Restoration or Refinishing?

Clients will sometimes ask me “What’s the difference between furniture refinishing and restoration?” Here are some thoughts on the subject.

Donald C. Williams, retired Smithsonian conservator of wooden artifacts, provides us with a good definition of restoration: “Restoration is the process of returning a damaged artifact to some previous state of condition. At its most extreme, restoration includes attempts to return an object to ‘as new” condition.” When an insurance company directs that a piece of furniture damaged in a fire be returned to “pre loss condition”, they are asking for restoration work. When a client asks us to repair dog chewing damage to a chair leg, I am doing restoration work by returning the leg to its pre dog chewed appearance. Most of the work we do in our shop and on-site is to repair furniture to make it sturdy and usable again and to “turn back the clock” to make the furniture more presentable.

When you strip off the old finish and then apply a new finish or color that was not original to that piece of furniture you are refinishing. Refinishing projects in our shop include making an old 1950’s rock maple furniture look like cherry or painting a side table with black lacquer so it will match the client’s décor. A client once asked us to strip a highly polished reproduction mahogany dresser and make it look like it hardly had any finish at all. We stripped, sanded and rubbed it with oil and then applied one thin coat of shellac. That dresser was refinished and not restored.

Ethics of Furniture Restoration
We are frequently asked the question, “If I refinish this, or change the color, will the work degrade the value of my furniture?” The quick answer for most pieces of furniture is No. Refinishing or restoring will not lower the value of your furniture as most of the furniture in our homes is not collectible to begin with. If we suspect that your furniture is valuable or collectible, we will talk about preserving original finishes and making appropriate ethical repairs. But if you have a 1930’s smoking stand that you want to redo in white enamel, it is your furniture and we will make it white!

Restoration or Refinishing - cabinet wobbly dirty finish (before)

Before – 1920’s mission white oak display case. Wobbly. Dirty Finish.

Restoration or Refinishing - cabinet repaired and cleaned (after)

After – Cabinet disassembled and repaired. Cleaned and one coat of shellac applied to make piece look “used but cared for”