WHEN we reach the point of removing old finishes from our early furniture, we must first consider whether or not we really do want to remove them. We shall, of course, find some pieces which have had one, or many, coats of varnish—now possibly cracked and stained. But, in such cases, cleaning and smoothing are easy. Sometimes we may find furniture of light-colored wood, such as maple or pine, which has been deeply stained in imitation of mahogany. Such examples are extremely hard to restore to anything like their proper color: probably only after thorough scraping can the desired result be accomplished. Perhaps we shall find a certain number of pieces which are original and intact in every way, and still have their original coats of finish.
Refinishing Not Always Desirable In mahogany, walnut, or maple, we may occasionally find a piece intact and with its original varnish well preserved, and with a smooth surface mellowed by time to a delightful patina. It is considered to be in the best taste to retain such a piece "as is," except for a good rubbing with brown wax (as later described) or with furniture polish.
In painted furniture, we must distinguish between an original finish—which is likely to be merely a single coat of red, dark green, gray, or black paint—and superimposed finishes, which may consist of from two to fifteen coats of old paint and varnish put on at irregular periods during the career of the piece.
If we can find a piece carrying its first single coat of paint
and wish to keep it as found, we need only to wash it gently with soap and water, and, when dry, rub it well with brown wax or furniture polish. Washing will remove the old grime; the wax or polish will sufficiently restore the color, and will give a dull gloss.
We may find pieces of furniture, either solid or veneered, overlaid with successive coats of many sorts of varnish, paint, and varnish stains. It is rather a mystery why anyone should ever have wished to apply paint to the surface of fine old mahogany, cherry, or walnut furniture. But, whatever the reason, such treatment was quite common. Only recently I saw a handsome inlaid mahogany sideboard whose beauty had been thoroughly concealed by a heavy coat of brown paint.
Any mahogany, cherry, or walnut piece which has been painted white (a not uncommon treatment) is very difficult to clean, as the white paint enters into every pore and crack, and, even after cleaning, is likely to show in violent contrast with the darker original wood. As one refinisher, almost without exaggeration, remarked, "The only thing to do is to pick out the white with a pin." A piece made of dark wood which has been painted brown, or red, is not nearly so difficult to bring into a proper state of cleanness.
avoid the scraper
Let me next observe that a knife, a scraper, or pieces of broken glass should play as little part as possible in cleaning old furniture, glass is dangerous to the user and bad for any furniture. We often hear the expression "scraping down," in connection with old furniture, which usually means the avoidance of varnish remover, or other solvents, and the use of scrapers or knives for removing overlays of paints and varnish. Such harsh treatment takes off not only the old finish, but also the outer surface of the wood, which
MARKS OF THr IL'RM K ClilSLL ON A WIN1%()R CIKIR-LLG These ¡.lion 1J be preserved to shovt, authennciry above everything we want to save. Particularly harmful is the scraping down of any turning, such as that of a Windsor chair leg. Since much pressure must be used in this process, the scraper moves irregularly over the surface of the turning and leaves, inevitably, a rough, scarred and jagged member.
Modern turning-lathes have a speed of from two thousand to five thousand revolutions per minute, and sandpaper is used to smooth the revolving wood. Old turning-lathes ran slowly and when the turner's curved chisel progressed bit by bit over the gradually revolving surface of a Windsor chair leg, or the leg of a tavern table, it left shallow spiral grooves running about the leg. The plane was the tool used by old-time joiners for smoothing. Until rather a late date, sandpaper was not known. The old planes had a blade with a slightly curved edge, so that each stroke left in the surface of the wood a wide, shallow, slightly rounded track. These plane marks may often be seen on chest ends, drawer fronts, and table frames. All these marks of the turner's chisel and the joiner s place are valuable evidences of old, slow, honest work, and are nearly always to be found either on the exterior or the interior surfaces of our early furniture. They are almost never found on reproductions. The removal of these traces renders the piece thus treated just so much the less desirable. Deeply scraping down early furniture is quite as bad, and quite as disastrous, as buffing early silver and pewter, or allowing fine old oil portraits to be "touched up" by some helpful, but inexpert, "artistic" friend.
solvents for old finishes
When we are ready to clean our old furniture, whether entirely original or restored, there are three solvents whose uses we may consider: varnish remover, lye, and savogran.
These three solvents are fiery compounds, and should be used with care and kept away from the user's eyes. A pair of thin rubber gloves save the hands; and old clothing should be worn while any cleaning-off is being done. Lye, particularly, will remove not only paint, but the soles of shoes, finger nails, sections of skin, and trouser legs as well.
Outdoors on bright and windy days these three solvents dry so quickly as to be of slight avail. They may, however, be used in the open in dull, damp, and still weather.
Varnish remover is marketed under a number of different trade marks; but, as it is all made under the same patents, its composition and effect are virtually uniform. It comes in quart and gallon cans, and costs about three dollars per gallon.
Since varnish remover is very inflammable, its use near fire is to be avoided. Furthermore, when it is used in a small, closed room, its fumes will sometimes cause severe headache. It is rather slow in action and is expensive, but it is really our best solvent, as it does not injure the wood, raise the grain, or harm the glue. It leaves an entirely cleaned piece in fine condition for smoothing.
Its action is particularly slow on old, thick, and hard paints; but comparatively rapid on one or two coats of varnish or varnish stain. If, for instance, we are cleaning an old Windsor chair which carries five or six coats of flinty paint, we might easily use an entire gallon of remover, at three dollars, where one can of lye at fifteen cents would do the same work more quickly. Where glued restorations have been necessary, or on any veneered furniture, varnish remover does not loosen or dissolve the glue. Lye and savo-gran on the other hand, because of their water content, will often produce just that unfortunate result. Varnish removet is positively the only solvent suitable for use on veneered furniture, and experimentation with lye or savogran on veneers will bring only disastrous results.
Apply varnish remover with an old two-inch or three-inch
brush, daubing the liquid thoroughly over the entire surface of the piece. Within fifteen minutes or half an hour the surface of the old finish will be softened, and we may remove it with a dull putty knife. For wiping-off turned sections, pieces of rough old burlap work well. Successive coats of varnish remover, followed by the use of the dull putty knife and burlap, will eventually remove most of the old paint or finish.
When almost all of the old paint has been taken off, we may try rubbing the piece with fine steel wool while the remover is still moist. This often works very well in removing obstinate colors from flat surfaces and turnings.
A clean brush and fresh varnish remover are now used for a final thorough application which, in turn, is wiped off with clean burlap. The piece may now be wiped with a soft cloth soaked in wood- or denatured-alcohol, which should do away with almost all of the last traces of color and remover. This alcohol bath will sometimes produce on mahogany, after drying, a queer milky surface; but this is nothing to disturb us, as it will quickly disappear during the smoothing with fine sandpaper or steel wool.
A piece covered with but a single coat of paint or varnish may be cleaned with one or two applications of the remover, but those carrying many coats of hard paint or old varnish may require as many as a dozen or more applications.
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