February 23-March 1, 2006
cover storyTrash or Treasure
When to refurbish your trash-picked furniture, and when to just sit on it.
If you're like me and have a house filled with stuff you've acquired curbside, at thrift stores and at flea markets, you've likely started to notice a few things about your furniture. Chairs that are supposed to roll on wheels don't. Wooden tables are chipped and need refinishing. Oh, and your house smells like a hamster cage.
Since you've spent little on obtaining these pieces and you love them enough to deal with their failings and frequent fallings-apart, consider restoring them. Just don't go into it thinking it will be easy; I once tried to restore Granny's mahogany nightstand and ruined it. A little advice would have gone a long way.
Bill Russell of Bill Russell Studio (1215 Frankford Ave., 215-203-0068), says that if you're looking to dabble in furniture restoration, try small pieces first. "Start with basic refinishing, stripping and varnishing." For anything major, he says, first assess whether it's worth it to pay for professional refinishingmake sure the item is in good shape, and is not missing parts or hardware.
Photo By: Manuel Dominguez Jr
"With things that are structural, you should see a professional. Major repairs, [without] having the right tools can make it harder for the next person to repair," he says, adding, "You need four times as much space [as the size of the piece] to repair furniture." For wood furniture Russell says, "You can wash most pieces with soap and water, but dry them right away, don't leave it to soak."
To refinish wood, you'll need the proper supplies. Russell recommends using a large, flat, steel container, like a baking pan, that won't absorb chemicals, to strip the furniture, which can be accomplished by sanding or with chemical strippers or paint thinners. You'll also need scraping tools to remove dirthe recommends a brass bristle wire brush. Then, once the piece is stripped, use coarse, medium and fine sandpaper to smooth the surface. After that, you'll stain and varnish the piece. Once the varnish is dry, go over it with steel wool.
"Fine, 4/0 [or 0000 grade] steel wool works for rubbing out finishes after you varnish them," he says. "You get a smooth, equalized finish, and [the steel wool] removes dust that gets stuck in the varnish." To clean up, Fast Orange hand cleaner removes varnish from paintbrushes and hands. Plan on devoting about 10 to 15 hours to a small piece, like a nightstand.
Upholstering is another matter altogether. Ted Beckert of Beckert Custom Upholstery (7231 Rising Sun Ave., 215-342-2025) followed his father into the upholstery business and has been working in it for 35 years. "You have to learn a lot and go very slow." He doesn't recommend amateur upholstery, but if you want to reupholster something on your own, "You could do little things, like a chair seat or a pillow, [for anything larger] bring it to a professional or you could ruin it."
In all cases you should just give up when it costs more than the piece is worth to fix, though the worth of a piece you scored from the curb can be difficult to quantify. "Value depends on the frame's condition," says Beckert, "and [whether or not it's] antique. [To be worth restoring] it should be custom-made, not made in a factory." Custom-made furniture displays quality workmanship and components. In his shop, for instance, fabric ranges from $35 to $250 a yard. The age and style of the piece are also important, so a little research other than watching Antiques Roadshow might be necessary. You may have to read some books, or at the very least look at the pictures. A good starting point: The Bullfinch Anatomy of Antique Furniture: An Illustrated Guide to Identifying Period, Detail and Design (Bulfinch) by Tim Forrest and Paul Atterbury.
For minor rips in your vinyl or leather seats, you could try one of those leather repair kitsthe ones you used to see on infomercials where you use kitchen utensils and an iron to make your piece look miraculously like new. But only attempt this very cheapskate method if you know for sure your furniture is essentially worthless. There are a host of Web sites selling these products: www. asontv.com, www.magicmender. com and www.leatherworldtech .com. All you need is a spatula and a credit card. Beckert advises against this, however: "This would mess it up even more. When you rip it, that's it. Vinyl and leather dries out. You have to clean it and wax it [to keep it from cracking]."
Russell says he has occasionally had to deal with the aftermath of people trying to refinish furniture. Often, it's not pretty. "They made a mess of things, and then I had to fix up what they screwed up and then start from scratch." Common mistakes Russell has seen DIYers make include not completely stripping a piece of furniture before staining and vanishing, and not sanding between coats of finish.
This makes the process longer and more expensive. Whether you think you know what you're doing or not, do plenty of research up front: At least consider consulting a do-it-yourself book or taking a workshopRussell offers some, check www.billrussellstudio.combefore you start a project. "People run out of steam when they realize they've bitten off more than they can chew," says Russell, which leaves both you and him with an even bigger headache.
It's definitely not impossible, but furniture restoration is not for pussieslike myself. Both Beckert and Russell agree: You have to commit a lot of time to a project and what's more, you have to really like doing this sort of thing.