How to Restore Dull Furniture Finishes Like a Pro: Guidelines & Tips for Your Next Project

Time takes its toll on everything – and furniture is no exception.

Restoring an old piece of furniture can be a daunting task for anyone, let alone someone who has little to no experience with these types of projects.

Want to know how to restore dull furniture finishes without damaging something in the process?

Keep on reading – I’ll share some vital tips and guidelines to help you get the job done right!

Start With Identifying the Current Finish

The first and often crucial step is identifying the finish you’re working with, as it saves you a lot of time and prevents you from possibly damaging it in the process.

Pigmented finishes, as well as wax, oil, and penetrating sealers, are all easy to identify, but with clear ones – shellac, varnish, or lacquer – the following:

  • Rubbing denatured alcohol in a small area. If it dissolves, it’s a shellac finish, and if the effect is only partial, it may be a shellac and lacquer combo – mix denatured alcohol with lacquer thinner to test your theory.
  • Rubbing lacquer thinner on a small area. If it affects the finish, it’s probably lacquer.
  • If neither of these methods works, then you’re dealing with varnish.

Now that you’ve identified the old finish, here are some techniques you could try to restore it!

Always Try Cleaning First

It seems silly, but you’d be surprised how often a shabby-looking finish turns out to be nothing more than years-old dirt build-up of wax and dust.

  • Try an oil-based commercial wood cleaner first. If you follow the manufacturer’s instructions, it should be enough to cut through dirt and wax layered on the surface.
  • Warm water and liquid detergent solution is your “plan B.” Make sure you don’t soak the furniture, though.
  • Solvent cleaning should only be used as a last resort – mineral spirits and turpentine are the safest bet here. Apply a commercial cleaner or conditioner when you’re done.

Reamalgamation Can Take Care of Cracks and Scratches

Think of reamalgamation as a trick up your sleeve – a grand revival technique that has the power to make cracked, crazed, scratched or “alligatored” finish look nearly brand new again. However, know that this doesn’t apply to varnish finishes.

It works by nearly liquefying the damaged finish, allowing it to dry solid and flawless again.

Try one of the following:

  • Use denatured alcohol for shellac.
  • Use lacquer thinner for lacquer.
  • Mix three parts of alcohol with one part lacquer thinner and use it for lacquer-shellac combination.

Remember to work fast, with long, quick brush strokes – and always follow the grain of the wood.

Maybe Blushing Is the Problem

If the finish is showing signs of milky-white discoloration, otherwise known as blushing – a problem often seen on lacquered wood and shellac finishes as a result of exposure to moisture – you may be able to remove it without doing the actual refinishing.

However, that’s only true if the blushing isn’t deep-set, and the haze is only present on the surface.

Use the No. 0000 steel wool dipped in oil – be it mineral or linseed – and rub it along the wood grain gently to remove the top layer of the finish, affected by discoloration.

What If These Methods Don’t Work?

If all else fails, it’s time to consider doing a full-blown refinishing.

1. Strip Away the Old Finish

To make room for a new finish, you’ll have to strip away the old one first.

  • Use a semi-paste stripper to dissolve and loosen the old coats, and prepare them for scraping. You should let it sit anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, depending on the thickness of the old finish.
  • Switch to a liquid-form stripper to remove any remaining bits of the finish.

Stripping furniture is a messy process, though, so pick your location carefully and be sure to protect the floors and surrounding furniture.

2. Apply a New Finish

Now that the wood is bare, it’s time to apply a brand new finish.

While penetrating finishes look more natural, if you want protection that lasts (even if it’s not quite natural-looking), opt for one of the surface finishes:

  • Shellac – not very resistant to water  
  • Lacquer – go-to finish of most professionals
  • Polyurethane, especially oil-based – exceptionally durable and beginner-friendly

Pay attention to how many coats of polyurethane you apply, though. Depending on the type of polyurethane you use, you’re going to need anywhere from three to six coats – but two layers are the absolute minimum.

Final Thoughts

Restoring the finish on an old piece of furniture may seem tricky at first – but if you stick to these basic rules on how to restore dull furniture finishes, you’ll be able to handle this project like a pro!

Bio: Ethan Johnson is the main responsible for Man Of Family, and DIY blog where he shares his extensive knowledge about all things DIY. He has a lot of experience in mechanical engineering, and he likes to bring innovative ideas into life.

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