Techniques that we use in restoring Victorian front doors lend nicely to antique furniture restoration. Maybe during the lockdown, you’d like to strip paint off a desk, sand down your dining chairs, paint a coffee table, wax or varnish any wood furniture, the tips below will have you doing it well and enjoying the process.
Allow me to assume the piece of furniture you are restoring is painted, needs stripping, sanding and finishing, worst-case scenario. Everything you’ll need is here. If you don’t need something, skip over that bit and keep it in mind for next time.
Stripping paint from wood furniture
Let’s start with stripping paint off wood. There are three effective ways of removing paint off wood. All three can be messy and even dangerous if you don’t take care and precautions.
I will explain a method of restoring wood furniture without stripping later but before you decide that’s your route, bear with me and consider ‘doing it the right way’ so there’s less chance of the paint or varnish peeling off later.
Using chemical paint stripper
I imagine most people with an interest in DIY have heard of Nitromors. Chemical paint strippers are brushed on to paint. The chemicals and the paint have a fight, and the chemical wins, leaving the paint easily scraped off the wood.
In some hard to get to areas like around mouldings and drawer fronts, you may need to employ a wire brush to get into the detailing. A brass brush is softer than steel and won’t damage the wood so much. It’s not unheard of for one of us to use a screwdriver or some other random pokey thing to get into areas where a scraper or wire brush won’t get to. Being creative pays dividends.
What we use...
Many layers of paint will often require this process to be done twice, even three times. Even a chemical stripper like Nitromors can’t always cut through so many layers, especially when some are water-based and some are solvent-based. In the workshop, we have a can of this stuff at the ready for ‘difficult’ or stubborn bits.
Water-based paint stripper
We don’t use Nitromors a lot in our workshop. The fumes are very potent, and you can get high on them. I don’t like that, so when we do use paint stripper, it’s a water-based alternative from Toolstation (cheapest by far): Home Strip Paint & Varnish Remover.
With water-based stripper, there’s no smell and it does the job fine, even on old wood with many layers of paint.
Use the same techniques as with Nitromors for water-based paint stripper.
Paint stripping heat gun
The old classic paint stripping heat gun will take the paint off anything because it melts the paint. Paint essentially is plastic. Plastic melts when heated. This is a quick and easy method on flat surfaces, but when it comes to the detailing on mouldings, you can scorch the wood.
If you intend on having a wood finish, which you’ll wax or varnish, this tool is not best for stripping the wood. We use a heat gun on front door moulding that we’re going to paint but never when we want to see the wood.
You heat the paint up, start at 100mm or so away and get used to it. You then scrape the paint off towards you with a simple scraper. We don’t use anything fancy or expensive, and it does the job.
HOW TO SAND WOOD
Sanding wood has been done for centuries, using an abrasive to take the surface off the wood. With a good sander and extraction, you can sand paint of wood.
The sander we use...
We use a Festool Rotex 150 sander and sand all the flat areas smooth, removing all of the paint with no dust at all. Note: We use a 110v version because it’s safer in the workshop. For home use, you can use a 240v version with confidence, otherwise you need a transformer.
Some sawdust is carcinogenic, eg. MDF, i.e. it has the potential to cause cancer. A dust mask is essential. We wear one even with the extractor turned on.
Unless the piece of furniture is made from straightforward boards, and there’s no detailing, you will still have to use one of the other methods to strip paint from these areas. The sander won’t get into small detailed areas and would damage some detail.
Over time, exposing your eardrums to noise will damage your hearing. My dad was almost stone deaf by the time he retired and shouting at him conditioned me to protect my ears. Sanding may be less noisy and shocking to your hearing but it will still damage it long-term.
When you’ve stripped all the paint off, you feel like you’re a big step closer to making your furniture beautiful again.
You must now spend a good bit of time sanding in the corners, squaring up the details. This is where doing a good job turns into doing a great job.
Use small pieces of sandpaper, fold them the get a sharp bit or make a small block from an off-cut of wood to wrap the paper round. Use your imagination when there’s a bit that needs sanding, and you can’t get to it with what you have already.
Grades of sandpaper
Abrasives we use...
Sandpaper is graded, so you know how rough it is, and how much effect it’ll have on the surface to be sanded.
60 grit is very harsh, you might use this when sanding the paint off, whilst at the other end of the range, 600 grit would be used for French polishing, only keying the surface.
After removing paint from wood, you could use a 120 grit up to maybe 240 first of all. For the best results, you should practice with a piece of similar wood. You could even go through the whole process with your sample and finish it off to be sure that you’re happy with what you will do on the furniture.
We use sanding pads for around mouldings, they’re flexible so you can get into the fine detail without taking the edge off corners.
