Ground Rules

You might adopt these ground rules for deciding whether or not to tacklc a project.

  1. Do you like the design? If you don't, or have mixed feelings, pass it up. Unfortunately, over the years, a lot of badly designed pieces have been marketed, and the fact that a piece is 50 years old doesn't make it less ugly.
  2. Can you use it now. or give it to someone who can? If not. pass it up. One incentive for doing the work is knowing that, when finished, your piece will find a welcome home and be used and admired. Without this, you may not have enough incentive to stay with the project.
  3. Does the piece have many broken or missing parts? You might expect to mend some parts, but save any major rebuilding projects for later, when your skills have developed.
  4. Does the piece fit into your rooms? If this is furniture that hasn't been in your home, be sure it is in scale with your other furniture. Older furniture, especially that dating back to the Victorian era, often was oversized to fit the big rooms of those old homes.

You are really asking yourself: is the piece worth restoring? It is hard to be positive and enthusiastic unless you are convinced that you will produce really worthwhile results.

This 19th century cardtable is missing a small strip of mahogany veneer

This side chair also should be handled with care Set into the mahogany are satinwood inserts Note the detailing of the upholstry nails to match the style of the chair

Here is more veneer that has broken away and must be replaced We also must add new casters. This piece dates to about 1852.

The back of the dresser rough, unsanded boards — is typical of much older furniture. We keep as much of the piece as we can

The veneer on this drawer has dried, cracked and broken away We usually try to restore veneer, but this lime we II have to replace it The wood types must match.

This is a detail of the front of the 1850 dresser, showing the hardware and the veneer on the facing pieces One of the drop-shaped knobs is missing and must be replaced

FIGURING OUT Once you have A REALISTIC decided the proj-WORK PLAN ect has a future, make a work plan. This is one of those secret ingredients many people don't know about. One good way to botch a project is to start without planning each step. Sooner or later, you discover that you have just taken the step at the wrong time, like staining oak before filling it.

A good work plan guarantees that each task in the project will be done when it should be. that the proper time is-allotted for each task, and that the whole job won't sink in a flurry of wasted work.

Step 1: List the Work First, make a list of what you can see has to be done. Note broken parts that must be mended, and any pieces that need to be taken apart and reglued. Examine the finish and make a judgment as to whether it can be salvaged or will have to be stripped and refiri-ished. Check the hardware, and note any that must be refinished. repaired or replaced. Look at the drawers, at the casters, at the joints. Search for evidence of old repairs, perhaps sloppily done, that will require work.

If there is veneering, is it damaged, blistered or lifting from the surface? Is one leg shorter than the others? Are carvings damaged and in need of restoration? Is the finish damaged, perhaps by cigarette burns or deep gouges'?

Step 2: Ordering the Work Be very thorough in making your list; then put the individual tasks in order. Some obviously-must be done before others. Here are some guidelines.

Cleaning As a rule, the first task should be a thorough cleaning of the piece. Over the years, wax, polish, dust, smoke film and other forms of pollution tend to build up on furniture surfaces. The buildup is so gradual that you may not notice it if the piece is presently in daily use. But the dirt is there, and you can't really judge how good the finish is until it has been cleaned. In addition, cracks in the wood and other problems will show up during the cleaning. Once the piece has been cleaned, reassess the work list. You can now decide whether you can save the present finish or must strip and refinish.

Repairing Repairs should be made before any refinishing. so the next step on the work plan is to schedule repair and replacement of parts. If hardware is missing. plan the hunt for matching parts now.

This is a detail of the front of the 1850 dresser, showing the hardware and the veneer on the facing pieces One of the drop-shaped knobs is missing and must be replaced

The veneer on this drawer has dried, cracked and broken away We usually try to restore veneer, but this lime we II have to replace it The wood types must match.

Here is more veneer that has broken away and must be replaced We also must add new casters. This piece dates to about 1852.

The back of the dresser rough, unsanded boards — is typical of much older furniture. We keep as much of the piece as we can

Old hardware often is hard to match. Specialty companies, which we will talk about later, can match most common old hardware, but contacting them and placing your order takes time, so put that into the work plan early. Then you may have the new hardware by the time you need it.

Regluing Is the piece wobbly because some of the glued joints have loosened? If so, the old glue is dry and has lost its holding power, so plan a complete regluing. This includes disassembling the piece, removing the old glue, and reassembling everything. Later in the book, we tell you how to do it, step by step. For now, include disassembly and regluing in your work plan.

Finishing When the work has progressed this far, you will have a completely repaired piece of furniture, with no missing or broken parts, ready for the rescue of the finish. If you are fortunate, you need only to perform repairs on the old finish to complete the restoration. See Chapter 6 for instructions on how to repair the ravages of cigarettes, misplaced drink glasses and other injuries to the finish.

