Before you can refinish that family heirloom, or your parents' dining room set, you must first remove what's left of the original finish. And that's when you'll confront the "nastiest, ugliest part of the whole process," says Terry Vancil of Buck Vancil's Refinishing in Grants Pass. This is also when you may start looking for an easier way.
Imagine then, handing your furniture over to a tradesperson who will simply dip it into a tank of solvent for a few minutes, pull it out, wash it off, set it out to dry and, "Eureka!" Bare wood, ready for a new finish, no muss, no fuss. Sound too good to be true? Yes, it does, and it is too good to be true, for two significant reasons.
Unless you're a die-hard purist intent on personally brushing, scraping, scrubbing and rinsing away the old finish off your furniture, leaving it to a pro makes a lot of sense, even considering the cost.
Do-it-yourselfers will find solvent selling in the $20 to $40 range. Then you'll need to spend more for gloves, masks, applicators, and scrubbers. Finally, there's the less quantifiable value of your own sweat equity. So, how does this stack up to shop charges?
Making allowances for depth and difficulty, local refinishing shops typically charge a minimum of $15 to strip a dining room chair, with averages around $40. That's fully cleansed and dried, ready for you to refinish.
Stripping isn't just for wooden objects, either. Black Oak Furniture Restoration in Medford accepts just about any material, including automotive and airplane parts. Proprietor George Pearce cautions that certain paint applications, like powder-coating, are nearly impervious to even the heaviest solvents. Sometimes when the manufacturer says, "Lifetime finish," they mean it!
If your object can't be stripped without damaging the surface, reputable shops will not accept the job.
First, no respectable refinishing shop uses the dipping method anymore, and only a few ever tried it. "You risk loosening the veneer and eroding glued joints," says George Pearce of Medford's Black Oak Furniture Restoration. He then points out the second reason dipping is too good to be true. "There's nothing 'instant' about it. You still have to scrub on it."
So, how do the pros tackle the job? Some outfits stress "hand stripping only." This usually entails placing the object in a shallow pan then either brushing on solvent and wiping it off, or using a gong brush designed to perform both operations at once. Vancil and her husband, Buck, have used gong brushes for 26 years. Terry says, "It's amazing how quickly the finish comes off." Once the piece is completely stripped, it is set out to air dry for 24 to 48 hours. Then it's ready for refinishing.
Pearce employs a more elaborate process developed by Seneca Research, Inc. out of New York state. It starts with their automatic stripping machine which sprays solvent through multiple jet nozzles onto objects placed on a rotating table inside. Pearce compares the machine to a "dishwasher" for wood or metal objects up to the size of an office desk or home front door. Once cycled through the stripping spray and rinse, the piece is set out to air-dry and is usually ready for refinishing in a day or so.
Both Pearce and the Vancils advise that some finishes, like certain paints and epoxies, simply cannot be stripped successfully, by any method.
Pearce adds a thought on the notion of devaluing your furniture by refinishing, an idea fueled by episodes of the PBS hit "Antiques Roadshow." He says, "If the finish is damaged or partially gone, you're not changing a piece's value by refinishing. Every time you touch the exposed wood, the oil on your skin does more damage than refinishing would."
In his showroom he posts a commentary penned by former "Antiques Roadshow " Executive Producer Peter Cook. Cook says in part, "well-executed refinishing and restoration usually enhances the value of just about any piece of old furniture."
Should there be any question though, have your heirloom appraised by a knowledgeable antiques dealer before stripping it. Then you'll know for sure. If the decision is to refinish, remember, strip it, don't dip it.