How to Decide When to Refinish

How to Decide When to Refinish

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure…or so the idiom goes. Do-it-yourself activities have been popular as of late in large part due to shows on networks like HGTV. Not only are DIY projects great activities for a rainy day, they also come with a great sense of pride the next time friends or family compliment the piece of furniture you poured your heart and soul into refinishing.
Maybe you found a nice coffee table while dumpster diving. Perhaps you ventured onto the great unknown of Craigslist and found a dresser for a great price. Or your parents finally gave you that family heirloom that looks like it could use a large heaping of TLC. Here come the two big questions: how do you know when something is worth refinishing? And if it should be, is there a way to determine when a project should be DIY versus outsourced to a professional?

Hit Pause on the Furniture Refinishing


Foil and Laminate MDF

If you have a piece of furniture that has seen its fair share of wear and tear, first check to see what type of wood was used. In the day of IKEA-type stores and mass-produced furniture, companies will often choose a cheaper form of wood to keep production costs low. That wood, MDF, is an engineered wood made by breaking down hardwood and softwood fibers. When MDF is covered with a foil to give it a vintage look, it is usually sealed with a lacquer to give it a shiny finish. But this finish makes it extremely hard for any paint to stick to the surface. Wouldn’t it be a shame to spend hours refinishing a piece of furniture, only for the paint to start chipping faster than you’d hoped? You’ll come across the same problem if you try to paint over a laminate coat.

How to Tell If Your Piece of Furniture Is Laminate or Real

Laminate wood is the result of applying a photographic layer of wood over a piece of plywood in order to simulate real wood. It is then sealed off with a clear lacquer. Since the grain you’re seeing in the furniture is essentially a photograph, it’s incredibly easy to determine whether the furniture is real or laminate: just sand off a small piece! If the wood underneath does not show the same grain as the “laminate” part, you know this piece of furniture will not refinish well.

The Antique Family Heirloom

If you have a piece of furniture that is truly antique, or even designer, put the paint cans away. This is a job for professionals. Trying to refinish a piece of furniture that has weathered centuries, or that you paid a pretty penny for, actually can decrease its value. In these situations, the best course of action is to call a professional company, like Guardsman, who specializes in furniture refinishing and can help preserve that furniture as long as possible.


It’s a Green Light on the DIY Project

So far, we’ve basically told you that plywood furniture is a lost cause when it comes to furniture refinishing. But, alas, there is one circumstance where a damaged plywood piece is salvageable: veneered plywood. If you have a sturdy, well-made piece of plywood-based furniture, it’s possible to sand or remove the veneer.

In order to determine which method to use, simply look at the edge of a drawer or the underside of the furniture. In order to successfully sand veneer, you ideally want at least ¼ in. thick veneer. If it is thinner, use denatured alcohol, a lacquer thinner or some form of coat thinner. Apply with a #000 steel wool cloth to wipe off the old layers of veneer.

When It’s Technically Considered Antique, But Not “Antique”

In an interview with DIY Network, woodworking expert Teri Masaschi, said the best pieces of furniture to refinish come from the years between 1850 and 1960. That’s because, after 1960, companies started finding ways to cut corners and mass produce cheaply made furniture. You might say, “Furniture is technically antique once it hits that 100-year mark.” Yes, we are well past the 100-year mark for any furniture made before 1917. But furniture dating back to 1850 may not truly be old enough to be deemed a value-holding antique.

When searching for pieces that fall in this category, here are some styles to look for:

  • Victorian
  • Elizabethan
  • Eastlake
  • Arts & Crafts

Design eras like these created furniture built with tongue-and-groove and dovetail joints. Both of these styles are more durable methods of construction than just using wood, glue and nails. Sturdier woods than plywood were used as well, and often sealed with a veneer or lacquer, making them ideal pieces to refinish. In order to see the original grain of the wood, find a spot on the furniture where the veneer has worn off.

All that said, refinishing furniture can be a simple project, or it can be very complicated. If you have a piece and you aren’t sure whether it’s worth fixing or what method to use to refinish it, make sure to contact professionals who can guide you every step of the way.

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