Updated on April 27, 2020
Type DIY furniture repair into your favorite search engine and prepare to be overwhelmed with over 100 million results. Type DIY antique furniture repair and close to 20 million results are at your disposal. So why, you may ask, am I posting yet another blog post about antique furniture repair and restoration? To convince you that what seems like a simple DIY fix may not always be your best option.
In this multi-part guide, I will lay out a few scenarios that I have seen in 20 years of antique furniture restoration and repair and what I do (and more importantly, don’t) recommend.
The first thing that needs to be evaluated is the value of the piece in question.
They say new cars depreciate as much as 11% the minute you drive them off the lot. I’m here to tell you that for most new furniture purchased today, that depreciation (and I’m not making this up) is as much as 110%. In other words, you will never be able to resell that item; you may not be able to pawn that item off on a family member; and you may even have to one day pay someone to have the item removed from your possession.
So, if we are talking IKEA-grade furniture or big box “some assembly required” furniture, then by all means continue with your DIY project. It’s hard to decrease the value of something that has no resale value to begin with.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, if your furniture item truly is antique then some attention to restoration should be adhered to.
If you have any questions regarding the value of your antique item, before you attempt any repairs yourself, please send me some photos to info[at]skicountryantiques.com. I will be happy to go over the estimated value of your antique and what restoration may entail.
You may be thinking, “But I use Pledge furniture polish once a week!” If you have Pledge or any of the oil-based furniture polishes available on the market, please stop reading, go to your closet or cabinet under the sink and throw them directly into the garbage. Go ahead, we aren’t going anywhere.
Now that you have that taken care of, click on over to our previous blog post, How to Care For Your Antique Furniture - Our Top 5 Tips, to get some other great tips about everyday furniture care. Just make sure to come back!
There are a number of DIY products you can pick up at your local hardware store or online. In this guide I will go over a few of the most widely available, why you shouldn’t use them for antique furniture repair and restoration, and what to use instead.
Howard Restor-a-Finish (or, maybe I should have opened a window)
I am reminded of a client (whom I will refer to as Client A), who was willed an antique 18th century Hepplewhite satinwood sideboard from a relative. Having no idea of the value of the piece, they decided to pick up some Howard Restor-a-Finish at their local hardware store. After thoroughly coating the entire piece with the product, all of the exposed grain started drinking up the solution and began darkening. What now sat before her, was not a beautifully restored piece of furniture, but a sickly looking mess of dark streaks and uneven tones. The moral of the story; this client had taken a beautifully crafted piece of furniture from the 1700’s, that would have needed around $500 in professional antique restoration, and caused so much damage to the piece that the only option would be a full restoration (at a substantially higher cost) to remove the product that had penetrated deep into the grain.
Don’t be like Client A.
While we have talked about the benefits of maintaining antique furniture with wax paste in our previous blog posts, the product’s uses can’t be overstated. It is (and I may be giving away a trade secret here) the number one product used by professional restorers looking to, easily, give new life to an antique furniture restoration project.
Not only does the wax protect the piece, in many cases the tint in the wax will cover or fill most of the undesirable blemishes.
A pure or “natural” bristle brush, designed for waxing, can be used to apply and buff the wax in hard to reach or decoratively carved area.
Wax can be applied over almost any finished surface, making it one of the most highly versatile products available. I, however, try to avoid using waxes over antique painted furniture or furniture that has a painted faux grain.
Wood Filler (or, welcome to an even bigger mess)
There are a number of different wood fillers out there; soft wood putties from Minwax, Plastic Wood from DAP, the list goes on and on. If you have larger gouges or damage, most of these wood filling products are not suitable for the DIY-er on a finished piece of antique furniture.
Client B came to me with a European farm table from the early 1900’s. The tabletop had numerous cracks, splits and gouges from years of use. He had attempted to fill said cracks with (I cringe even typing this) Elmer’s Carpenter’s Wood Filler. In the process of sanding down the filler to be flush with the tabletop, they ate away at years of beautiful patina surrounding the “repairs”. Matching an existing patina, especially one that has naturally developed over a hundred years or more, is costly and requires experience and a trained eye (or two).
What could have been an inexpensive (less than $100 repair) turned into a much more costly venture.
Don’t be like Client B.
Hard wax fillers are great for filling in larger scrapes, dents, gouges and cracked or separating wood, in a finished piece of antique furniture.
The easiest hard waxes to use that are available online will be sold in kits, with multiple colors and often a heating tool used to melt the wax into the damaged area.
The beauty of this method is how well it pairs with the paste wax we discussed earlier, filling any cracks or gouges before the application of the paste.
I feel wax really can fill (pun intended) many of the superficial needs of the antique furniture restoration DIY-er, and is a great place to start getting into the craft. In the next part of this guide I will be going over a few of the more challenging antique restoration techniques.
If I have tempted you to give wax a try on your next antique restoration project, please feel free to send us an email with any questions you may have. (We love seeing before and after photos as well). Discover more tips for caring for your antique furniture.
As always if your project is more than you would like to take on, or you want to leave it in the well-waxed hands of a professional; send photos of your piece to info[at]skicountryantiques.com and we will get back to you with a quote for our antique repair and restoration services.