How to restore the wooden furniture Finish

Identifying an Old FinishIf you don’t know what the finish is, you could end up damaging a perfectly good finish or wasting your time on a technique that won’t work. This knowledge is also essential in repair work; determining the finish is especially helpful when you’re matching one finish to another. For restoration purposes, the only distinction that really matters is the difference among the three basic natural, or clear, finishes: shellac, lacquer, and varnish. The pigmented finishes, such as paint or enamel, are easy to identify. The only other finishes you may encounter are oil, wax, and penetrating sealers, identifiable by touch and the absence of a high gloss. These finishes can be restored only by reapplication. On most furniture, a clear finish is one of the basic three: shellac, lacquer, or varnish. Before you do any work on the finish, you must identify it. First, test the finish with denatured alcohol; rub a little alcohol onto an inconspicuous finished area. If the finish dissolves, it’s shellac. If it partially dissolves, it’s probably a combination of shellac and lacquer. Test it again with a mixture of denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner; this should completely dissolve the finish. If alcohol doesn’t affect the finish, rub a little lacquer thinner on an inconspicuous finished spot. If the area turns rough and then smooth again, the finish is lacquer; if the finish crinkles and doesn’t get smooth again, it’s a type of varnish. If neither alcohol nor lacquer thinner affects it, the finish is varnish.

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After identifying the finish, you’re ready to restore it. Whether the problem is dirt, cracks, discoloration, or overall wear, it can often be solved by the following restoration techniques.


Cleaning Techniques

The easiest restoration process is cleaning; what first appears to be a beat-up finish may just be dirt. Over a period of years, even furniture that is well cared for can acquire a dull, sticky coating of wax and dust. In many cases, this coating can be removed with an oil-based commercial wood cleaner/conditioner. These cleaners will cut through layers of dirt and wax. They are available at furniture stores, supermarkets, and paint stores.

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Following the manufacturer’s instructions, apply the cleaner generously with a soft cloth and let it stand for an hour or two. Then wipe off the cleaner with another cloth. Repeat the process, using plenty of cleaner, until the wood is clean and lustrous — this may take up to four or five applications. Buff the clean wood lightly to remove excess oil.


With the season of flea markets and antique fairs now upon us, I’m prepping for the summer influx of secondhand furniture finds and putting together the ultimate used furniture cleaning kit. With most of these household items already in your kitchen, you’ll be ready to get any grimy piece sparkling in no time.

•    Baking soda. Mixed with water, baking soda forms a paste that polishes silver, lifts coffee and tea stains from ceramic and porcelain, and removes mildew and grime. Also a deodorizer.
•    Borax. Ingredient in homemade cleansers and polishes. Great for porcelain,  stainless steel, and dirty outdoor furniture.

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•    Citrus. Deodorizer, ingredient in homemade cleansers and polishes. Removes lime scale and hard water stains.
•    Coconut oil. Removes sticky labels, lifts ink from plastic and vinyl, removes rust, polishes wood and brass.
•    Murphy’s Oil Soap. A go-to miracle cleaner for restoring wood pieces.

•    Novus. Polishes and removes scratches on lucite and acrylic.  
•    Olive oil. Polishes wood, protects rattan, repairs scratches on leather, and shines stainless steel.
•    Sandpaper. For removing scratches from wood and an essential step for refinishing.
•    Steel wool. Stick to the super fine variety to remove deep-down dirt and polish wood pieces.
•    Vodka. Deodorizer, removes sticky labels, shines chrome, glass, and porcelain.
•    White vinegar. Brush on vinyl and wood to remove all manner of smells. Mix with olive oil to remove ring marks on wood.

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