Surface Finishing on Antique Furniture

Much of the beauty of antique furniture lies in the colour and surface finish of old wood that has been well cared for over the years. The best antique finishes on the surface of the wood do not give the degree of protection of modern finishes, but make up for the extra work they entail by their beauty, richness, and the depth of the surface.

Modern finishes, such as polyurethane, are very hard, and provide protection to the wood underneath. Antique finishes, such as beeswax, oils, and French Polish, or shellac, are softer and do not provide the same degree of protection against water and scratches. However, the difference in the beauty of the old finishes is like the difference between looking through a piece of plastic, and looking into the surface of a summer pond, full of light and colour and depth. The old finishes give the wood a lustre and depth of beauty that is impossible to replicate any other way.

When refinishing antique furniture, the first step is to evaluate structural integrity, and decide if the piece needs a spot repair, or if the entire finish needs to be removed and replaced. Old glues are removed and joints stabilised; the surface is cleaned, prepped, and then refinished. The usual practice is to replicate the old finish method, and bring the furniture back to the original look. Certainly one can change the look of the piece by different surface finishing and decoration, but many choose to replicate the colour and method of the original finish.

Modern craftsmen and artisans have access to the tools and materials to remake an antique finish. All of the methods are labour intensive. Paste wax combinations of beeswax and various hardeners are still commonly used, and tung oil and boiled linseed oil are also readily available. The legendary antique finish, the French Polish, combines the beauty and outstanding depth of surface of layers upon layers of hand-polished shellac, with the knowledge of the painstaking and labour intensive craftsmanship that the method requires.

Expert craftsmen and artisans can evaluate a piece of antique furniture and make recommendations for replicating or replacing a surface finish. Part of their assessment and recommendations will include any needed repairs to ensure the structural integrity of the piece. To discuss your antique furniture finishing, please contact us.

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