Then before the final coats, Scotch pads, much like the green scourers mum used to wash up with, simply key the surface. They are great before the final undercoat or second to last varnish coat.
Painting wood means that everything underneath, like filler, will be hidden. The colour of the filler doesn’t matter. When you’re waxing or varnishing there’s some trickery involved. You may need to mix different coloured fillers to get the right shade and tone for the wood.
Consider also that you may need to fill and sand a piece of scrap to make sure that the filler, when waxed or varnished over, doesn’t soak in the ‘finish’ differently to the wood. You can often end up mixing the filler lighter so that when it darkens when finishing, it’s the same colour as the wood and disappears.
Wood filler we use...
Lots of filler is not suitable even for the job it’s supposed to do. The two-part wood filler is the best; you add an activator to the filler. We use Ronseal wood filler, it comes in loads of colours. You have maybe 10 minutes to apply the filler so do small sections at a time and don’t use it if it’s hardening, it doesn’t stick well.
Types of filler
Water-based single-part filler takes a day to set properly; this slows the whole process down. It may seem easier to apply, and it is easier to sand, but it doesn’t do as good a job. It’s not as hard and doesn’t stick as well as two-part.
If you’re filling a shake or dent, a filler is your only option, but on bigger pieces, where a chunk of wood has broken off, you may be better splicing a piece of wood in. I’ll cover that in another article.
You’re at the most critical stage now. Getting the piece looking great is imperative. Think that you need the piece looking exactly as you want it when finished, and then you’re coating it with something to protect it.
The primer coat is usually thinned down. Water-based paint may need thinning with water, solvent-based paint will be thinned a little with white spirit. This soaks into the wood more and may raise the grain.
If you’re painting, a primer coat will need sanding when it’s dry. 240 or 320 grit sandpaper would be about right at this stage; it depends on what wood your sanding and what condition it’s in. I think this is the most important sanding stage; you have to get the piece in the shape you want it at the end.
After a priming coat, and the best sanding job you can do, apply a thin coat of undercoat. Most people, when painting anything, try to get the paint to ‘cover’, that is, they want the job finishing as soon as possible. This is a mistake.
When you apply paint, you should brush it on in thin layers. If you have to apply six coats, so the paint isn’t thick, or runs, then so be it. The job will be better for it.
When we paint a front door, we apply at least five coats. The primer is followed by perfect sand, two layers of undercoat are sanded in between, then there are two coats of a gloss, checking for specks of dust in between.
An antique piece of oak furniture needs to be seen. When it’s inside, and protected from the elements, waxing is the nicest option.
I recently restored this bureau for a customer, and after stripping the hundred-year-old varnish, we waxed it, and the finish is beautiful.
You might want to warm the wax in a pan of hot water so that it gets right in the bare grain. Cut half of the bristles of a three-inch paintbrush to make it stubby, then brush the wax into the grain and detailing, working it in by moving the brush in small circles.
Leave it to sit for 15 minutes, then buff off with a soft towel.
Apply a second coat the next day and buff it off again in the same way to bring a gorgeous polished finish. The bureau feels beautiful and smooth.
Apply varnish to the bare wood by thinning the first coat, then giving it all a good rub down. The water-based varnish is very thin already; it provides a nicer finish as it doesn’t round off the detailing.
The solvent-based varnish is much thicker, so if you’re not used to using it, it’s worth a practice first before spoiling your piece of furniture.
Brush it on like paint and rub it down in between the first couple of coats. Water-based is easier to use, more forgiving and dries very quickly.
French polishing needs a blog all for itself.
Please don’t just walk into a hardware store and get the best varnish you can get and the cheapest brushes! Brushes really make the difference between a good job and a flawless job.
The bristles in a brush can be made from either synthetic strands or hair. Cheap brushes, with plastic handles, contain thick black bristles that don’t taper at the end, it’s like painting with straws. The only use for them is filling up landfill sites.
Fine horsehair feels lovely to use but there are synthetic bristles that are just as good.
Brushes we use...
A two inch Purdy brush, cleaned properly after use, will last you your whole life. Think about it, you emulsion the living room, painting the edges in with your Purdy, you varnish a cabinet, gloss the doors, cleaning the brush after each use, not leaving it to dry up. I’ve employed painters who’ve had a set of brushes since they did their apprenticeship – and now they’re in their 50s!
Use good bushes and you’ll love your work.
Cleaning and preservation
Whilst paint and varnish can simply be cleaned with a soft damp cloth, treating waxed wood is necessary. Wax will disperse over the years, so applying a waxy polish keeps the wood protected. You may even apply another coat of beeswax once a year and buff it off like you did the first time.