Tricks of the trade from third-generation refinisher
Chicago — Home furnishings made of wood should last forever with good care. This is the philosophy of Homer Formby, whose family has been involved in restoring antiques for three generations. He also thinks homemakers who buy new furniture have every reason to expect that it will look beautiful for years with the proper attention.
Homer Formby's first recommendation is not to wax furniture, but to preserve it with lemon oil. "Waxing builds up and holds pollutants. It only gives a shine, not a protective coating, and it may darken the wood," he says.
The lemon oil, on the other hand, keeps bugs out of the wood and moisture in. Just as human skin needs oil to keep it natural and beautiful, so does wood, he continues.
Mr. Formby recommends oiling wood pieces about once or twice a month to keep them fresh. This also will preserve the finish and keep the wood from splitting , cracking, or breaking.
He recommends first removing the wax by using mineral spirits or furniture cleaner, which will dissolve it. "It may be necessary to do this two or three times to get rid of a wax build-up. And the best way to remove the mineral spirits is either with a cotton cloth or facial tissues.Nylon, rayon, or polyester cloths just won't pick it up and absorb it," says the wood expert.
When the wax is removed, any of the white rings which have appeared on the furniture will come away, too, since they are there as the result of moisture being trapped between the layers of wax.
Mr. Formby learned how to care for wood furniture from his father, who learned from his grandfather. Mr. Formby's grandfather came to this country from Formby, England, bringing with him the European tradition of fine and patient craftsmanship. Many of the techniques then in use had been employed in the 15th century.
His father followed in the trade, using hand-rubbed finishes instead of time-saving spray finishes. From the age of nine, Mr. formby worked as an apprentice in his father's antique and refinishing shop after school.
While Homer Formby learned his trade doing refinishing, he recommends refinishing only as a last resort. He thinks furniture can be restored by removing the wax build-up, using oils to rejuvenate the wood. Only if that and cleaning with a toothbrush and toothpaste -- the best cleaner he knows -- fails, should one consider refinishing.
He compares dried-out woods to driftwood, which is bleached by the sun and has no oil. That is what happens when furniture isn't cared for. "But the beauty will snap back as soon as oil is applied," he says.
Mr. Formby recommends that before one launches into a refinishing job, he or she should buy a good furniture cleaner and go to work on the dirtiest spot that can be found."If that spot turns out clean, and the grain of the wood is clear, don't bother to refinish the piece. If you can't clean up the dirty spot to suit you, you know it needs refinishing. If the finish is checked or 'alligatored' heavily, chances are it needs refinishing," he explains.
This expert thinks that the do-it- yourself can do a better job of removing paint or varnish than a commercial stripper, if the piece is to be refinished. "Stripping can damage the finish and destroy the color or 'patina' that age puts into wood. If the furniture is 'dipped' in a tank of caustic paint-stripping material, the joints which are glued can be loosened," he added.
Before beginning a refinishing job, check to be sure that the piece is structurally sound, Mr. Formby advises. He also recommends this kind of a check when one is considering the purchase of an antique. "If the piece can be made sound without a lot of work, then buy it or refinish it. Look at the wood in a spot that doesn't have built-up finish on it. does the grain look interesting? If the grain looks good and the piece is sound it's worth buying and refinishing ," he says.
If the finish on the furniture is varnish, lacquer, or shelllac, all one needs to remove it is a modern refinisher to dissolve and lift off the old finish. When these are used, it's important to give the chemicals a chance to dissolve. "Often people tend to work on too broad a surface at one time," he warns. "Another mistake is to try to stain or apply paint, varnish, lacquer, shellac, or tung oil in damp weather. Wait until a good dry day," says the expert.
Use paint remover to take off painted finishes or the coatings which are made of synthetic resins like epoxy or polyurethan, he adds.