Monday, August 8, 2011
Basic Refinishing 101
QUESTION: I have a 1930's silky oak drop-door desk that has been in our shed for about 20 years. It has seen a few cyclones and had a lot of weathering and the doors are off and knobs missing. This desk holds special memories for me as a young child watching my dad working at it. I’d like to refinish it but have no idea where to begin. How hard would it be for a beginner like me to refinish it?
ANSWER: Your desk sounds like the ideal piece of furniture on which to learn about refinishing furniture. For many beginners, refinishing seems easy, but it’s far from it. First you need to decide if the piece needs to be completely refinished or the original finish preserved. Your desk seems like it may fall somewhere in between.
It’s only been within the last 20 years or so that refinishing products have appeared that make the job less intimidating. However, most people think you have to strip off all the old finish before applying a new one. That all depends on the condition of the piece.
Your piece appears to have been through some tough times. Before you do anything, you need to evaluate it. Has the finish been mostly removed by weathering or is it spotty? If it’s the former, then you’ll need to sand it following the grain of the wood with fine to medium grade sandpaper. If it’s the latter, you may be able to just clean it up and apply a new coat of varnish. With refinishing, a little effort goes a long way. The nearer you can keep your desk to its original condition, the better.
After you’ve completely stripped your desk of its finish, lightly sand it with fine sandpaper. Wrap the sandpaper around a wooden block for support and sand with the wood grain. Be careful not to over sand---just enough to smooth the surface. After you’re finished sanding, wipe the desk with a damp cloth to remove all the dust. Do not get the wood wet.
Once you have prepared your desk for its new finish, let it rest for a day to make sure the surface is thoroughly dry. Dust it off with a dry cloth to make sure it’s clean, then begin to rub on a new furniture finish of tung or Chinese oil using a piece of white tube sock or other soft cotton material going with the grain of the wood. Several manufacturers make this, including Formbys, and you should be able to buy it at your local hardware or home center. The first coat will soak into the newly stripped wood. Let it dry 24 hours, then sand lightly with fine sandpaper. Dust it with a damp cloth again and let dry. Apply a second coat of the tung oil and repeat the process, except this time rub it with 0000 steel wool after it dries. Dust off again and apply a third and final coat of tung oil, but don’t rub with the steel wool this time.
The advantage to using tung oil is its rapid drying capability. Though it will feel dry to the touch in an hour or so, be sure to let it thoroughly dry for 24 hours. And don’t apply it on a humid or rainy day. And here's a tip: Wrap your application cloth in plastic wrap or put it into a Zip-Loc sandwich bag and place it in your freezer. Take it out 30 minutes before you're ready to apply another coat, and it will be ready for you.
Be sure to tune in next week to learn about preserving the finish of a piece of furniture that isn’t in such bad shape.