A DIY Caveat: Restoring Furniture Sometimes Best Left To Experts – Hartford Courant
When the time came to replace their old dining and bedroom sets, Dave Golemba and his wife, Doreen, spent a considerable amount of time shopping at furniture stores before coming to the conclusion that what they’d been searching for was already sitting in their Bloomfield home.
“As soon as we went out there, we saw that the quality really wasn’t the same as the furniture we already owned,” Dave says.
So, instead of buying new, he decided to refinish the furniture himself, only to discover that DIY was a lot harder than he thought.
“I went out and spent all kinds of money buying sanders, stains, brushes. But after two days of doing that in my cellar, I threw up my hands and said, ‘We’ve got to do something else.'”
That’s when he called Mike Cichowicz, general manager of The Furniture Clinic, a stripping, refinishing, and repair business in East Hartford, to finish the job, which included a large dining room table, chairs, server, headboard, footboard, dresser, and two end tables.
Roughly two months and $3,800 later, Golemba says, their once-dated furniture was returned better than before. “We’ve got better quality than we would have had we gone out to buy it and replace it — and at a price that was probably less than we would have paid for lesser quality furniture.”
Oldie But A Goodie
While refinishing old furniture is nothing new, it’s becoming a popular option among people like the Golembas who find it difficult to buy items built to last longer than just a few years.
“Most of the furniture that we’re seeing, you can’t even buy today,” says Cichowicz. “You can go to the store and buy a men’s chest for $200, and you’re going to get $200 worth of a men’s chest. It’s going to fall apart and you’re going to have to replace it.”
He said an older piece of furniture, especially something made before 1960, is likely to have been constructed with solid, or mostly solid, wood, which often has a longer shelf life than its contemporary counterpart.
“We refinish a men’s chest for $600, it’s going to be good for 20, 30, 40, 50, years,” he says.
Don Butler, owner of Minuteman Furniture Restoration & Antiques in Granby, agrees, and says most furniture made today just isn’t what it used to be.
“A lot of the current products look really nice on the outside, but the interior guts of them, whether it’s a sofa, armoire, or larger pieces, they often skimp on everything from the glue to the staples, to the kind of plywood that’s inside,” Butler says.
But quality isn’t the only reason people opt to refinish instead of buying something new: “Nearly half my business is with people that have had something handed down or given to them, or a parent or grandparent has passed away and they’re not sure what to do with something. Often there’s a sentimental value because they grew up with it.”
Butler also sees a fair number of ecologically minded clients, who bring in old dressers, tables, and other items in hopes of repurposing them instead of just hauling them off to the dump.
“People are being more environmentally conscious these days,” he says. “I hear, ‘Let’s not throw something of value away and add to the landfill, or waste something that a lot of love and passion that was put into making it, because it has a few blemishes.'”
Those blemishes are often easy to repair, Butler says. Things like spilled nail polish, heat rings, and other dings and marks can be fixed without necessarily redoing the entire piece.
“We can just refinish the part that needs it and make it color-match the rest of the piece when we’re done,” he says.
In fact, when it comes to tables, dressers, chests and other flat surfaces that see a fair amount of the wear and tear, he says, depending on the level of damage, it’s often possible to repair and recoat just the top, saving time and money.
Another economical option Butler offers is updating furniture with a darker stain, which reflects more current trends and colors, and can be applied without stripping the old stain first.
“We can make things darker without removing the existing finish if it’s in decent condition,” he says, “but we cannot make things lighter if they’re already dark without removing the dark finish first.”
Paint removal is more difficult. The once popular “dip and strip” method is no longer an option for most refinishing shops because of stricter environmental laws and the damage it can do to the furniture.
“In dipping furniture, the stripper gets into the joints, and what happens is that it loosens all the glue joints and pieces. It’s not great for the piece,” says Mary Ellen Collett, who, along with husband, Ed, owns Another Look, a furniture consignment store in Branford specializing in lighting and furniture restoration.
Instead, she said, many places use a more ecological and furniture-friendly process called “Tray Stripping,” which removes paint using an overflow system that recycles the stripper, requiring less of the harsh chemical.
Once the paint has been removed, Collett says, there are any number of options available to give a piece a new look, including staining, distressing, glazing and repainting.
Before deciding to have an item refinished, she said there are few things to consider, including the condition of the piece, its structural soundness, and whether repairing and refinishing it is worth the cost.
“You have to weigh the cost versus the sentimental,” she says. “It’s a practical thing. Is it something that has a lot of meaning to you, and in that case, sometimes people don’t care what they spend to fix it.”
While most people prefer to leave the painstaking work of stripping and refinishing furniture to the experts, there’s an uptick in the number of homeowners trying to do it themselves.
“A lot of people are redoing their furniture,” Collett says. “I see people doing it as a hobby. They’re taking classes to learn how to do this and doing it on the side.”
But before taking on a DIY furniture restoration project, Collett recommends some preliminary homework to better understand what it entails.
“I can’t tell you how many pieces come in here that people start and then say, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea what was involved with getting this finish off,'” she says. “It’s a time consuming and messy process.”
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