Monday, June 21, 2010

Refinishing for fun and profit

That first pad, that needs furniture, can be a real money black hole. Even IKEA is expensive and the standard furniture stores are outrageous. But, there is another way. You can refinish older furniture and have the job come out looking like new. I still have a chair I bought for $1 and refinished years ago.
For those of you who have never tried it, here is the way to go. First pick your used furniture carefully. It needs to be all wood, no upholstery, no particle board, and it has to look right even when old and dingy. There has been a lot of plain ugly furniture made over the years and even refinished, ugly stays ugly. Look for signs of quality, dovetail joints on the drawers, really top notch stuff has dovetails on the back of the drawers as well as the fronts. Drawers with a center guide rail are better than those without. Avoid elaborate carvings cause it is hard to sand them.
Then you have to get the old finish off. Paint remover will cut thru anything. It is also bad on skin, worse on eyes, and will burn like fire if you get some on your clothing and it sinks in. Rubber gloves help. Pick a sunny dry day and do the job outdoors. Slather on the remover, wait a few minutes for it to make the old finish crinkle up, and then scrape the resulting sludge off with a putty knife, or a rag, or steel wool, or scotchbrite pads, or a rag. Do the entire piece, except you don't have to strip the insides of drawers, just the drawer fronts. When done scraping and wiping, take a garden hose and wash the whole piece down. Dry with a clean rag. Do this fast, and then let the sun dry it the rest of the way. Police up the remover soaked rags, and such to prevent children, unwary friends and passers by from getting paint remover burns.
The remover and the water have by now raised the grain, and you have to sand it all smooth again. Sand paper comes in various grades. Start with 120 grit and go down to 220 grit as soon as possible. 220 grit is as fine as I ever go. The wood should come out smooth to the touch. For larger pieces an electric pad sander can be had new from Walmart for $30 or so and it really speeds the job.
After sanding, and before finishing, you want to clean up the shop to lay the dust. Then wipe down the piece with a rag moistened with thinner to pick up as much dust as possible. Give the air in the shop a day for the flying dust to settle and them wipe it down again.
Simplest and most foolproof finish is "penetrating resin" of which Minwax is the best known tradename. These finishes soak into the wood and harden, filling the pores and giving the wood a nice glow. The do NOT create a surface film and are never glossy. The stuff is water thin and you can apply it with just a rag, although brushes work fine too. Slather it on generously and give it 5 - 10 minutes to soak in. Then wipe it off with a clean dry rag. That's it. You are done. Give the stuff overnight to dry hard and carry your new classic antique up from the shop into the pad.

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