Refinishing tips for a 70-year-old mahogany dining room set

I was just given the go-head to refinish my wife's parent's old dining room set. It was purchased in 1940 (my wife still has the receipt!) and it is in dire need of refinishing. There are 70 years worth of fingerprints all over the backs of the chairs and there are several nice gouges in the top of the buffet. The finish on the top of the backs of chairs is really coming off, too, and you can see different colored wood starting to show up on all four of the chairs. Of course, there are a lot of scratches on the table top from cats and kids and whatever over the years. And you can see all the cracks and discoloration of the old varnish--at least I think it is varnish.
That is the first question: how do I figure out what they used to finish the dining set? Varnish, shellac, what else would they have used seventy years ago?
Next question is what should I use to finish it again? I assume I would want to use the same thing. I certainly don't want to use any sort of poly.
The chairs are getting a little wobbly but I don't think they are anywhere near the point of having to take them apart. Would it be worth it to look into that glue that is applied using a needle; the kind of needle like a doctor uses? It seems like these can get into really small places, obviously, but I don't know if the stuff works.
One last thing: how do I get my wife to understand that the entire set is going to be much, much lighter than it is now? She was born 20 years after this set was purchased, so she has only known it to be on the dark side. I am sure she is going to scream at first. I guess the only thing I can say is wait another 70 years and it will be just as dark as it is now, except she will be 120+ years old by then and the last thing she will be thinking about is what the set looked like in 2012.
Thanks!
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On Mon, 17 Dec 2012 07:24:06 -0800, busbus wrote:

The cracking would indicate varnish, but rubbing it with a little alcohol (not rubbing alcohol) would show if it were shellac. Alcohol won't affect varnish.
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On Monday, December 17, 2012 7:24:06 AM UTC-8, snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

Really? I think I heard you say "My inlaws have a treasured family piece of furniture, in fact an entire set of furniture, I don't have enough experience to know how to refinish it and I would like to start doing this now."
Refinishing is the best way to reduce the value of any antique (can we call this an antique?). This is true even when done by the most accomplished professional.
Finishing furniture itself is (in my opinion) one of the most difficult parts of building furniture and refinishing is about 10 times harder.
Hmmm, does this seem like a good idea?
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On Mon, 17 Dec 2012 10:24:06 -0800 (PST), "SonomaProducts.com"

set. It was purchased in 1940 (my wife still has the receipt!) and it is in dire need of refinishing. There are 70 years worth of fingerprints all over the backs of the chairs and there are several nice gouges in the top of the buffet. The finish on the top of the backs of chairs is really coming off, too, and you can see different colored wood starting to show up on all four of the chairs. Of course, there are a lot of scratches on the table top from cats and kids and whatever over the years. And you can see all the cracks and discoloration of the old varnish--at least I think it is varnish. That is the first question: how do I figure out what they used to finish the dining set? Varnish, shellac, what else would they have used seventy years ago? Next question is what should I use to finish it again? I assume I would want to use the same thing. I certainly don't want to use any sort of poly. The chairs are

having to take them apart. Would it be worth it to look into that glue that is applied using a needle; the kind of needle like a doctor uses? It seems like these can get into really small places, obviously, but I don't know if the stuff works. One last thing: how do I get my wife to understand that the entire set is going to be much, much lighter than it is now? She was born 20 years after this set was purchased, so she has only known it to be on the dark side. I am sure she is going to scream at first. I guess the only thing I can say is wait another 70 years and it will be just as dark as it is now, except she will be 120+ years old by then and the last thing she will be thinking about is what the set looked like in 2012. Thanks!

furniture, in fact an entire set of furniture, I don't have enough experience to know how to refinish it and I would like to start doing this now."

this an antique?). This is true even when done by the most accomplished professional.

I found myself going at least take a chair to several refinishers and get some idea of what's involved. I admit to no real experience refinishing anything that big or of any value. I've done a enough projects in my time where I had to admit I would have been better off hiring an expert and probably saved money.
Mike M
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snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

A. lacquer - lacquer thinner will dissolve it
B. shellac - alcohol will dissolve it
C. varnish - it is relatively impervious to alcohol or lacquer thinner though the latter may effect it slowly.
There is such a thing as a varnish amalgamator to repair crazed varnish finishes. I've never used it, no idea how effective it might be.

Why not? It is the most scratch resistant thing.

Of course it works. So will cyanoacralate (super) glue...it wicks into small areas well. Should you use either? No idea, can't see your chairs.

