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Antique Furniture Restoration: A (Tongue-in-cheek) Guide for the DIY Impaired

Posted on July 25, 2019 by Tim Erickson

ski country blog antique furniture restoration guide

Part 1: Wax On

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.

 antique furniture restoration bookshelf before antique furniture restoration bookshelf after
One of our antique furniture restoration projects. The piece is a bookshelf dating from around 1910, and it came to us all the way from Florida.

Let's Start at the Beginning - Valuing the Item is Crucial

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. 

Sometimes a Good Cleaning Really is the Best Option

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!

antique furniture care cleaning soft cloth

Use a soft cloth to regularly dust your antique furniture. Avoid sprays and oils.

Furniture Repair Products (and Why You Should Just Use Wax Instead) 

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 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.  

Value before DIY antique restoration (yes, actual value): $12,000
Value after attempted DIY antique restoration: $3000 (75% of its value gone for only $9.95)

    Don’t be like Client A.

    Pro Tip #1 - Wax, The Miracle Worker

    While we have talked about the benefits of maintaining 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.

    1. First, find a paste wax such as Briwax or Fiddes & Sons, in the correct color for your item.  You may need multiple cans if you have an eclectic range of furniture in different finishes.
    2. Use lint free microfiber rags or cheesecloth and apply small amounts with the wood grain.  After the application has been allowed to set, or dry, use a clean cloth to buff the surface.  If you are looking for less sheen, use grade #0000 steel wool to lightly scuff the surface of the wax, in the direction of the grain, before buffing.  

      antique furniture restoration buff with wax

      Use lint free microfiber rags or cheesecloth and apply small amounts with the wood grain.

      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.

      Pro Tip #2 – More Wax, For Those Pesky Gouges, Dents or Minor Damage

      Hard wax fillers are great for filling in larger scrapes, dents, gouges and cracked or separating wood, in a finished piece of antique furniture.

      antique restoration how to before  antique restoration how to bookshelf with gouge
      how to repair antique furniture bookshelf after
      Notice the dents and gouges on this bookshelf? I first used new wood for the repair then hard wax to fill any small gaps between the new and old wood of the case.

      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.

      1. I like to use three (sometimes four) different colors of wax depending on the shade of the finish, blending and slightly overfilling the gouge with wax.
       
      2. Once the wax has hardened I use a plastic scraper to pullover the filled area at an angle, removing excess wax until I get a uniform, even surface. A hard spatula can also be used. 

        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 furniture restoration DIY-er, and is a great place to start getting into the craft.  In the next part of of this guidet I will be going over a few of the more challenging antique restoration techniques.

        Ready for Your Antique Restoration Project?

        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).

        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 repair and restoration services.  

        Posted in antique furniture, antique furniture repair, antique restoration


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