Dec 05, 2023

How to DIY refinishing mid

The lacquer was chipping away from my mid-century modern dining chairs — one of which also had a wobbly leg — when I contacted two refinishers to inquire about a makeover. The estimates they gave were so high that I considered giving up and buying something new. But then I wondered: Could I do it myself? These chairs were not fine antiques after all.

When I asked pros whether refinishing wood mid-century furniture was doable for a novice, I got mixed replies. "Anyone who is willing to put in the time to learn about the process, and practice and perfect the techniques can get a good result," said Mary Duffy, who runs Maine Mid Century in York County, Maine. Still others cautioned about the delicate skills and toxic chemicals involved: "I would recommend people pay someone else to do it," Nicole Gendron, who runs a Massachusetts business refinishing and selling mid-century pieces, said in an email.

But just as these responses varied, so, too, does the complexity of refinishing jobs. Some repairs are straightforward, while others are much more intensive. So, based on guidance from vintage furniture experts, here's what is — and is not — worth trying yourself.

There are some refinishing projects for which you will always want to tap an expert. Anything with issues beyond the finish, such as heavy water damage, missing veneer or significant deterioration — for instance, if a dog chewed off a portion of a leg — should be handled by a pro, said Bob Kennedy, who teaches refinishing techniques via a subscription Facebook group and co-owns Atomic Age Modern in Mesa, Ariz.

Professional help may also be worthwhile if the piece is an heirloom. "If you want the best possible job and it really means a lot to you, then I would hire a professional," Kennedy said. Likewise if you’re dealing with something rare by a well-known designer — say, an Eames molded plywood lounge chair.

The type and style of wood will also determine how beginner-friendly the project is. Kennedy said that American-made walnut pieces are easy to work on, while Danish teak is more delicate, so you’ll need to be extra careful not to sand through the veneer. Staining maple, Duffy said, is "a nightmare" — which was my cue to take my maple dining chairs to a professional.

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If you’re embarking on your first project, you’ll also want to avoid pieces with a lot of tiny corners. While a spindle chair might seem less daunting than a dresser, the large, flat surfaces of a dresser will be easier to tackle than the nooks and crannies of the chair.

Get rid of watermarks

If watermarks are your only problem, Gendron suggests Mohawk's Super Blush Retarder aerosol spray as a quick fix, calling it "the industry secret everyone who owns wood furniture needs to know."

Move your piece to a well-ventilated space, such as the garage, and apply a few light coats of the spray to remove the white moisture marks — no additional finishing required. While there are many tricks and hacks out there for taking care of water rings, Kennedy advises avoiding "home remedies."

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Revive a tired finish

If you have a piece with a slightly failing finish (think dull coloring and only the lightest scuffs and scratches), you might not need a full refinishing. Instead, try the "scuff and spray" method: Sand lightly with a high-grit sandpaper (at least 400 grit) or a green Scotch-Brite scour pad, then spray on a layer of professional-grade lacquer. The pros I spoke to recommend the aerosol products sold by Mohawk — more on those below. Remember to always work in a well-ventilated space. "See how it looks," Duffy said. "If it comes out looking cleaner, it's perfectly acceptable to stop there."

Tackle a full refinish

If you can see bare wood or your piece has deep scratches, many water stains or ink marks, you’ll need a full refinish. You’ll strip, sand and potentially address color with stain, glaze, toner or a combination of all three, before finishing with multiple coats of lacquer.

Because both the stripping products and the finishes are harsh, you’ll need a well-ventilated space for your project — not just a room with the windows open, Duffy said. "When I say ‘well ventilated,’ I really mean well ventilated, like with a powerful fan," she said. "And you still need a 3M respirator mask with P100 cartridges." A garage is ideal, but a covered porch or pop-up tent can work. You’ll also need this space for a while: Kennedy estimates that a standard dresser will take a beginner about 20 hours to refinish.

To strip off the old finish, Duffy recommends a product called Stripwell QCS. Strippers by the Klean Strip brand, she says, are also cheap and effective. After allowing the stripper to do its work, use a putty knife to scrape away the residue. (In its how-to videos, Stripwell recommends using a plastic version instead of metal as a precaution against damaging the veneer.)

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Once you’ve removed the finish, follow the product's directions for cleaning the stripper from the wood, then let it dry completely before sanding. Kennedy and Duffy both recommend investing in a random orbital sander, a tool designed for ultra-smooth sanding that costs less than $100. One of the most common mistakes beginners make is sanding through veneer, so go slowly, the pros say.

Now you’ll apply the new finish to your piece. People often assume that all mid-century furniture was finished with teak oil, Kennedy said, but most was finished with sprayed, toned lacquer. Therefore, you likely won't want to use teak or Danish oil. "It's like putting olive oil on a car finish," Duffy said, adding that if you strip and sand a piece, then put teak oil on it, you haven't really established a surface durable enough for everyday use. When trying to achieve a certain color with your new finish, she recommends practicing first on a spare piece of wood. (If you’re unsure which products are right for your item, Kennedy offers free advice in his Facebook group the Mid Century Modern Furniture Refinishing Resource.)

The pros I spoke to advised avoiding the finishes available at hardware and big-box stores in favor of professional-grade options. There are many brands, but for beginners, they recommend those by Mohawk, which offers many of its products in aerosol format, so you won't need to invest in a sprayer.

When applying the finish, Duffy said, "you need to build up five or six coats to create a really beautiful surface that is strong enough for daily use and will preserve the furniture for another 50 or 60 years." Let each application dry according to the package directions; in between coats, you’ll need to lightly scuff the surface with high-grit sandpaper.

If your piece is painted, it might not be worth the trouble. Stripping away paint is tedious and time-consuming, especially for a novice. Even Kennedy says he will no longer refinish a painted piece unless it's a particularly hot seller. If you’re considering attempting it, he advises asking yourself, "What's underneath the paint? Did they paint it to hide something?" You could put in hours of work only to discover damage.

On the flip side, if you’re planning to paint a mid-century piece yourself, the experts would encourage you to reconsider. "That trend has irreparably ruined many fine pieces of mid-century furniture," said Duffy, who points out that most items people think are "beyond repair" and must be painted can, in fact, be refinished successfully.

Laura Fenton is a writer based in New York; she writes the weekly newsletter Living Small.

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