The dark color of the set is most likely from stain, not age. For some reason much of the mahogany furniture from that era and earlier was stained a very dark cordovan color. Look at the underside structure for color differences..
The table top and possibly other areas are most likely veneer rather than solid wood. It was also common to use woods other than mahogany for trim pieces. Veneer was thicker then but it is still veneer.
Others have suggested you would be better off having the work done by a professional. +1 to that.
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On 12/17/2012 9:24 AM, snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

I question whether you really should refinish this set. I assume it is fairly good shape and just needs some TLC.
Pick out some portion that is inconspicuous, perhaps the legs or undercarriage of the table or the back legs of the buffet.
As others have noted: lacquer will be softened by lacquer thinner. shellac will be softened by denatured alcohol. varnish would require paint remover.
I would suggest starting with paint thinner and very fine steel wool. Rub it down really well and clean and wipe with clean rags and paint thinner until a white rag comes away clean. The paint thinner won't hurt any finish that is on the pieces and will remove wax and polish. I'm wanting you to see what it looks like with just a really good cleaning. If there are any scratches, etc use some Watco Danish oil of an appropriate color. When fully dry (at least one day) give the area you've been working on a goodly coat of paste wax using a pad of fine steel wool as the applicator. Let dry for at least two days. Buff with an old bath towel. I think you might be pleased and surprised to just quit after using this process. Refinished stuff tends to look refinished. Remember that on Antiques Road Show they always value the original finishes.
Once you start the paint remover, scraping, sanding method there is no turning back.
I've had fair results with Chair Doctor: http://www.highlandwoodworking.com/chairdoctorglue.aspx If the chairs are basically sound.
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On Monday, December 17, 2012 6:23:04 PM UTC-5, DanG wrote:

Thanks, Dan.
So what you are saying is to use paint thinner and it will get all that built up wax and sticky fingerprints off and leave the finish alone. That's what I wanted to hear most of all. I was surprised when somebody said they used stain way back then to make things darker. That is probably the reason the tops of the chair backs are lighter than everything else: because people always put their hands right in the middle of that spot.
Is that where I could put a little danish oil? This isn't the best piece of furniture. Because of circumstances, we use this dining set at least a couple times a month. Sometimes for eating and sometimes for doing things on it. We keep it covered but the old scratches and such are there. There was a cat years and years ago that used to jump up on the table and got some claw marks in it. There are marks from writing on the table top--some are probably as old as the table. And, like I said, there are several deep gouges in the buffet top.
That said, I have a can of Johnston's Paste Wax, some Danish Oil, and a lot of 000 steel wool. Is that fine enough? Do they make a 0000 steel wool?
Thanks again for the answers!
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On Mon, 17 Dec 2012 17:59:01 -0800, busbus wrote:

Yes they do - and Liberon is the best - on sale at VanDykes:
http://www.vandykes.com/ultra-fine-steel-wool-grade-0000/p/203792 /
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On 12/17/2012 7:59 PM, snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

...
...
Well, do some more research before you really start if this is really a piece/set of any value (monetary or personal)...
I'd suggest at least watching the Mohawk videos and practicing some w/ their or similar products before you even _think_ of beginning on the real thing.
<http://www.mohawk-finishing.com <http://www.mohawk-finishing.com/catalog_browse.asp?ictNbr 9> <http://www.mohawk-finishing.com/catalog_browse.asp?ictNbr 6>
They've got a "veritable plethora" of you-tube videos on filling w/ various products for the various types of damage and locations.
As for cleaning and restoring old finishes, start here...
<http://www.refinishwizard.com/refinishing_antiques.html
Then perhaps start w/
<http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/FL-HI-500.pdf
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I second the Mohawk reccomendation and I'll add that their toning lacquers can produce excellent results http://www.mohawk-finishing.com/catalog_browse.asp?ictNbr 1
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Wow! That last URL (<http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publicati on/FL-HI-500.pdf> is great.
I have learned a lot from all of you. Thanks a lot!!
It is this back and forth that helps so much more than a Google search could ever do. Articles like this one are great but there are so many times that, when you find an answer to a question, it spawns two more. And nothing in the world (or on the Internet) can replace the wisdom and experience of people who have been doing the things you are trying to learn. Books are good but teachers are better.
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Howard Restor-A-Finish. It has a generic solvent blend that works on lacquer, shellac, and varnish, but doesn't lift them or soften them excessively, and just enough pigment to darken scratches and the like to match the finish. Comes in a variety of colors. Can be used in conjunction with steel wool.
The time that a wet cat went to sleep on a shellacked sideboard made me a believer--you wouldn't believe the size of the white spot that it cleaned up (I don't mean "dyed brown" either). I wish I'd taken pictures.
If Restor-A-Finish doesn't work, then it's time to think about refinishing.
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On Mon, 17 Dec 2012 07:24:06 -0800 (PST), snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

set. It was purchased in 1940 (my wife still has the receipt!) and it is in dire need of refinishing. >

the point of having to take them apart. Would it be worth it to look into that glue that is applied using a needle; the kind of needle like a doctor uses? It seems like these can get into really small places, obviously, but I don't know if the stuff works.

