Revive, Not Refinish
Okay, I admit it. I like to take the easy way out. And if the finish isn’t dead and still has some life left in it, reviving is faster, easier, almost always results in a better looking finish and it’s cheaper. If it’s a genuine antique, reviving the finish will increase rather than degrade its value. Here is my five-step finish revival process.
Test the finish
Pick a small inconspicuous spot to try different solvents.
Use turpentine and a rag or steel wool to remove any grunge or wax build-up on the surface.
Revive the finish
In the case of an oil finish, apply more oil to the surface to rejuvenate the finish.
Step 1 - Identify the Finish
You will need to know what family of finish your piece is before it can be revived, and that takes only a simple solvent test. Because you’ll be playing around with some chemicals, have your eye wash bottle close at hand, wear clothing and shoes you don’t mind getting solvent on, then don your safety eye glasses (preferably chemical splash goggles) and neoprene gloves. Locate an area to work in that is well ventilated and well lit, then place a plastic drop cloth down and turn the piece over there onto its back. Select a small, 2″ square area that’s as inconspicuous as possible and clean that area with a rag lightly soaked in turpentine. Now that it’s clean, take a good look at the test area. If you can see open pores of wood under the finish and the finish is not glossy, odds are that an oil and wax finish has been applied. If that’s not the case, test for shellac. Take a fresh rag, soak it in denatured alcohol and wring out the excess before rubbing the test area gently. If the finish starts to dissolve right away or becomes sticky and darkens the rag, the finish is indeed shellac. If that doesn’t do anything to the finish, clean the test area again with turpentine and, once dry, start your test for lacquer. Do the same as before, only this time use lacquer thinner. If the finish comes off, it was likely lacquer. If nothing so far has affected the finish, it’s most likely a modern, vanish-based finish. Congratulations, you’ve identified the family of finish you’re dealing with, and are ready to begin the revival process.
Step 2 – Initial Cleaning
Working in that same well lit and ventilated area, get the piece ready for its initial cleaning. Remove any manufacturer’s labels and hardware. If it’s not obvious where these came from, label them clearly so they can go back where they came from when you’re finished. Get a bucket of clean, warm soapy water, dip a rag into it then wring out the excess. Wash down the entire piece, working in a logical order: top to bottom, one section at a time. Make sure to clean out your rag in the soapy water from time to time. Get into every nook and cranny and remember, your objective is to wash, not water-log the piece. This initial cleaning may reveal broken or cracked pieces, or failed joints. Before moving onto the next step, carry out any necessary repairs.
Step 3 – Remove Old Polish or Wax
If the piece has been around for any number of years, its finish has likely been smothered in countless layers of built-up wax and polish that need to be removed. A turpentine-soaked rag you’ve wrung out is just the ticket. As you did in the initial cleaning, things go best if you proceed methodically, working on only one section at a time. Rub down the entire area with the rag, refreshing the turpentine whenever the old polish or wax appears to be smearing around rather than coming off. As each area comes clean, wipe it down with a fresh rag. Don’t be skimpy with your rags as they’re far less valuable than your time.
Step 4 – Revival
With the finish type identified, the initial cleaning out of the way and any old polish or wax removed, you’re ready to revive the finish. Here’s where knowing what type of finish you’re dealing with comes into play, in a big way.
Reviving an Oil Finish.
Regardless of the oil that was originally used, be it tung, teak, Danish, hemp, or whatever, any other oil may be applied successfully. Thin the oil of your choice (I prefer hemp oil, incidentally) 50/50 with clean turpentine and apply it liberally with a rag or brush, one area at a time. Once it has become tacky, wipe off the excess with a clean rag and allow it to dry overnight. Using unthinned oil, apply as many additional coats as the wood will soak in, or until the desired effect has been achieved. Now proceed to Step 5.
Reviving a Lacquer Finish.
