Should You Refinish Old Furniture?

I was reminded of the perils of furniture refinishing by an old “Three Stooges” film:
SERVANT: “You can’tpaint that table! It belonged to Louis XVI!”
LARRY: 'Ohh…second hand, eh?"
On ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, people are shocked to discover that their colonial dresser (which they paid big bucks to have refinished) is now worth a fraction of what it was, had it been left alone.
So, should I refinish those yardsale finds? What if I happen to get a genuine 17th centurt piece for $5.00 at a yard sale…should it be left alone?

The general rule is no, you shouldn’t, but there are some exceptions.

You need to research the piece first to determine its worth and its historical value. If it’s a valuable antique, “refinishing” it will destroy it, worth-wise.

Your local museum or historical society may be able to assist you in identifying the maker and age of the piece. (Don’t ask them to appraise it, though. We don’t do that sort of thing.) They can also point you in the direction of a professional restorer or conservator.

Generally, antiques people like to see the piece as original as possible. Do not remove the original paint of varnish just for cosmetic reasons-- even if it’s faded or chipping, the original paint adds much value to the piece.

However, some valuable antiques are so badly damaged that a professional restoration may actually increase its value. (Basically, if the damage makes the piece ugly or it’s falling apart, you may want to consider it.) However, remember that the more conservative the restoration, the better.

A professional restoration will be very expensive, so you’ll need to determine if it’s worth it. Beware the cheap estimate. You truly do get what you pay for in this realm. Also beware the restorer who’s vague about his methods or doesn’t want to allow you to see pieces on which he’s working. A true professional will probably won’t shut up about it! These people are truly in love with their work.

For a relatively common item worth little more than its modern equivellent, go ahead and do what you wish. It’s unlikely that such pieces will appreciate much in value.

“Patina” is often more valuable than the finish. Take furniture made of cherry: the whole point of using cherry is that it ages with grace. Refinishing cherry would be like going back in time and drinking a vintage wine the year it was bottled, rather than after all the years it aged.

By default, you should not be getting anything refinished, lest you stand there with the piece and some experts, and they tell you to invest 3 grand to make the piece worth another 15 grand.

If you have a piece, like art work, that can be saved or preserved by different techniques, then by all means proceed sooner rather than later. But in cases of furniture, it is alsmost certainly best to wait for advice.

Yep - what Phil said. Can’t add anything to that sans a little anecdote:

On a whim a few years back, my wife and I were driving down Rte. 100 south from Burlington Vermont. It is a very scenic ride, much nicer than traveling the I-91 corridor. Anyway, we stopped by near accident, at a roadside thrift store to do some shopping. Upon entering the store - this was on a wednesday morning - the owner said to us…“Ahh…lucky folks this morning, we just got a huge shipment in from a foreclosed home up in Rutland, haven’t even priced anything yet!”

Visibly excited my wife and I scurried around looking at all the old oak furniture. Then we both saw a piece that had to be misplaced…it was not oak, it was a different, lighter wood, certainly not pine or maple either…Turns out it was pre-blight chestnut. It was a living room table roughly 48 inches high, with a while marble top, finished in linseed oil, it was dated 1846.

Asking for a price, the old man came over and said…how’s about 35$ would that put you out too much?

:eek: uhh…we felt kinda bad, but gladly handed over the money and took off with our find.

At a local antique appraisal a few years later, we found the piece to be worth nearly $1000, because it was an original shaker piece…

Very nice! we left, and put the table right back in our spare room. :slight_smile: Certainly would not have sold it! :slight_smile:

Depends on why you have the piece of furniture in the first place doesn’t it?

If you see the furniture as a piece of furniture then it realy doesn’t matter if Jesus spilled his wine on it–if the stain is detracting from the beauty of an otherwise comforting and satisfying piece of furniture, clean it up and make it the way you want it.

If you see the furniture as an investment, then yeah, leave it alone and put it someplace safe.

Personally I see no point in having a bunch of patina laying around the house that only I appreciate. If stuff looks ratty, tarnished or “distressed” I’m gonna start feeling pretty badly about my own housekeeping skills. How would the manufacturer of a 15th century silver tea service feel about seeing his beautiful creation black with neglect? If he had wanted you to take tea from a filthy, dull service he’d have made it from tin or clay. If he’d wanted his creation of silver beauty to lay hidden from the world in a trunk in the attic “aquiring value” he’d have made it not at all. How many musicians from the 1960s & 1970s do you think actually believed vinyl skips & pops *contributed * anything to their work? Wear & tear is not normally what an artist has in mind–what he has in mind is what is produced in the first place.


But that’s just my humble opinion.

I agree with Inigo Montoya. It’s your stuff, you do what you want to it.

If keeping it in a safe place to accrue value for making money is your goal, then do that. If you want it blue to match the curtains, do that. Just be aware of what you are doing.

Awareness is the key. All the faux finishes and such that 99+% of people put on things now are going to look tacky in no time flat. Think of how it’s going to look when you get green curtains and blue-speckled tables are so 2004.

If you have a 200 year old table that looks awful because it is so beat up but refinishing it would drop $4000 off the value, then consider selling it now. Take the money and get something you like to live with.

One of my rules: Don’t live with your investment. I have a friend that had a really old “couch” (I’d think you’d call it). Looked great. Really valuable. Took up space. Couldn’t sit on it since it was so uncomfortable. Eventually sold it since that was all it was good for: money.

Heh. I’ve got one of these. I bought a Heywood-Wakefield loveseat with original upholstry for a good price about three years ago. My cats took one look at it and started to raise his claws… Now, it sits covered in towels and a slipcover. Looks horrible. I just can’t bring myself to sell it yet…

I would say leave it alone, if only because so many people love genuine, untouched antiques, it would be a shame to destroy one. It IS a destruction in a sense, because you can never go back to original, that piece is forever changed.

If all you want is a pretty side table, sell the antique, get yourself a non-antique version you like, and pocket the difference. This only really counts for true, valued, antiques, where the selling price is significantly higher than for a comparable non-antique piece. If it’s just an old piece of furniture with no particular interest or historical value, restore away.

I remember that episode, or at least one that was along the same lines.

IIRC, the dresser was valued on the show at approximately £15,000 in its refinished state, but the owner was then informed that if he had left it alone, it was worth something in the vicinity of £35,000 (don’t quote me on the exact figures, but the differences between the two was amazingly high).

The look on the owner’s face was one to be remembered.

Ok, this is “IMHO”… I know that, but you are coming in with the wrong premise.

Some things, like silver sets, artwork, archive related stuff, etc are supposed to be preserved, protected and 'like new". You don’t want silver looking pathetic, you don’t want art and books fading.

There is one big issue with your premise “* Wear & tear is not normally what an artist has in mind–what he has in mind is what is produced in the first place*.”

No! Fact is, furniture makers do indeed have ‘wear and tear’ in mind. Windsor chairs…cherry tables…walnut tops…chestnut…mahogony…pine…some cedars…

…these woods are chosen are handled like wines by furniture makers.

YES! YES! When a cherry piece ages, it gets CLOSER to what the artist intended! - Closer! When a Windsor chair ages, it gets closer to what the artist intended.

Of course you can decide to do whatever the shmeck you want with a piece, but if you defend your actions by saying, “Wear & tear is not normally what an artist has in mind–what he has in mind is what is produced in the first place”, then you would be highly misguided!