Fundamentals of Finishing Archives

September 2005

Tricks of the Trade

Project-saving tips for a new refinishing shop.

By Mac Simmons

I recently received a phone call from a former customer, who told me that after many years in the upholstery business, he and his family had decided to offer a refinishing service for their clientele. For years, he said, customers had been requesting a furniture refinishing service, and he finally decided this would be a perfect companion business.

Although he and his family were very knowledgeable in all facets of the upholstery business, after opening the finishing shop they soon learned there is much more to refinishing than they first realized. So they asked if I could stop by the new finishing shop and give them some ideas, suggestions and pointers.

When I arrived at the shop I was surprised to see that it was fully operational with loads of furniture waiting to be refinished. Unfortunately, I found out that most of that furniture was pieces that had already been refinished by the shop, but had to be refinished again because it was not done to the customer's satisfaction. I also found that they had been looking for a good finisher, but were not able to find one.

After some discussion, they asked if I could give them a day or two each week to teach them the techniques they needed to do high-quality refinishing. I accepted their challenge because I have known the family for more than 30 years, and it was always a pleasure to do business with them. I also knew that they already had the basic knowledge needed to visualize the whole process and to understand the way it should be done.

I did not go there to work. I became their mentor and showed them "how it is done." In this article I will explain a few of the techniques I showed them for three specific projects. You may find the information valuable and interesting, and perhaps somewhere along the way, these restoration methods will help you get out of a problem.

Case No. 1: The sample at the top shows the wood after it has been bleached. The second sample is after a white pickle toner has been applied. In the third sample, the white and tan shading stain has been applied and dried, followed by a clearcoat.

Case No. 1: Going from Mahogany to White Pickle

One challenging job was a large red/brown mahogany chest that needed to be redone with a whitewash finish. We started by stripping the piece, which removed most of the finish, but not the dye. Then we applied a two-part wood bleach to take out the red dye and discovered that the woods used were different species. Some woods were dissimilar in color, while others had natural markings and figuring. They tried a few ways to finish several drawers as samples, but were not happy with the results.

Here is what I did to get a natural-looking white pickle finish. I first sealed the wood and allowed it dry. I used a thinned-out white pigmented shading stain to add color and uniformity to the wood. Not wanting to block out the wood grain, I applied very little color.

Next, I sealed the shading stain and allowed it to dry. I then applied a thinned-out shading stain made with the same Titanium White pigment colorant, adding a few drops of Burnt Umber paste colorant for just a tinge of tan. I tested the color first on some cardboard; it took four or five passes to see the tinge of tan, which would make the wood look uniform and natural. (See photos below left.)

I then did the test on a drawer. I explained to the shop finishers what I did to achieve that look and let them take over from there. A few days later when I went back, they not only had finished the piece, but also delivered it to a very happy customer.

Case No. 2: A Little Shading Stain Does the Trick

Another interesting job was a large oval dining room table with two leaves that had been returned because the customer was not satisfied with the final color. On one side of the table and the two leaves there were natural, heavy, dark grain lines across the wood, while on the other side of the table there were none.

Case No. 2: The photo at left shows a duplicate of the oval tabletop, which was easily restored using a shading stain rather than a complete refinish.

The shop wanted to strip and redo the entire table and leaves, but I suggested they try using a shading stain to "blend" the colors in the table and the darker color in the grain lines. I could see some brownish red color on part of the table and more on the table's apron and legs. They agreed to let me give it a try.

I first brushed in the dark grain lines to match the other side of the table. I then poured about 2 ounces of Burnt Umber dye stain in a spray cup, added 4 ounces of sealer as a binder and filled the cup with lacquer thinners. I tested the color on a piece of cardboard, but it was too strong. So I poured some of the mixture into a jar, added more sealer and tested the color again. It was what I wanted.

I needed to make about four passes with the spray gun before I saw color. Then I was ready to add the colored shading stain to the table. Once I showed the shop finisher how it was done on one side of the table, I handed him the gun and he easily completed the rest. He then applied two clearcoats and allowed them to dry. Then he lightly scuff-sanded the table and applied a final clearcoat.

The table restoration was completed without refinishing. It was delivered a few days later, and their long-time customer was happy to have it back.

Case No. 3: The Oriental Chest Restoration

This highly decorative painted piece needed to be restored. Paint was flaking off the figures, pagodas and the artwork, and the gums (resins) in the coating were dead. There were bad alligator cracks throughout the piece due to climatic temperature changes. The top of the piece had deep scratches, and the coating was flaking off. There were also scratches and nicks throughout the piece, even inside the doors and on the three shelves.

Case No. 3: This Oriental chest required a lot of tedious finishing work.

Left: Cracks were part of the repair work on the Oriental chest. Right: The application of a flowcoat on the chest's doors resulted in a bad reaction with the old coating, causing bad wrinkling. This was repaired by using glue size.

The finishers began by cleaning the piece with clean rags and mineral spirits. In some sections the deposit of polishes, waxes and dirt were so heavy that I suggested they add 10 percent lacquer thinners to the mineral spirits to cut and remove the remaining residue. I also suggested they use nylon rubbing pads with the de-waxing solvent to remove the difficult residue. After this process, the piece was allowed to dry thoroughly.

At this point, the piece needed a multitude of color touchups, for which I used some small tubes of universal colors. I worked with one color at a time until I completed all the areas with that color, which was tedious work because there were so many tiny bits of color that were missing.

Another challenge was to match the many different colors in the artwork. I did this, working on one side of the piece at a time. Then I started the two doors, which had a lot of the artwork with missing colors. I protected all of the color touchups with several mist coats of clear shellac, followed by one light flowcoat.

The process was going smoothly until I applied the flowcoat on the doors. I had a bad reaction, and the old coating became badly wrinkled. I showed the shop's finishers what had happened and demonstrated how to correct the problem.

First, I allowed the wrinkling to dry. Then I mixed up a "glue size," which is 50 percent white glue and 50 percent water. I brushed the glue size on both doors, allowed it dry and applied a second coat. I wanted to be certain that I covered the entire piece without missing any part. Once the sizing was thoroughly dry, I misted a coat of shellac and then a flowcoat. This technique worked like magic, and we were back in business.

I then started on the top of the chest, applying a basecoat of clear latex with some red and orange acrylic colorant. I brushed the colorant on and allowed it to dry. Next, I mixed up a water glaze with a black acrylic colorant and wiped it on the dry basecoat, then brushed out the glaze and allowed it to dry. I misted on shellac and followed up with a light flowcoat.

When we were all finished, we had a good color match. The Oriental chest looked like it had been well kept over its many years of service.

These are just a few examples of some finishing "rescue work" I wanted to pass on to readers. There will be more to come in future issues of CWB.

Mac Simmons is a freelance writer and 40-year veteran of the furniture finishing, refinishing and restoration trades. Questions may be directed to him in writing c/o CWB, 400 Knightsbridge Pkwy., Lincolnshire, IL 60069 or via e-mail c/o [email protected].


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