain does not glue to other end grain very well and even gluing end grain to cross-grain won’t produce a very tight bond.

This image shows a cutting board made of end-grain wood. End grain is not a certain kind of wood, it is just the way the wood is oriented in relation to the grain.

There are two categories of wood, hardwood, and softwood. These are loose terms and not all hardwoods are in fact "harder" than all softwoods.

Softwoods tend to come from coniferous or evergreen trees and hardwoods tend to come from deciduous trees.

Hardwood is what is used in higher quality furniture, as it tends to be less susceptible to wear and tear.

Softwoods

Examples include Pine, bass, cedar or fir.Softwoods will usually have a wide grain and will be lighter by volume than hardwoods and may or not have knots in it. The fibers of the wood in softwood will appear and feel looser.

Hardwoods

Examples include walnut, maple, ash, and oak and tend to be heavier and have dense wood grain that you can't splinter very well.

Removing Finishes

Now that have gathered your supplies, chosen the piece of furniture you want to work on and planned out your process, it is finally time to get started on the restoration itself. Removing the finish off of a piece of furniture will usually change the look drastically for the better. A lot of antique furniture has been finished in a glossy type of finish such a varnish, shellac or polyurethane. While you very well may want a glossy finish on wood, this is not something that is currently done a lot and generally the preferred finish for antique nowadays is a hand rubbed oil. Of course, however, the finish you choose is all about personal preference. Oils like Danish Oil and Tung Oil penetrate the wood and give it a natural looking sheen and luster that ages beautifully with time, while varnishes, shellacs, and polyurethanes sit on top of the woods surface and generally are very obvious in that fact. They can even crack, chip and peel over time and give some furniture a dated look. However, even if you want and like this kind of finish, you might still want need to remove the old finish and start fresh with a new application to give the piece a nice clean look.

Put on your heavy-duty rubber gloves, respirator mask and clothes and shoes that cover all your skin.

Pour some of the furniture stripping solution into a small container (such a yogurt container or anything else you can get your hand into). This will make it more accessible to use and limit the possibility or large spills. You will be dipping steel wool into the stripper and applying it the surface of the wood. It is not recommended to simply pour stripper from its original tin onto the wood, as there is little control. You will want to apply a thick even coat that covers all surfaces paying special attention to crevices and corners. The stripper should be approximately half a centimeter thick on the woods surface. You should begin to notice the finish beneath being to pucker almost immediately. Paint tends to pucker the quickest and with the most extreme peaks while other finishes like varnish might only pucker slightly. It is still working to soften the finish below whether there is extreme or minimal puckering. You should allow the stripping solution to sit on the wood for at least 10-15 minutes so work in small sections and move to the next while the first area is activating.

Finishes

There are many types of finishes that you can apply to wood and they all have difference looks, feels, intended uses and levels of difficulty in applying. Below is a list of all the common types of wood finishes and a little bit about them to help you both determine what might be on your piece of furniture or what you wish to apply to it. It is important to be working in an as dust free space as possible because you do not want dust particles to embed themselves into the wet finishes.

Varnish: Varnish is a nearly clear protective finish that sits on top of the woods surface. It is an old product that was used on antique furniture. It can be used to make wood water resistant and can be a good choice for furniture that will be outdoor or in humid conditions. Varnish is applied with a soft bristle brush and will require a couple coats with several hours of curing time between coats. You might be tempted to buy a cheaper brush, but a higher quality brush made for the purpose of applying this kind of finish will give you a better quality finish. Look for water-based varnishes as they are less toxic, more environmentally friendly and will emit fewer fumes, which is important if you are working indoors. If you are using varnish in an outdoor application, however, you will probably want to go with an oil-based formula. Oil based varnishes are made with synthetic oils and have a strong odor when wet.

Wax: There are many types of furniture waxes and they too sit on the surface of the wood but have a slightly more matte and natural look than varnishes and polyurethanes. Wood waxes are excellent at protecting the wood from water damage. Waxes can be a good finish to use for wood that will come in contact with food, as there are natural food-safe wood waxes available. Wax is best rubbed on and can be buffed for varying degree of glossiness. A downside to wax is that it is not forever and you will need to reapply wax every so often as it wears off. Depending on the furniture and how it’s used, you might have to reapply wax as often as every six months.

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