Turn old into new with a bit of research and a lot of elbow grease
If you can’t imagine parting ways with a piece of antique furniture, consider restoring it instead. Though the thought of using sandpaper on a family heirloom may make your stomach flip, a few smart tricks, the right tools and materials, and a little know-how will ensure you have all you need to restore it to perfection by yourself.
Use these tips to find out everything you need to know about a piece of furniture to refresh it, including the design style and the right repairs for different types of damage.
1. Do Some Research
In order to understand how to restore a piece of furniture properly, you need to know a bit about how it was made in the first place. Details like how it was constructed, the materials and hardware involved, and any tool signatures will help you figure out the material you have.
Determine the Wood Type
You should make repairs with the same type of wood from which the piece was constructed, so finding out this detail is crucial. Most American furniture is made from one or more of the following types of wood:
Cherry: tight, closed grain and light in color
Walnut: hard and dark with a tight grain
Maple: hard and light in color with speckles of red and brown
Poplar: white with green and brown streaks
Pine: light brown with reddish undertones and dark knots
Oak: straight-grained and light beige.
Mahogany: straight-grained, red to pink in color, and free of knots and gaps
Figure Out the Style of Furniture
Additionally, most antique furniture in America falls into one of three categories:
Classical: These furniture styles include Hepplewhite, Queen Anne, Chippendale, and Adams Brothers style. Furnishings of this style were created in shops supervised by a pro craftsperson and with extreme care and the highest quality materials. Curves and carvings are one of their main characteristics.
Country furniture: This style features straighter lines and simpler designs and is highly functional. These furnishings were typically constructed by one craftsperson who had relatively few tools and materials.
Primitive furniture: Furniture of this genre was usually homemade, often not by a trained craftsperson. It tends to refer to the age of the item, rather than its design, although many primitive furniture items may feature folk art or deep, dark colors.
If you think you may own a highly valuable piece, contact a furniture appraiser to confirm or quash your suspicions.
Watch Out for Lead
Though not extremely common, some antique furniture is known to contain lead. Sanding and refinishing furnishings with lead can be extremely hazardous, so always bring a piece to a professional furniture repair person in your area when in doubt.
2. Clean Your Antique Furniture
You can’t properly inspect your antique furniture until it’s fully clean. Something that may appear to be a flaw could actually be a dirt mark. Wash and dry wood furniture with a mixture of gentle dish soap and warm water or a wood cleaning solution. Spot treat and gently launder upholstered furnishings (or outsource the project to a local upholstery cleaner) before beginning restoration.
3. Inspect It Closely and Know What You’re Looking For
Now that your furniture is clean, it’s time to take a closer look. These are the different types of damage you’ll find on antique furniture.
Light scratches: can be easily repaired with light rejuvenation
Deep scratches: usually requires refinishing
Chips: small chips can be recovered with light repairs and refinishing, but deep chips may need an expert touch.
Sun damage: refinishing is more than enough to fix this type of damage
Stains: small stains can sometimes be removed with a proper cleaning, but large or deep stains may need refinishing.
Tears, snags, or scratches (in upholstered or leather furniture): Small snags or tears can be repaired with a sewing needle or machine and some thread, or by a professional upholsterer in your area.
Make a note of every issue you spot to get all the tools and materials necessary to fix them.
4. Determine What Kind of Restoration a Piece Needs
To ensure your old furniture actually looks good as new, you first need to figure out what kind of restoration it needs. Here are the most common ways to restore just about any piece of furniture, no matter the damage.
This restoration process is best for furniture pieces with small blemishes or injuries that are in otherwise good condition. You’ll be amazed at how good some antique furniture looks after a clean, wax, and polish.
This process involves removing, repairing, or replacing fabric elements of a piece of furniture. Doing it yourself can be tricky unless you know your way around a sewing machine. However, washing upholstery is sometimes enough to make a worn-out couch or armchair shine again.
With refinishing, you’ll be stripping the current finish off of your furniture with either sandpaper or a chemical peeler, patching up holes, cracks, and chips with wood filler, and restaining and refinishing the whole thing. This project isn’t impossible for the average person to do themselves, but it will require a lot of patience and planning.
Repairing a piece of vintage furniture can include things like fixing a broken chair leg or sealing a small or large crack. It involves much of the same work as refinishing, plus additional steps like sourcing new pieces.
5. Find the Right Supplies
When making extensive repairs on antique furniture, using the same tools and materials is essential to preserve quality. That means sourcing the same type of wood, screws, joints, and anything else involved in the original construction process.
Upholstered furniture is the only exception to this rule, as some fabric isn’t meant to stand the test of time. (And most pieces won’t lose that much value from a simple fabric swap.)
6. Remove as Little From the Original Piece as Possible
Furniture restoration aims to restore, not reinvent (unless your goal is to make a new and exciting piece of furniture), so only remove what you absolutely can’t save. And try to repurpose what you can’t salvage to fix any remaining damages. Avoid throwing anything away until the very end of a restoration project just in case you end up needing one of those spare pieces.
7. Smooth Out Modern Marks to Preserve Antique Design
When you’re putting the finishing touches on your furniture restoration, don’t forget to eliminate any signs of modern interference. Sand down marks from present-day tools and use paste wax to add sheen, protect against pollutants, and maintain your antique furniture for years to come. Just be sure to remove excess wax as necessary to avoid buildups.