One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure – Refinishing

September 11, 2011

My cousin loves this tedious, but very gratifying work. For years we have seen the results of his patient attention to detail as he peels away and rubs clean the layers of film that obscure once fine pieces of wood furniture. From family pieces passed down to antique finds brought back from Scotland after a memorable Navy tour and even yard sales in the neighborhood, he has labored over these pieces resulting in exquisite finished products.
Recently while visiting our historical family village of Youngstown, New York we were invited to dinner at the home of friends who excitedly exclaimed how they had restored their antique family dining room furniture to a luster that was quite amazing. We were impressed with the soft eggshell finish – not shiny with inappropriate application – still retaining the soft patina of age but clean and very much refreshed from years of life’s layers.
Wabi Sabi, the Japanese word for things of beauty that have been worn with use…a softness that shows the age and years of employment and often enjoyment is a compliment to old things. The same could be said of this fine furniture. These hand crafted pieces purchased by my friend’s grandmother during the depression (“a lot of money for that time – she earned the money by selling live chickens to hotels and restaurants in Niagara Falls and up at the market”) – two pieces, a buffet and a china cabinet, had been used for ages through generations of a large family’s gatherings and maintained well through the years. But despite the good care, age had taken its toll on the finish obscuring the fine wood and leaving a film that was not necessarily an asset to the character.

There is a fine line between refinishing beyond recognition and restoring with historical reverence. Practicing the many options in-between is where most people find themselves. Knowing what you have is an important first step. Sites like this Refinish Wizard at offer helpful information for getting started. For example, it would be unfortunate to irrevocably alter the finish of a piece that has priceless value if properly addressed.
My friends’ method was very simple and with a little care and concentration using steel wool with a cloth (and good ventilation), the results were fantastic! Visit for details of the process.

I’m a saver – not a hoarder, thank you – but I value old things, family things, and I believe that there is much to be said, felt, and shared by knowing that certain items have been passed down through the generations by one’s very own family. And if not YOUR family, to find something that has endured through the generations in varying forms of survival causes pause to wonder about where it started and where it has been. When consulting with clients, I am the one to retrieve the piece they left out on the curb for pick-up, the one who pulls something from a closet or storage shed to be re-purposed in a more prominent place in the home. I thoroughly enjoy showing people the potential of forgotten pieces, rearranging to emphasize different things and alter the perception of interesting older pieces.
In another direction, it might seem a sacrilege to some to paint a piece. Even in the most contemporary settings, if the original finish isn’t desirable, painting an old piece can be a creative solution. Whether a glossy bold finish that allows the form to speak through from the past into the design world of the most progressive interiors or a layered, sanded paint process that leaves the piece rendered in a shabby chic-type mode, the options are many.
I hesitate to relate these decisions to an economic reality, however, the practical aspects of saving cost by protecting rather than destroying, refurbishing versus neglecting, renewing instead of replacing, saving rather than tossing…are popular mantras when things get tough. Yes, there are real cost-saving economic reasons to practice these salvaging solutions. But beyond that – I see the value regardless of one’s economic situation. Please take away from this the value, charm, history and sensibility of caring for old pieces.
The design space between the old and the new is where you’ll find the art of successful eclecticism – a place where everything can work based upon the proper balance and context. Watch for that in an up-coming rant!


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