If the finish is in bad shape, and cannot be salvaged by repairing, include a complete refinishing job in your plan. Schedule the stripping of the old finish, which you can do yourself or have done by a professional. In Chapter 7 on stripping, we discuss the good and bad points of both approaches. If you decide to do it yourself. the chapter tells about the stripping

Tye Behnke at the Squaw Alley Shop in Naper-ville, III., restores an old pot metal lamp. Places like this are invaluable for the furniture restorer
The shop contains display boards and drawers full of old, rare hardware
This detail of the golden oak dresser shows the carving on the mirror lyre The lyre had been removed and antiqued before we restored and refinished it
Detail of golden oak dresser Note the evidence of craftsmanship in the beveled edges of the drawer Refinish the insides as well as the outsides of drawers and cupboards

compounds that are available and how to use them. This is a messy job that can take considerable time, so plan an appropriate place to do the work and a block of time to do it in.

Next comes the cleanup after stripping — rinsing off the stripping chemicals, drying, and finally sanding to smooth down the grain of the wood raised by the stripper. Then you can finish the piece. Chapter 8 will give the information you need about choices of finishing materials, and Chapter 9 tells how to apply them.

Step 3: Choosing a Finish What kind of a finish do you want? You have many from which you can choose.

What do you want the final color to be? For the beginner, this can be tricky. We have found that most people who don't deal with furniture every day have trouble visualizing furniture colors. They tend to think in generalities when it comes to color. Walnut, they believe, is walnut, and mahogany is mahogany. The fact is, there is a wide range of color variations within each of those categories, and you must select the specific color you want before you buy the finishing materials.

There are fashions in furniture colors just as there are fashions in clothes. Years ago, for example, mahogany finishes tended to be a deep red-brown in color. Today, mahogany furniture tends to be more of a natural brown, much lighter in color. This gives rise to the question: if you are restoring mahogany furniture, do you want the "old" red-brown look, or do you want a contemporary lighter brown? The old look is authentic, if you want the piece to look as it did originally. And it is possible that the contemporary light brown may seem out of place on this design.

Your best move is to visit some good furniture stores. Spend a few hours looking at the displays. Look at the colors. Compare the pieces on the floor, and begin to sense the color variations. It won't take long to sensitize your eyes. Then you can decide which color you want for your piece.

^RPHBPP ' ^B9HEl.. ' m. ■ Next, visit the store where you purchase _ J r your finishing materials to see their displays of stains, varnishes and other materials, showing the range of colors available. You may find leaflets with color samples in them. If you have doubts, take

This 18th century mirror is a combination of pine, walnut, veneer and gilt Such a combination was these leaflets back to the furniture store to not uncommon, especially since pine was so plentiful match the colors. This traveling from store

to store takes time, but it is a good investment bccause if you don't like the final color you choose, the project will have been a failure.

Step 4: Finding a Work Area Furniture repair and refmishing are dusty jobs, so be prepared. You need a workroom where you can be messy in comfort. It is difficult to use a living area of your home, even if you spread papers on the floor and cover the other furniture. The major problems are dust from sanding, spills and splatters from finishing and stripping materials, and ventilation. In addition, tools must be conveniently at hand, so you need a bench or table for them.

The logical work areas are the basement, the garage, a porch, or a spare room that can be devoted to the project. You may find it best to use several work areas.

Hardwoods such as oak, the fruitwoeds and clear btrch are used to make good unfinished furniture which, when finished with care, become very worthwhile pieces

depending on the task. When you sand, the air may be filled with tiny particles that can get into television sets, motors and other equipment that won't work well when full of dust. So plan to do really dusty sanding in a place where the dust won't harm anything and cleanup isn't a big problem (Minor hand sanding doesn't make much dust, but machine sanding can rapidly fill the ait in a room.)

Stripping of the finish requires the use of strong chemicals and results in a lot of sloppy, hard-to-control residue. This residue can damage floors and other surfaces because it is full of active chemicals. The best place to strip furniture is in the garage or the yard, where the stripping and rinsing can be done with a minimum of concern over surroundings.

Basement work area Basements offer a logical workplace, but are not as good as many people think. All that sanding dust could do terrible things to a furnace or washing machine motor. For another, most basements have very poor ventilation. When you do a big sanding job. the fumes or dusty air has no placc to go. The dust becomes concentrated — and you breathe it. Likewise, if you work in the basement with highly volatile finishing materials, such as lacquer, you will breathe in a lot of hazardous fumes.

A basement workshop, with a workbench and tool storage facilities, is probably the best place to do repairs, gluing and regluing. disassembly and assembly. Light hand sanding can be done there, too. It might be a good place for the application of some finishes — varnishes that don't give off strong fumes, for example. And perhaps, with the addition of ventilation equipment, the basement could be used for other work.

A simple but effective way to ventilate a typical basement is to open all windows and set up a good-sized electric fan to blow out through one of them. This creates cross ventilation and a good movement of air through the area to dispose of dust and fumes.

An unused bedroom can be converted into a furniture workshop if you protect the floor from spillage, arrange for good ventilation, and set up a work bench or work table for tools, clamps and other materials. If your project takes place in the winter, such a room is likely to be more comfortably heated than a basement or a garage.

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