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Restoration techniques and choosing wax or varnish?

What's the best way to preserve and enhance the beauty of your wooden furniture once you've finished sanding it? These are some of our suggestions and guidance on furniture restoration.


restoration process
Waxed antique dresser


Whether it's an inherited family piece, a retro purchase that you wish to modernise, or a new build completely, the final treatment that is applied to your furniture will not only affect the colour and finish but also dictate its longevity and durability.


The following advice plus tips and tricks of the trade come directly from our fully qualified and experienced resident furniture renovator—knowledge gained from many years in the trade plus generations of inherited wisdom.


The following guide should equip you with the skills to identify your options, allow you to commission the work for others, or give you the confidence to tackle the work yourself.

The following are some useful tips that will guide you through the process:



Step 1. Making the right choice.

With most modern furniture made almost entirely from particle board and MDF and the limitations those materials have on design, it's no wonder many people are looking to break away from the generic linear look and strive for some shape and individuality in their room decor. Choosing to purchase solid wood furniture can be a pricey and often unnecessary decision, as many quality items are available for a fraction of the price with superior built and material quality due to the mass production of modern manufacture and restrictions on the availability of many hardwoods.


There is also a positive effect on the environment that reusing and recycling have, with over 690,000 metric tonnes of furniture annually going directly to landfills in the UK alone.


Identifying the options available to you before you purchase or start a renovation or upcycling project is key.


Step 2. Identify the type of wood.


Knowing a little about your piece of furniture will help you identify the type of wood you will be working with and help you avoid common problems that could arise.


There are numerous ways you can do this, from simply examining and researching the pattern of the grain and colour of the wood to using available identification apps like XylorixPocketWood, which is both free and easy to use.



Different types of wood
Types of wood

One common issue that can be avoided is believing a piece of furniture is made from solid wood, only to find, sometimes too late in the process, that it is a veneer.

Even to the trained eye, this can often happen, and our resident restoration specialist Christopher will testify, "I've been caught out many a time thinking a piece I was working on was solid wood, only to find it's a veneer.".


A veneer is a process where to reduce construction costs, a lesser-quality wood is sandwiched between a thin layer of superior-quality wood, giving an overall impression of quality.

"I've been caught out many a time thinking a piece I was working on was solid wood, only to find it's a veneer." – Christopher, Exaireos resident restoration specialist.

A few pointers to avoid this mistake are to first examine the build of the item, especially in areas that aren't immediately visible, for example, the underside, the back, and the inside of drawers and cupboards. This is where corners will be cut and disguise will be minimal.


Edge detail can be a big giveaway, as this will show the internal structure of the section, where the grain should match the shape and direction of the surface layer.

A technique commonly used is to attach additional veneers to the edges, which are only millimetres thick but noticeable to the naked eye. Matching the correct grain pattern to the adjacent layers can be time-consuming and costly, so the masking is often noticeable.


Weight and density are another giveaway. If a large pine dining table is surprisingly light to move, chances are it's not solid wood. Simply knocking on a piece of wood will often give you the information you need. Educate yourself with the sound of solid wood compared to the hollow sound of particle board, veneered ply, etc.

You may get escorted off the premises of many retail establishments for acting in such an odd manner, but sometimes the proof is in the knock.

Step 3. Removing varnishes and sanding away the old.


With many older pieces, especially those pre-dating the 1940s and 1950s, design features like stepped edging details and turned legs can present you with additional work that you may want to initially avoid, depending on your time available and skill set.

A good idea is to start with a simpler piece that has flat sides and is made from a softer wood like pine.


You will notice that the age of the item will often dictate the colour of the stain and varnish that has been applied, with older pieces having a darker finish compared to a golden colour from the sixties and seventies to modern light or clear varnishes.


There are many products available that can remove varnishes once applied, but these can often be too harsh and extreme for the wood in question and cause the grain to open up and become fibrous and hard to work with. Softwoods like pine, cedar, redwood, larch, and fir are from gymnosperm trees where the structure lacks pores, giving a more open grain often with more noticeable knotting. Hardwoods like ash, maple, oak, and mahogany come from angiosperm trees that have fewer resin canals, are often denser, and have a more condensed grain. Many hardwoods are now unsustainable and rarely used; they have a slower growth time and a more condensed, complex structure and durability. This makes them ideal for bespoke joinery flooring and detailed craftwork.


When sanding a piece, we recommend starting with medium-grade sandpaper, like 80-grit, to remove the majority of the old varnish layers, then reducing the grade with each pass. Always try and sand the entire piece before reducing the grit to allow you to get a consistent colour and finish to the wood. For large sections like table tops, it's recommended you use an orbital hand sander to avoid depressions that cause an inconsistent surface. Always let the sandpaper do the work, not the pressure! Each of the woods mentioned above will respond differently. Hardwoods will always require more work and result in a finer powder like sawdust, so always wear a mask and goggles, especially when varnishes are present, which can be extremely hazardous to breathe in. Make a habit of also having good ventilation when working, and restrict your use of vibrating tools to blocks of twenty minutes or so to avoid tool overheating plus hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).


With less straightforward areas, always opt for sanding by hand. This, although more time-consuming, will give you more control, especially when working with chamfered edges and intricate sections.


Step 4 - Wax stain and varnish.


Depending on your taste, numerous options are available to you when it comes to completing your restoration. Whether you choose to stain the wood to match the existing room decor before varnishing or waxing the item or choose a wax or varnish that has a stain included, both will give similar results, although the latter will drastically reduce the time spent on the overall restoration process.


With current trends favouring wax over varnish and the fact that this method brings out the true beauty of the grain, we would almost always recommend you choose this option.

As well as being a less permanent choice, with the wax being removable using over-the-counter products, the choice of colours on offer, and the tactile, satin finish wax gives wood, it is the method we predominantly use on our restored furniture.


Our recommendation would be to use Briwax, which is available from most hardware and decorator stores; it's easy to apply and has a relatively low cost of around £15 for a 400-gramme tin. It contains beeswax and carnauba wax as well as a solvent for ease of application and fast drying. It is best applied with wire wool before waiting approximately fifteen minutes before buffing with a lint-free cloth. Always work the wax into the wood following the grain rather than a circular motion, and applying two or three layers will give a depth of finish that looks stunning. It will protect the wood from marks and stains and can be easily repolished over and over to regain its lustre. Depending on the usage of the item of furniture, an additional coat once or twice a year will be sufficient for upkeep.


Briwax shades available
Briwax stain and polish

Vanishes, on the other hand, do give a more durable finish that may suit the usage of a particular item of furniture, say a table or chair, but often mask the true beauty of the wood used in its construction. If you are looking for a glossier sheen, this is the choice to make. It will give the piece a long-lasting finish that won't show up fingerprints and cope better with spills. There are alternative finishes available other than gloss, with soft sheens and satin often preferred, giving a more premium look that doesn't reflect light and allowing the piece to sit well against, say, a matte emulsion wall.


Exaireo ReUse restoration services.


If you would like any advice in regards to renovating an item of furniture you have, please do not hesitate to message us or pop into our showroom at 4 Weldon Road, Loughborough, where we'd be more than happy to advise you on how best to approach your project. Alternatively, if you'd prefer to commission one of our restorers to carry out the work for you, we can offer you a free consultation to discuss the options available in regards to cost and timescale.

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