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Restore an Antique Oak Table

Thoughtful finishing and
new leaves prepare this classic
for the next 100 years.

By Kevin Southwick

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This old table looks like a prime candidate
for refinishing. Strip off the old
finish, sand out all the dings and
scratches, spray on a catalyzed
lacquer finish and it would
look brand new. But in
my opinion, doing this
would rob the table of
its history. Lovers of
antique furniture value
an original finish in part
because of the witness it bears. In
its present condition this table does that – it tells
a story 100 years old. But let’s face it. As it is, the
table is an eyesore.

That’s the conundrum of working with antique
furniture. In some cases, the original finish adds
real historic, aesthetic, and monetary value. But
in pieces like this, saving all of the original finish
makes no sense; the poor condition of
the top’s finish is actually a detriment.
Sentencing these pieces to the stripper’s
tank, the first step in most
refinishing today, isn’t always the
best approach, either. I believe
that most owners of antique furniture
want to be good stewards
of their pieces, which includes
maintaining the furniture for
future generations. Sometimes
that means preserving the original
finish; sometimes it means
refinishing. In the case of this
old table, it means a little of both.

Click any image to view a larger version.

original shellac
is dirty and
has worn away in areas
near the floor. But overall, it’s
in good condition for its age and can
be restored without stripping.

The top’s original shellac finish is so heavily
worn and badly damaged that it can’t be
restored. The original leaves are missing, too,
so new ones have to be built. One challenge
is to replicate the pedestal’s restored finish.
Another challenge is to make new leaves that
match the old top.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker January 2008, issue #133.

January 2008, issue #133

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