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Finishes – Restoration of Wood Furniture

Antique Finishes:
Preservation of Existing Surfaces

18th and early 19th century transparent finishes were mostly linseed oil based varnishes, or shellac/alcohol based ‘spirit varnishes’. By today’s standards, these finishes offer weak protection against spilled food and drink, water, sunlight and scratches. It is rare to find original finishes with that much prized “patina” intact.

Antique furniture from the mid 19th c. to the 1920’s was often finished with a quite tough modified shellac/varnish mix that can often be rescued and worked with, avoiding stripping
and restaining. Painted surfaces, often linseed oil based or milk paint derivative, can be
made good with inpainting, consolidation and appropriate clear top coating.

Shallow surface losses can be filled with a blend of hard and soft waxes and rosins, colored to suit.


Painted finishes on antique furniture restoration requires skill in matching colors, hues, sheen and tonal values. Sunlight can darken or lighten old figurative pigments. Crackle patterns can be introduced, while faux graining and figurative glazes are sometimes required.

When considering various options, horizontal, vertical and turned surfaces reflect light differently. Natural, artificial light and combinations thereof should be considered.

Distressing of new furniture or new parts for antique furniture if subtle, random and appropriate can be extremely realistic and difficult to distinguish from period pieces. Aggressive, over distressing becomes its own style. One decorator had me towing new sofa and chair frames up and down the gravel alley outside my studio!

Glazes can subtly add color, depth and tone to clear top coats and painted surfaces. Years ago, after repainting an entry door several times in response to ‘It’s not quite right’, I returned to the original formulation. She was delighted, ‘You’ve got it perfect!’
Lighting conditions and mood affect color perception. We actually have no ability to
precisely remember color, photos are useless, only samples actually work.