The Three “R’s” of Furniture Triage

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J. Aubrey Bolen III

When does your precious furniture need to be placed in the hands and care of an experienced artisan?  There are three “R’s” to use as a handy guide: Repair, Refinish, Restoration.

Repair
A piece of furniture that is broken or has missing parts falls into this category.  A broken piece of furniture may not be functioning properly or may be completely unusable.  Cracks and breaks in the wood also qualify the piece as broken.  Due to transportation, poor storage environments and daily wear and tear, furniture can also be in need of parts replaced or recreated.  Veneer, molding, and appliques are difficult to replace or recreate while maintaining the original finish or look of the piece; but a well-skilled furniture restorer can accomplish the task.  It requires knowledge and experience to match original finishes, redesign intricate carvings, and reproduce trim work.  Antiques, as well as some contemporary furniture, with missing parts such as knobs, wheels, locks and keys can often be difficult to repair.  Locating the necessary parts and the ability to replace these parts can be complicated.  Again, a well-skilled furniture restorer can accomplish the task, bringing both quality and functionality back to your most precious pieces of furniture.

Refinish
A piece of furniture requiring refinishing has a damaged finish or an owner desiring to change the color of the finish.  Unfortunately, refinishing requires removing, or stripping, the original finish down to the bare wood.  It is obvious that the entire finish must be stripped and then the new finish applied if the owner wants to change the color of the piece.  Also,  if the finish is failing or severely damaged, the entire piece will need to be stripped to bare wood and refinished completely.  A third refinishing scenario would include “spot stripping.”  In the last article, spot stripping was referenced in regards to proper furniture care and damage prevention.  Chemical spills, white spots from wet or hot items, deep scratches and gouges, and everyday wear and tear can damage the finish on furniture.  In some damage cases, a master restorer can spot strip, removing and refinishing the section of the furniture which was damaged.  Many clients request refinishing of the tops of dressers, tables, night stands, etc.  This less expensive process will still include restoring the legs and/or the sides of the piece in order to maintain the overall appearance of an old, well-cared for piece of furniture.  Keep in mind, whether the client opts to change the color of the finish, refinish a piece entirely, or refinish a section of a piece, this is a tedious and complex process. The restorer must have the knowledge and abilities to mix colors and achieve either the color the client desires or the original color of the finish.  In the case of spot stripping, the well-trained restorer must be able to match the color of the refinished section to the original finish of the furniture.

Restoration
A piece of furniture that is restored undergoes a thorough examination. Next, any necessary repairs are completed; and, lastly, the original finish is rejuvenated.  Maintaining the original finish of a piece of furniture requires the restorer to use specific chemicals which essentially clean the original finish rather than remove it.  Next, the restorer applies new, fresh layers with the original type of finish using the “French Polish” technique.  French Polishing begins with the restorer hand-crafting a small pad made with cotton and cheese cloth.  The polish, called shellac (resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand, processed and sold in dry flakes; also now sold in synthetic form), is then applied to the pad and rubbed by hand onto the furniture.  The application is a process of repetition, where a careful, conscientious restorer spends a considerable amount of time applying layers and layers of polish to rejuvenate the piece.  Aging and oxidation cause the finish of furniture to darken, appear flat, and lose its original shine and sheen.  What makes the French Polish technique one-of-a-kind is it reveals a unique, clear finish, rich with a beautiful aged color about it; it leaves the piece looking well taken care of yet aged.