Restoring and revamping old furniture

Restoring and revamping old furniture

If you have an unloved piece of furniture which needs attention, there is much to consider before embarking on the process of restoration. A valuable piece requires a careful approach, whereas a junk shop find can be treated with less reverence.

Consider these points before you begin:

– Is your piece out of the ordinary? Is it a masterpiece or classic example of craftsmanship? Make sure any restoration won’t diminish the value of your furniture.

– Was your furniture made by a notable craftsman or manufacturer, regardless of age? Look for any marks or labels that might indicate the origin on the bottom or back of the piece.

– Would it be more practical just to give the piece a good clean and make minor repairs?

What to consider before you start a restoration project

Anyone who’s watched Antiques Roadshow knows how poor restoration can affect value. But we’ve also seen success stories where unloved pieces were restored to their former glory.

Take some time to inspect the furniture for any labels or marks that might help you identify its origin. Look at the overall quality of the wood and craftsmanship, including any carvings. If it turns out to be a potentially valuable item, do no more than clean it. Any repairs on a piece like this should be left to a professional.

When embarking on cleaning, watch out for a hand-painted finish which resembles wood – some techniques rely on painting lesser woods to look like tiger oak or bird’s eye maple, for example, and those techniques add value when they stay intact over time.

Even if you are confident the piece isn’t a rare antique, it’s still best to be cautious. Start by cleaning drawers, cracks and crevices of accumulated debris and giving it a good dusting. Most collectors value an original finish and a patina (which translates into dirt and wear that builds up over time) that makes an item look old. Sometimes just a good clean and a little glue in the joints will be all that’s needed.

In many cases, you can bring an old piece of furniture back to life with minimal effort. Just be confident of what you are working on and its potential value before you begin.

What does ‘restoration’ mean?

It’s generally better to restore a piece to its original state rather than totally change it or haphazardly patch it up. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and at Shimu, we sell a mix of carefully restored antiques and others which have been refashioned for a modern home.

Chinese Painted Sideboard

Above is a painted sideboard from our collection of antiques in good original condition. The old red lacquer is now worn and less bright than when first applied but well preserved. The beautifully detailed paintings of flower vases, brush pots and bronzes on the doors are still very clear, each set against a cream background that is framed in blue, orange and black.

Sometimes we alter the finish of an antique piece, perhaps stripping it back to original wood or giving it a new lease of life with a bright lacquer. Below on the right is a cabinet which has been refinished in a deep red lacquer and added a practical interior shelf.


The distressed ‘shabby chic’ look is very popular with our customers and this can be a relatively straightforward finish to achieve at home.

DIY ‘shabby chic’

To achieve this look at home, start by prepping the surfaces to be painted. Remove any handles, hinges or metalwork, then strip off the paint or varnish with sandpaper or Nitromors.

Red Lacquer Chinese Cabinet

 Once stripped and sanded, get rid of any dust by wiping down with warm water and allow to dry. Next, consider whether you need primer, and if the piece is in good condition, apply two coats of paint instead of primer. For the ‘shabby chic’ look, oil-based eggshells are ideal as a water-based paint won’t sand well. When applying paint always go in the direction of the grain, keeping minimal paint on the paintbrush and applying in ultra thin layers. Allow each layer of paint to dry properly before adding the next.

Avoid painting outside on a sunny day as bugs find the gleam of fresh wet paint irresistible. Once they’ve landed they won’t come off without leaving marks. Keep hairy pets away for the same reason.

Leave the piece to dry for a minimum of 24 hours before distressing. Now comes the creative part! The amount of ‘ageing’ you apply is entirely up to you. Highlight areas where wear and tear would occur, for example on raised areas, edges and around drawers. Use 180 grit sandpaper – the trick is to sand in one direction repeatedly. Once you’re happy with the finish, either leave as is or add a coat of beeswax or varnish. This will help protect the wood, but apply sparingly as an overly shiny varnish will not look authentic.

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