Do you want to refinish or restore? Is the set of any monetary value? Anything you do may ruin the value from thousands of dollars to maybe 50 bucks at a yard sale. Be sure you know what is going on there.
Why not use poly? Done right, it takes some time but looks as good as any finish. After 4 coats of poly, cure, wet sand, pumice, rottenstone, wax.
It may or may not be lighter.
If you want a quick method, roll on two coats of wood tone latex.
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If the table and chairs are treasured at all - by all means get the set professionally stripped. There are companies that do that for a living and identifying a surface is easy for them.
I'd get bids to do the whole thing. e.g. strip and they or another shop professionally stain and finish.
Something that is remembered is worth the option. If it goes bad on you because of fish-eye or dust or cold or to hot - so many things can cause the family the want to just junk it at a later date.
Martin
On 12/17/2012 9:24 AM, snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

set. It was purchased in 1940 (my wife still has the receipt!) and it is in dire need of refinishing. There are 70 years worth of fingerprints all over the backs of the chairs and there are several nice gouges in the top of the buffet. The finish on the top of the backs of chairs is really coming off, too, and you can see different colored wood starting to show up on all four of the chairs. Of course, there are a lot of scratches on the table top from cats and kids and whatever over the years. And you can see all the cracks and discoloration of the old varnish--at least I think it is varnish.

near the point of having to take them apart. Would it be worth it to look into that glue that is applied using a needle; the kind of needle like a doctor uses? It seems like these can get into really small places, obviously, but I don't know if the stuff works.

going to be much, much lighter than it is now? She was born 20 years after this set was purchased, so she has only known it to be on the dark side. I am sure she is going to scream at first. I guess the only thing I can say is wait another 70 years and it will be just as dark as it is now, except she will be 120+ years old by then and the last thing she will be thinking about is what the set looked like in 2012.

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I was just given the go-head to refinish my wife's parent's old dining room set. It was purchased in 1940 (my wife still has the receipt!) and it is in dire need of refinishing. There are 70 years worth of fingerprints all over the backs of the chairs and there are several nice gouges in the top of the buffet. The finish on the top of the backs of chairs is really coming off, too, and you can see different colored wood starting to show up on all four of the chairs. Of course, there are a lot of scratches on the table top from cats and kids and whatever over the years. And you can see all the cracks and discoloration of the old varnish--at least I think it is varnish.
That is the first question: how do I figure out what they used to finish the dining set? Varnish, shellac, what else would they have used seventy years ago?
Next question is what should I use to finish it again? I assume I would want to use the same thing. I certainly don't want to use any sort of poly.
The chairs are getting a little wobbly but I don't think they are anywhere near the point of having to take them apart. Would it be worth it to look into that glue that is applied using a needle; the kind of needle like a doctor uses? It seems like these can get into really small places, obviously, but I don't know if the stuff works.
One last thing: how do I get my wife to understand that the entire set is going to be much, much lighter than it is now? She was born 20 years after this set was purchased, so she has only known it to be on the dark side. I am sure she is going to scream at first. I guess the only thing I can say is wait another 70 years and it will be just as dark as it is now, except she will be 120+ years old by then and the last thing she will be thinking about is what the set looked like in 2012.
Thanks!
At seventy years old, the piece is not an antique. Unless you know otherwise, it was probably mass produced and finished with spray lacquer. Other posts have indicated how to differentiate between different finishes.
Dining room tables get the most scrutiny so I would not tackle this as a DIY refinishing project if it your first one. Of most concern are the gouges. You don't indicate it but if they are cross-grain, these will be difficult to deal with. The cat scratches cause some problems due to the oils in the cat's claws but they can be overcome.
In your case, I would clean the table thoroughly. There are different ways to do this but I would use diluted Dawn dishwashing liquid followed by mineral spirits. I would use lots of fresh cleaning cloths. Once clean and dry, I would give the table top a good coating of paste wax. If it still does not look good to you, it is time to have someone with the knowledge, experience, and equipment refinish it.
Taking the chairs apart and regluing them is not as big a deal as you might think. Unless you use a gap filling glue, you are taking the risk that the dowels that were probably used have not been shaved down over time due to the wobble. Take the chairs apart, fill in any gaps with wood shavings from say a planer, and then reglue with hide glue. Hide glue is reversible so if you make a mistake, you can always undo the joint. I have heard that liquids that swell the wood in joints can also cause them to split.
Good Luck.
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On Dec 17, 10:24am, snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

Factory made from that time might be lacquer; cracking would be expected. Butyl cellosolve -- *slow* drying solvent -- can be used to reflow and reamalgamate the old finish.
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