Depending on the finish you want to achieve and the original coating of the item

Refurbishment or Full Restoration?

Refurbishment is the process of removing the original coating, whether lacquer, beeswax, oil, or shellac, and re-applying a new finishing coat to give your furniture luminosity.

By comparison, a full restoration is to remove coatings and take the item back to the original wood, just as it was created by the craftsman before it received its first coat of stain or protective coating. This means that essentially you are beginning with raw timber.

Refurbishment is the easiest option and one more suited to an antique that needs to look the part. Full restoration requires more effort and removes all dents and scratches in the substrate to create a perfect surface.

Generally a beautifully aged antique will lose its authenticity under full restoration but occasionally careful restoration is not only warranted, but will extend the life of the item. Always check with an antique dealer or professional restorer to ascertain the best approach.

Resurfaced table - Photo courtesy of Earthwood

Resurfaced table – Photo courtesy of Earthwood

Shellac Coatings

Although shellac has been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it began to be used as the predominant wood finish and many antiques from that period were coated with it. Shellac coatings were popular in the western world until the 1920s when the technological advances in lacquers and varnishes became more reliable and produced quicker, more durable options.

Despite the trend towards engineered coatings, shellac produces a fantastic finish and Earthwood loves its look, feel and smell. Shellac blends with the substrate and gives the appearance of being part of the wood. The effect is achieved through the method of application which involves hundreds of minute layers being blended together to form a finish which to this day cannot be replicated by spray methods.

Stripping Old Furniture Finishes

Removing old finishes can be achieved in a number of ways but the most common, and easiest, is to use a chemical stripper (paint stripper), particularly on paint and two-pack lacquers. The down-side of using a chemical stripper is that water is required to wash the chemical off. This can sometimes make the substrate rougher than it would be if the options of manually removing the coating with steel wool and solvents were used as follows:

  • Oil and beeswax finishes – use turpentine and steel wool (go in circles gently –wiping completed areas with cotton rag as you go to see how things are progressing).
  • Old shellac – use methylated spirits and steel wool.

A lacquer thinner and steel wool can be used on some older coating products such as lacquers and shellacs.

No matter what method you use, always trial a small hidden area on the item to be sure you are using the removal technique which works best for that particular item.

Next Step Restoration and Refurbishment Processes

To do a full restoration, varnishes, oils and lacquers need to be completely removed, bringing the item back to its original timber and hopefully, colour. The next step is to sand the surface to bring it back to the original timber and remove all marks.

For refurbishment only, once you have removed the finish with the solvents, you should be ready to apply a protective coating, but if you aren’t entirely happy with the smoothness of the surface, then try using very fine paper (240:400 grit) and/or steel wool to abrade to the desired texture.


©Theresa Sjoquist