To Refinish or Restore?

Article - July 28, 2008

This week’s question comes from Kyle who writes:
Lately I’ve been working on refinishing an old dresser. It’s been in my family for a long time and has been abused pretty badly. But since it was a family heirloom, it was like pulling teeth to convince my mom to let me restore it. I’ve seen your episodes on refinishing and I know about your experience in the field. I was just wondering if you could tell me what kind of things ruin the value of a piece and why you think there are so many refinishing “haters” out there. If a piece is in bad shape is it still more valuable than if an ambitious woodworker like myself made it look good again?

And this was my response:
Hey Kyle. From what I have seen, there are definitely two types of refinishing out there. You have the utilitarian version, which I am familiar with, which simply takes an old beat up piece of furniture and makes it serviceable and beautiful. This includes doing any necessary repairs, stripping off the old finish, possibly re-staining, and of course, applying a new finish of choice. The second type of refinishing is actually true “restoration”. This is a much more involved process that requires careful attention to detail and a boat-load of know-how. While I can’t tell you exactly how to maintain the value of an antique, I am sure it has a lot to do with keeping the original finish intact and doing spot repairs with period-accurate materials. Anyone in that industry could probably recite a long list of do’s and dont’s.

So at a point like this, you have a few questions to ask yourself (and your mother). Is this piece ever going to be sold? Is it highly valued by your mom simply because its “valuable” or is it an emotional attachment by virtue of its service in your family for so long? Also, it might be nice to know if the piece even has substantial value as an antique. Perhaps you should have it appraised before making a final call. You see Kyle, you could refinish that piece and make it look better than it did on the day it was created, but as a result you may very well (and most likely will) destroy its value as an antique.

As an aside, I will tell you that out of all of my videos (over 60 now), the one that I receive the most complaints and corrections about is the refinishing series. I suppose its my fault for not explicitly stating that this was not meant to be “Antique Restoration 101”. I had explicit instructions from the owners of that table and I did exactly what they wanted. An old decrepit table was pulled out of the back of a garage and was restored for sentimental value. The table would never be sold or even appraised. The customer simply wanted the table to match the color scheme of her current decor so that she could enjoy the same table her mother had enjoyed for so many years before her. Monetary value was irrelevant.

So really, this is a personal decision for you and your family. But to answer your question directly, even a beautiful refinishing job can completely destroy the value of an antique. Hope that helps.

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