This is the first step in the restoration process. It involves stabilizing the structural integrity of the finish and of the piece as a whole. The finish on most antique furniture is marred by an accumulation of dirt and several layers of old wax. This is removed, by hand, using mineral spirits, fine steel wool, and finer grades of sandpaper. Only appropriate tools and methods are used throughout. Once the finish has been cleaned, it is ready to be restored. The aim of conservation is not to make the piece look new but to preserve all aspects of the original.
In most cases the original antique finish can be restored. French Polish, a shellac-based finish (and a method of application) is the typical finish on most fine furniture built before the 20th century. Because the ingredients of the finish are organic and alcohol-based it can be repaired, amalgamated and maintained for centuries. I specialize in restoring an original French Polish finish and applying a new one if necessary (see Refinishing). The end result is a cleaned and fresh finish that still retains the original character and patina.
French polishing refers to a particular finish as well as the application of that finish. In terms of the finish, French Polish is a shellac-based finish that was used during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries as the premier finish for furniture. This finish is applied by hand in several successive thin coats. The idea is to fill the pore of the wood without building up the finish on the surface. While the process is labor intensive (sometimes requiring as many as 50 coats of finish) the end result is unparalleled. This is the most beautiful of finishes and is the finish used on most museum quality pieces. With the advent of modern Lacquer and sprayable finishes, the popularity of French Polish has diminished with cabinetmakers and furniture companies. Today, there are a handful of people in the world who have learned the art of French Polishing and can successfully use this technique to restore antiques.
In most cases I recommend French Polish to customers as a finish for its sheer beauty and its ability to transmit the full visual potential of their furniture. In some cases, a finish is desired that can withstand more abuse such as on a kitchen table. In such cases I will recommend a Varnish finish. The biggest advantage to using Varnish over a French Polish is its initial durability and ability to withstand alcohol spills. The biggest disadvantage to using a Varnish over a French Polish is that the finish has a life span of 5 to 10 years. It is not a restorable finish and if damaged must be completely removed and reapplied from scratch.
As mentioned above, I refinish furniture only when absolutely necessary and with great care. Refinishing refers to the removal of the existing finish and the application of a new one. This is typically done for three reasons:
When the original finish is un-restorable. Example: Water damage from a flood has drenched and ruined the original finish and nothing is left to restore.
When an inappropriate finish was applied in the past. Example: An 18th century tilt-top table with a modern lacquer finish. Obviously, someone stripped this piece earlier or else applied an inappropriate finish on top of an old one.
When the customer desires a new finish or color especially for modern factory furniture. Most factory furniture built in the last 50 years has been sprayed with lacquer. Such a finish is easily damaged and ruined. Often a customer desires a new varnish or a more durable French Polish.
Touch-up of Existing Finishes
In some instances, finishes that have a blemish or a scratch can be fixed in home with the use of earth pigments and stains to “touch-up” the problem area. This is then blended into the existing finish to match the sheen of the existing finish.
In Home Paste Waxing
Sometimes all that a piece needs is a fresh coat of paste wax to brighten up the existing finish. Ideally this is done in the shop where I can give your furniture a proper cleaning to remove dirt and old wax. If the customer desires (for example before entertaining), I will come to your home and wax your furniture. This service is usually confined to a few items per visit.
for a detailed example of the process of restoring an existing finish follow the following link: