Guide to Antique Furniture Restoration
August 3, 2017
brush applying finish to a piece of furniture | Kuebler Furniture Works

Selecting a Finish for Your Furniture


How the finish you choose for your furniture will impact its appearance and longevity.

Many of us struggle to visualize how a piece of furniture will look once it’s received its new finish. While the transformation can be exciting, there’s also the risk of disappointment if the final product doesn’t match our expectations. On top of this is the possibility that it won’t fit in with the rest of our furniture the way we hoped it would, or that the finish will lose its luster faster than promised.

All these different factors play into the selection process for the perfect finish for your furniture. To help you reach a decision that will give you the results you want, consider these factors.

How much wear will this piece of furniture receive?

Wood finishes protect your furniture in many ways—not just from scratches, but from sunlight and moisture, too. That said, some finishes offer more protection than others. A wipe-on, oil-based finish, for instance, will impart a warm tone to your wood. However, it will do little to protect it against dings and scratches. On the other end of the spectrum, a more brittle paint finish might not be appropriate in situations where it could chip or flake—such as on a surface for food preparation.

What is the quality of the wood, and what condition is it in?

There’s nothing like a good stain for bringing out the unique characteristics of a beautiful piece of furniture. If your piece is in good condition and of high-quality wood, do it justice by choosing a finish that enhances the natural beauty of the wood. Even a damaged piece of furniture can often be restored enough to benefit from the right finish.

However, for heavily damaged or low-quality pieces, paint is probably the easiest choice and the most cost-effective. While an experienced refinisher can do a lot to restore a piece and prepare it for finishing, this process can be time consuming and may not be worth the effort.

Do you want it to match other furniture or details in your home?

Some of us have eclectic tastes. We want to choose the best finish for the piece itself, because that’s more important to us than how it fits in with the rest of our homes. However, most of us have broad styles that we want our furniture to conform to—all dark wood or all light; high gloss or matte; painted or natural. Varnish can only go so far to change the coloring of your wood, so be sure to choose a stain that is in keeping with the wood’s natural characteristics.

Do you prefer a clear finish?

Most oil-based finishes will leave a slight amber tint to the wood that will grow stronger with time. This is a beautiful and desirable effect in dark woods, because it adds to their rich tone. However, on lighter woods, the amber tone might not be the effect you want. You can use a water-based varnish for a clear finish. These usually look cloudy in the can, but they are clear when finished and have a short drying time.

If you can, test before you finish.

There’s a saying among woodworkers: measure twice, cut once. The same can be said of applying finishing. Once you’ve reached the end of your project, it’s important to test your finish before applying it to be sure it will have the effect you’re looking for. Test the style of the finish and the number of coats you want to see what the final effect will be.

Unless you’ve built the piece yourself, it’s unlikely you’ll have a scrap of wood lying around exactly the same as that used for your furniture. However, you do have two options. The first is to test your finish on a part of the piece that no one will see. This could be the underside of one of the pieces, or a part that will be against a wall. So long as the piece you test is of the same wood as the rest, it will give you a good idea for what the finish will look like. If this is not possible, then the best you can do is to find a piece of wood of the same variety and of similar quality. If your furniture is made from pine, test it on a piece of pine, and if it is made from maple, test a piece of maple.

Do you need some expert advice?

Our experience refurbishing furniture has given us a lot of perspective on how to choose the most appropriate finish for a piece. We can work with you to select a finish for your furniture that will take into account its history, the unique qualities of the wood, and its place in your home. If you would like help refurbishing a piece, contact us today for a consultation.

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