Refinishing Furniture

Today I’m going to take a break from writing about social class, although I suspect this post will touch on it anyway. I want to talk about something I did today, which was refinish furniture.

It was harder than it should have been, for two reasons. First, I started by making a stupid mistake. The furniture I’m refinishing comes from two places. There’s a wooden chair that comes from Goodwill. I think it cost maybe $10? Then, there’s a wooden chest of drawers that comes from the side of the road, where a woman who was moving out of her house put it. I asked her about it, and she sold it to me, together with three armchairs, for $25. When I got them, these items were not in particularly good shape. The chair from Goodwill wobbled, and although I liked its shape, it was stained a dark color that made it seem too somber. The wobbliness was easy to fix: it just needed putty, in a place no one would look anyway, to replace some missing wood. But what to do about the dark stain? The chest of drawers was painted black to emphasize certain details, so again it was quite dark. And the armchairs? Well, imagine wooden armchairs with orange velvet upholstery. Bright orange velvet, the color of a pumpkin. And yet, like the Goodwill chair, both the chest of drawers and the armchairs had interesting shapes. There was something there – and they were solid wood, or I would not have bought them, no matter how cheap they were.

So what to do? Well, I thought I would just repaint the chair and chest of drawers a lighter color, a sort of soft white. And I would of course get the armchairs reupholstered, after painting them as well. So I started by painting the chair and chest of drawers.

As soon as I had done so, I knew I had made a mistake. I’m not sure exactly why it didn’t work – I did a perfectly fine job painting. And painted furniture is popular nowadays – it’s in all the decorating magazines. And after all, I had used the same paint on a wicker chair and a birdcage that I had bought, with great success.  Maybe I just needed to get used to the painted chair and chest of drawers? That’s what I kept telling myself for about a week. At the end of that week, I knew I had to redo them. They just didn’t look right.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been stripping the paint I put on, and it’s been an awful, awful job. Because you see, under that paint are layers of previous finish. On the chair, I think it was probably varnish. On the chest of drawers, there is a layer of paint that I suspect is an oil paint, by its goopiness, and under that another layer of something – maybe even some sort of shellac? Step #1 was paint stripper. On the chest of drawers, the two layers of paint together made what we furniture refinishers call, in technical terms, a “goopy mess.” Step #2 was Minwax Antique Furniture Refinisher, which is one of my favorite things in the world, because it really does take everything off, although you have to spend a lot of time rubbing and use a lot of paper towels.

I hadn’t refinished furniture for a long time, so there were some things I had to relearn, like the effectiveness of Minwax Furniture Refinisher. (I went through several cans of different refinishers, trying to deal with the aforementioned “goopy mess.”) Another is that when you buy gloves to refinish furniture, they must be gauntleted; otherwise, you will get small chemical burns on your arms. Small chemical burns sting like mosquito bites. They go away quickly, but I’d rather avoid mosquito bites if I can.

And what am I getting out of all this? Well, as it turns out, once I stripped the chair, I discovered lovely wood underneath. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s dark, with a close grain. And under all the paint and finish on the chest of drawers is a walnut veneer. They are going to look so much nicer when they’re done. I still have a long way to go, but I’m getting there.

There are two lessons in all this. The first is that when you take what you assume is the easy way, you often have to redo all your work anyway to get the job done properly. Second, if you buy solid wood, you can always take it back down to the core. So it doesn’t really matter if you make a mistake, because it can be fixed. But only if you buy good quality furniture in the first place, whether it costs hundreds of dollars or $25 by the side of the road.

The second lesson was taught to me over and over again, when I was a child. When I wanted to buy something that was fashionable but not of good quality, I was given the lecture again, told that something of inferior quality would not last. Furniture should be of solid wood, clothing should be of natural fibers, jewelry should be real, not imitation. And that’s pretty much the way I still live.

I’m not going to give you a picture of the furniture yet, since it’s still being worked on, but I will include a picture of a small antiques store I stopped in today, on my way to the hardware store. It’s one of my favorites, and the proprietor knows me well.

I’m leaving for Hungary in about three weeks. I want to finish the furniture by the time I leave, because once I come back things get complicated. So I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I love refinishing furniture – the hard physical labor of it. And I love seeing something beautiful emerge.

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2 thoughts on “Refinishing Furniture

  1. My husband would crow with joy at this. He’s a historian and a huge fan of antique furniture in its original shape. We’ve had to get some of the doors in our house stripped and refinished for that reason–to let their true beauty show.

    Though I’m with you in thinking some painted wood looks pretty. I do like to tease my husband that I would find the perfect antique writing desk and then paint it purple, just to see the horror on his face. :D

    • Oh, you would probably see horror on my face as well! :) I think some things can be painted: wicker, for example, often looks better painted. And anything that was originally painted is usually best kept that way. But I do love beautiful old wood . . .

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