Choosing Decor to Refinish

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Other priorities had taken over, like children’s weddings and summer gardens! But life has settled down again and I’m back at work. I want to spend a bit of time outlining what makes me choose a piece to refinish…  apart, of course, from price (we all like cheap, don’t we?).

I have a specific category of furniture in mind when I “shop”. It must be small enough for me to carry by myself. It must be in reasonable condition. And it must not take too much time to strip and prepare for its new look. I have broken some of these rules when I’ve fallen in love with a piece I know will take extra effort.. but that’s OK. I know what I’m in for.

Varnish is easier to remove than paint. And most old painted pieces have varnish beneath. These multiple layers may be all that makes the drawers stick – once removed, and even when the new finish is added, they slide well.

A piece can have some detailing but not too much: on the negative side, it takes a lot of time to clean but on the positive side, it lends itself to complimentary colour and interest.

This scrollwork will be slow but beautiful when redone.web-detailing-1

This will also be a bit slow but worth the effort!web-detailing-4

This pattern was enhanced with an application of coloured glaze.
tiny white table glazed top

The carving here popped out more in a complimentary colour.painted leg detail

So… how can you be certain you have solid wood?

Well, it’s usually fairly heavy.

And the joints are often dovetailed.

Here’s an example of dovetailing.web-solid-wood-dovetailing-2

Here’s an example of high quality dovetailing.solid wood high quality dovetailing

And here’s an example of AMAZING dovetailing! It’s done on the corners of a small chair.solid wood curved corner and dovetailling

Solid wood splinters when it’s damaged.  It doesn’t peel like paper.solid wood splinters

Solid wood isn’t always perfectly smooth.

This has been chiselled to make the drawer fit after an accident.solid wood chisel marks

This is rough-hewn, and obviously so even beneath the paint. In other words, it wasn’t sanded as a finishing process. It was probably homemade.solid wood rough hewn

Only solid wood can be joined easily in curves and details. Once stripped, the beautiful workmanship of this half-moon chest is evident.solid wood curved and smoothOnly solid wood can be turned. Most legs are solid.solid wood turnedOnly solid wood can be routered. See how the joined strips (and by the way, only solid wood can be joined like this) are of differing widths and the pattern continues over the edging? solid wood strips routeredHere’s another example of joined strips of solid wood.top after

Particleboard is now common. Its often (though not always) less expensive and it doesn’t warp. You’ll usually see it covered with veneer on the front and top but open at the back.web-particleboard

Veneer is a very fine slice of decorative wood or patterned plastic – usually a top quality piece that is adhered to lower quality wood or particleboard.You can identify it by turning the piece on its side to see the line between veneer and base, or by noticing that the grain on the edges runs differently. Veneer can still be stripped, repaired and sanded but caution is necessary.

Here are some examples.

This top has solid wood on the sides but notice that the pattern in the centre is repeated.  This doesn’t happen in nature. The centre is veneer.paper veneer pattern repeat

Look at the edges to see the veneer. Oh, and wood never cracks this way.wood veneer crackingpink laminate

This is hardly worth the effort…wood veneer peeling

Many pieces are a combination of solid wood and veneer. The top, drawer fronts, and spindles/legs are often solid. The sides, inside drawers and shelves are usually veneer on particleboard.

Plastic laminate is easy to identify. It’s always shiny. It’s always too good to be true. On old pieces it is usually flaking a bit in the corners or on the edges, and if anything has been spilled and left, there will often be a small nubbly area in the shape of the spill. It may split, raising a small bubble that can often be pushed down with a finger. Paint stripper melts veneer and curls its edges up. Sanding simply removes the simulated picture of the grain so that it looks like blank paper beneath. Plastic laminate cannot easily be repaired.

Here’s good quality laminate over particleboard that can simply be sanded to prepare it.black plastic laminate over particleboard

Here’s laminate that has been stained by water spills.water stains on laminate

Here’s PAPER veneer.  Now this is low quality…paper veneer peeling 1 paper veneer peeling 2Be prepared.  Paper veneer will disintegrate if you apply stripper.paper veneer peels with stripperIt can be sanded.  You’ll know it’s veneer when that lovely oak grain simply disappears! This one’s even got fake joined wood strips.paper veneer pattern sands off

On a closing note, a bit about hardware. Virtually any hardware can be reduced to its bare bones, even with a plastic coating baked on it. Then it can be sanded and painted like anything else. I have never had to replace hardware.

Running the roads looking for prime refinishing candidates is such a big part of the fun, followed by dreaming about what can be done with them!


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