Start first by lightly abrading the finish with P220 sandpaper. Follow the #1 rule of working with sandpaper – rub only with the grain so that any scratches will appear to be grain marks. Vacuum off the piece to clean it and then fill a clean jar half way with lacquer thinner. The idea here is to brush on a thin coat of lacquer thinner, causing the old lacquer to reactivate and be spread, just as it did when it was first applied long ago. Any scratches or blemishes should disappear before your eyes. Keep your brush wet at all times and move from wetted to non-wetted areas until all areas of that section and all other areas have been renewed. Proceed to Step 5.
Reviving a Shellac Finish.
Shellac, like lacquer, is prepared for revival by a light sanding, followed by a thorough vacuuming. Mix four parts of denatured alcohol with one part of shellac in a clean jar and mix completely. Brush this concoction onto the finish, working only one area at a time. This should dissolve the old finish somewhat and cause it to be revived. Wait at least a few hours to see how well things are coming along. If it appears that the finish is not yet revived, or if the old finish was crackled, odds are that you’ll need to do a second and perhaps third application. Proceed cautiously and when things are looking fine, move along to Step 5.
Reviving a Varnish Finish.
Unlike oils, lacquers and shellac, today’s varnishes aren’t easy to revive. If it’s cracked, has developed small cracks or has begun to flake, unlike the other families of finish, a new coat won’t simply melt into the old. Short of abrading surface scratches and adding some new life into the old finish with oil, little else can be done without resorting to refinishing.
Step 5 – Protection
With the finish now revived, regardless of the family of finish, you need to finish off by adding a layer of protection. Lightly load a clean rag with paste wax (my favourite is beeswax) then go ahead and apply the wax, using a circular motion. The objective is to apply a thin coat of wax to every area. Work in a logical order, covering one section at a time. Give each section approximately five minutes to set up, then take a fresh cloth and buff gently, using that same circular motion you used to apply the wax. Go onto the next section and once that’s been buffed, return to the first section and polish it well with a clean rag, working only with the grain. Continue working this way until the entire piece has been buffed, then after waiting an hour or so, take a clean rag and aggressively give the entire piece its final buffing. By this time it should have a lovely sheen.
I am convinced that after you’ve tried your hand at reviving the finish on a few pieces of furniture, you will be asking yourself why you had so doggedly stayed with refinishing methods over the years. Reviving brings back the finish with so much less effort, faster and less expensively. Why, with the money you save, you can probably afford to splurge on that new tool you’ve had your eye on for quite some time. It just doesn’t get any better than that to my way of thinking.
I am reviving the finish of an old wooden camera from 1900’s, and it has a red shellac finish on it. I’ve already polished all the brass and protected that, now I need to work on the wood finish. I’ve been told to use French shellac, or a French technique, (multiple coats.) What is the best shellac for this job? Thanks.
HI Don – I would use a wax-free shellac, which you can get from Lee Valley or Wood Essence. For information read our shellac article and French polishing article. Good luck with the wood finishing.
The interior of a boat I am working on has beautiful Cherry joinery however the finish has turned cloudy, or milky. This is an English boat from 2006 and the literature that I have seen states that the finish has 2 coats of stain followed by 6 coats of lacquer. Is there any way to de-cloud the finish without stripping all the lacquer off and reapplying?
You may have a challenge on your hands, Karl, as it’s undoubtedly a case of water vapour being trapped beneath the lacquer. It’s going to be difficult to see how it’s entered: from the interior side or the outside. What I’d try is to place the boat upright inside a garage out of the weather so that no more moisture can get at it and see if the cloudiness dissipates after a week or so. You may need to apply a low heat source to speed things up, but be careful of how you use it as you don’t want to overheat things or worse, start a fire. Then while it’s drying out, investigate the source of the water vapour penetration and once it’s completely dry (no cloudiness in the finish) then seal it with the same products. Good luck with everything and let us know how it comes out, Karl.
I’m refinishing an antique library sofa table. I used turpentine with steel wool to clean the piece, and discovered that it reacted with the finish, it became sticky and has not dried as expected. I used some methyl hydrate on a test section and discovered that it evened out the finish and it dried without any stickiness. My question is whether the finish is shellac, and how to proceed now. I’m tempted to apply the methyl hydrate as it appears to be reworking the old finish nicely. Also looking for your opinion of possibly using Howards Restore a Finish product on the piece. Thanks Tim