top of page

Refinishing & Refurbishing... What is the Difference?

When my wife and I first got into this field almost 44 years ago we were overwhelmed with a lot of both old and new terms used in the field of furniture refinishing. We did a lot of personal research by traveling extensively, visiting actual furniture manufacturing facilities, and taking paid training from furniture restoration schools such as the Mohawk, Star, Minuteman, and Kwick Kleen/Restorco supply companies. You have to remember this was a time of NO internet support and computers of very diminutive abilities. In our search for providing services for people that wanted to keep/restore/renew their furniture we found kind of an "old school" group of services which just wanted to aggressively strip everything to bare wood and refinish and a "new wave" philosophy of only mildly working with the existing coating surface but still removing most of it. Anyone remember, the Formby generation? Formby's take on this was to make a "refinisher" remover that contained little active stripping ingredients and mostly just mild solvents. With this tech. you were lifting some of the coating up in the steel wool you were using and thus removing what might be the upper layers of a coating, then going over what was left with a Formby heavily pigmented gel stain and tung oil. After extensively looking at what conservation people that work in our nations museums and maintain collections we finally arrived at some methods that we thought could still allow us to offer stripping/refinishing services as well as the ability to restore or "refurbish" old original finishes. So these are the terms we settled on....


Stripping is the removal of organic coatings to clean bare wood. Stripping processes should also include the removal of stains and any other organic materials not present in that wood when it was originally kiln dried for furniture making. Stripping services should include a pH adjustment of the wood to a slightly natural acidic state which is present in most woods. Stripping should also include a 2 to 3 day drying period to adjustment the Equillibrim of Moisture content to 12% or less for proper refinishing. Take a look at this mid 1800s church pulpit. What was left of the original coating was actually melted down into the pores. You can actually see the clean quarter sawn white oak striations. This is what we strive for in good stripping practices. Note how clean the carvings are with no distortion.

Refnishing is the reapplication of new stains, sealers, special art effects, and finish topcoats. This process usually begins with a sanding/smoothing of the wood surface with various grits of sandpapers and possibly cabinet or razor scrapers. Some antique furniture may not have been stained or our client might just want to see the uncolored beauty of the wood itself so the stain step is always optional. Moving on to clear wood sealers is next which soaks down into the wood pores. So what are art effects? Did you ever try to get a just a can of stain at the local hardware that was the "right" color or what you thought was right for your piece? Didn't work did it? WHY? We found out early on in this field that what you are seeing is a "layering" of color work. This may include a stain in the wood and subsequent layers of minor colors mixed into glazes and toners which are above the stain but below the finish topcoats. You can see these type of effects in the tombs of Egypt on many wooden items. Paints, stains, and glazes were used to achieve very personalized works of art for the Kings and Queens of the time. Move forward to the mid to late 1970s and I would say you see the most complicated of color layering in Thomasville, Hendredon, and other high end furniture makers. In the old Thomasville factory repair books there would be details of 30 to 80 steps of coloring effects. So it is little wonder that when many of these extra color steps are not recreated we end up with a look that is just not right. So lets take look at that same pulpit with some layering accent of color.....


Here we have elected to leave the wood in mostly a no stain look however we have used a burnt umber glazing compound to highlight the carvings which gives the piece more depth and dimension. Once past the highlight we then can use clear sealers which drop into the wood pore struture followed by further surface coating. So what are we finishing with? Most professional shops use catalytic lacquers and varnishes as the workhorses for both protection and enhancement of the wood. These finishes are available in many sheens from dead flat to eggshell, to satin, to semi-gloss, gloss and extra high gloss. Upon request we can also provide what we call "historically correct" coatings which may include variations on shellac or spirit based coatings or even nitrocellulose lacquers. And yes, that includes French Polishing. Sounds like a lot of work, right? Well that brings us to refurbishment.....


Refurbishment is the treatment of a piece of furniture to save as much of it's original finish and look as possible. So why would you ever just try to save a dirty old failing finish? The question becomes is that a vaild statement? For a finish surface to be failing it should be peeling, flaking, or show a great degree of water, heat, or sun damage. Dirt is NOT a reason to remove a coating that is in otherwise good shape. Here in the US we have had some great housekeeping and maintenance which did indeed save these surface coatings. We can use conservation style chemistry to simply clean off layers of dirt and stabilize somewhat softened coatings. New clear sealers can be melted into the existing coating and more durable topcoats added without shifting the piece to a "new" look. With the help of the customer we can also determine just how much surface repair should be done. Did Grandpa carve his initials somewhere on that desk? Was that an old India ink stain from the 1800s? These are things that could be wiped away by stripping and refinishing. And now apply what you have already learned about that color layering aspect.... We are not removing ANY of those effects with refurbishment and can still ADD some repair layering of colors if needed. That is truly a win win for saving a piece's heritage. So how good can refurbishment look???? If we put two pieces that had been done with stripping/refinishing and the other with refurbishment I doubt you would know the difference..... Take a look at this old desk, totally done in refurbishment methods....


Would you have guessed that it was chewed up on it's legs?



Another area where refurbishment can be of great benefit is in bringing old art frames back to life. Here we have a badly broken silver leaf applique style surface. If you have to start from bare wood on a project like this it could easily take 40 to 60 hours to get that look back...



Doing the silver frame in repair/refurbishment fashion means more like 4 to 6 hours of work and retention of that beautiful original patina.


This is an extremely heavy mirror frame with gold leaf. We went in and spotted in new leaf, reassembled the broken header carvings, then layered it out to keep it's antique look....


What a beautiful frame....


It's interesting.... two of my competitors said they could do nothing with this frame. Another said it should just be discarded. I'm glad it came to us.......


So in conclusion which is better for the furniture, stripping/refinishing, or refurbishment? Some "soft rules' kind apply to this. If coatings are failing to the point that the wood itself might be compromised or possibly a dining surface has become "biologically unsafe" for daily use then stripping and refinishing may be the only option. If original coatings are still in place and not failing or the customer wants a piece to stay as "original" as possible then refurbishment is the way to go. The bottom line is that any methods needed to make a piece of furniture part of the household is a win in our book. Questions?, join us in Chat....





Recent Posts

See All

Looking for just one........

This may seem like an odd place for this but our customer base knows what we do and what we are about.... People that work with us or for us are few and far between because they may stay with us 5 to

Comments


bottom of page