The Best Way To Hide Scratches On Vintage Wood Furniture Finishes on Antique Wood Furniture

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Finishes on Antique Wood Furniture

Over the centuries, many different finishes have been used to beautify and protect wooden furniture. Many historically authentic finishes were difficult to maintain, labor intensive and not very durable, so the trend was towards more impervious and durable finishes suitable for everyday life.

Simple wax finishes have been used for many years, especially on rustic or country furniture, as they have a soft and satin finish. The wax is easily renewed or brightened with a new application, damaged or dull areas are easily spread. The disadvantage is that wax varnishes can easily stain water, alcohol and cosmetics.

Oil varnishes have also been used for hundreds of years. These penetrating oils are easy for amateurs to use as they are simply rubbed or painted onto the wood, allowed to soak in and wiped dry. This process is repeated many times until the desired shine is developed. The downside is that the finish can dry out over time, requiring repeated applications, sometimes over years, to maintain an even shine. Although it’s not particularly durable, if it does get damaged, it’s easy to add more oil and it bonds well.

Natural shellac was a very popular furniture and floor finish a century ago. It provides a warm color but has very poor wearability and is easily damaged by water and alcohol. Shell floors were usually redone annually. Similarly, French polish is a very laborious traditional technique that is very bright and shiny and dramatically highlights the rich color and grain of the beautiful wood. This finish is particularly popular in Europe and is very sensitive to damage, its original application and repair are expensive.

Genuine natural varnish is rarely used anymore. Although durable and attractive, it required very skillful application, many slow drying coats and lots of surface preparation.

Traditional varnishes have been popular for 100 years – they have good stain resistance, wear well and can be re-wiped or re-painted fairly easily. Hard and quite brittle, they can chip and crack and sometimes go crazy or crack over time – “alligator”. Strong and dangerous solvents are used in classic varnish.

Most newly manufactured furniture has a single-layer plastic-type finish, usually polyurethane or polyester. Although one coat of tinted finish is very tough and scratch and stain resistant, this means that a small scratch or smudge can travel through the finish to the wood underneath, revealing a different color. These finishes are very difficult to repair, repaint or remove for repainting. The great advantage of this technique is the saving of time and labor of producers. Many of these finishes are quickly cured with UV light, and some are water-based rather than solvent-based. The aesthetic disadvantage is a rather “plastic” look and feel.

A recent method of protecting furniture is water-based varnish, developed and refined in recent decades in response to environmental and worker safety concerns. Thanks to the combination of water and alcohol resistance, these finishes have a more traditional lacquered look, not so “plastic”. They are not as hard and brittle as some other finishes and are easier to repair and repaint when worn or damaged. They are much less dangerous to work with, they are a good middle ground in appearance, durability and renewability. Just as water-based paint has almost replaced oil-based paint, these water-based wood varnishes are gaining on solvent-based varnish.

These new water-based methods may include traditional techniques of applying a base coat of stain, finished with repeated coats of clear coat, sanded by hand between each coat. Although it requires more work than most manufacturers are willing to do, this gradual finish ensures that minor damage to the finish will not penetrate deep into the paint or wood, meaning it will be less visible. Repairs or refinishing or repainting in the future are relatively simple. Environmental and worker safety issues suggest that water-based coatings have an expanding future.

In terms of maintenance, wax lacquers are best polished with a dry cloth or a little additional wax. For other finishes that have a hard surface, a little lemon oil, preferably with beeswax, will brighten and deepen the color. Research has shown that using lemon oil too often will soften hard surfaces, but in moderation it’s a great shine.

Paste wax is a traditional furniture polish. Besides requiring a lot of elbow grease, the wax will turn white from anything hot or wet. Commercial spray polishes (Pledge, Endust, etc.) can cause a dirty silicone deposit that is very difficult to remove. Any modifications or repairs are also a problem. “Oil and Stain” polishes like Old English are temporary scratch covers. A much better idea is to use a marker type of scratch cover which comes in all shades of wood finishes and will easily help hide minor blemishes. These are available at most paint and hardware stores. Adding lemon oil and beeswax polish will improve any dry or worn surface.

No one finishing method is right for every piece of furniture, but considerations of cost, durability, and beauty are all factors in choosing to preserve and enhance antique wood furniture for the future.

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