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Restore & Refresh

Finn Juhl “FD136” lounge chairs for France & Son, in the designer’s residence.

Perhaps there’s a chic but scruffy family heirloom in your basement. Maybe you’re on the hunt for the perfect vintage accent but wish to renew a less-than-prime piece. Or maybe you are an ardent vintage buyer who always needs a project. Regardless of the reason, breathing new life into a formerly undesirable piece is as satisfying as it is surprisingly simple. We’ve rounded up the most helpful methods and hints for doing just that.

Material: Wood

While some always practice the “If it’s rough, cover it with paint” mantra, it doesn’t have to be this way. Unlike a lot of furniture produced today, vintage and antique pieces were designed to last and made to be refinished. And with craftsmanship and materials like that, it’s easy to see why.

For many hardwoods, such as walnut, maple, teak and oak, a simple and breathtaking option is a rubbed-oil finish. Easier to achieve stunning looks with than a glossy and toxic-smelling varnish, only rudimentary skill is involved. Our favorite oil finishes include the Watco family of oils, and Tried & True Wood Finish, both noted for their easy application and durable, beautiful appearance. Even on veneered furniture, oil finishes impart a modern, smooth, gorgeous finish with a slight lustre all its own.

Maintaining piece finished with oil is simple as well. On tables and oft-used pieces, always use a drinks coaster, as most oil finishes are susceptible to rings. If piece shows wear, and to keep the finish resilient, it is necessary to re-oil occasionally.

Helpful Hint: Between coats of any oil-finish, a quick but thorough once-over with .0000 (ultra fine) steel wool not only enhances the final finish, it allows the wood to absorb more oil more deeply by opening the pores of the wood.

Material: Woven (Wicker/Rattan/Papercord/Bamboo)

A walnut & papercord Wishbone chair by Hans J. Wegner

You’ve found the most gorgeous, structurally sound rattan and iron side chair. It’s sturdy, it’s vintage, it’s perfect for your desk. It’s also filthy from decades of sitting in a dusty garage or basement. Luckily, this is yet another simple procedure. If the rattan has a clear finish, simply clean with water and a soft-bristle brush, and allow to dry. If the finish looks dull, it can be wiped down with lemon oil or refinished with a coat or two of clear spray lacquer. Wicker can be treated in this manner. If it is painted, it may be lightly scrubbed with soapy water, allowed to dry, and re-sprayed or touched up.

For papercord surfaces, a dry, soft-bristle brush may be used to clean between the cords. Avoid getting unlacquered or otherwise unsealed papercord wet.

Helpful Hint: Because seating materials like this are likely to be used frequently, it is usually a good idea to seal them to protect against spills and stains. Use either a brush-on or spray-on product, and remember to never leave woven seats in direct light for extended periods, as it can have a destructive drying effect.

This is the first installment of a series on how to best bring back to life hand-me-down or found vintage furniture and accessories. As always, let us help you design your life.