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Expert's Corner — finish

TIP: Refinishing and Value

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Many people are confused about whether or not to refinish old furniture whose finish is in bad shape. They don’t really like living with the furniture, but they’ve heard (usually directly or indirectly from the Antiques Roadshow) that refinishing destroys value, and they surely don’t want to do that. A finish serves two purposes. It protects the wood from contact with liquids, and it makes the wood look better, usually richer and deeper. The finish protects and decorates. Clearly the finish in the accompanying picture does neither. In almost all cases it should be removed and replaced with a new...

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TIP: Thinning Polyurethane with Naphtha

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Naphtha dries (evaporates) much faster than mineral spirits (paint thinner). This leads many to believe that thinning polyurethane with naphtha will make it dry faster. This is not entirely the case. Like all varnishes, oil-based polyurethane dries in two steps. The first is evaporation of the thinner. The second, and much longer step, is by the crosslinking brought about by the introduction of oxygen from the air. When you apply polyurethane, you notice that it stays wet on the surface for a short time as the thinner evaporates. Then the finish goes into a tacky or sticky stage for an...

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TIP: A Short History of Shellac

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TIP: A Short History of Shellac

Here’s a short history of shellac, some of it from my own experience. Shellac was almost the only finish used on furniture from the 1820s to the 1920s when nitrocellulose lacquer was introduced. Shellac continued to be used widely as a complete finish by painters working in buildings until the 1950s. By the 1990s the only remaining supplier of shellac in liquid form was Zinsser, which sells the shellac under the brands “Bulls Eye,” and “SealCoat,” which is a dewaxed variety. Zinsser specializes in sealers and primers, so it markets the shellac as a sealer. The marketing strategy seems to...

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TIP: Glaze for decorating grain

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TIP: Glaze for decorating grain

Glaze is very effective for decorating or highlighting grain, especially in large-pored woods such as oak, ash and elm (as shown in the two accompanying pictures). The term “glaze” refers to a specific product, which is essentially a thickened stain. In addition to a pigment colorant glaze contains a binder (oil, varnish or water-based finish) to bind the colorant to the wood, and thickeners to prevent the glaze from running on vertical surfaces. On flat, horizontal surfaces you could use a pigment stain instead of a glaze. Glaze, or stain used as a glaze, is always applied over a sealed...

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TIP: Finishing over waxed wood

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It’s not all that common, but sometimes you come across furniture, cabinets or woodwork that has a wax finish, and nothing else. There may be cases where you want to coat over with a more water- and scratch-resistant finish. How do you do this without having to go to the trouble of stripping the surface? The first step is to remove most of the wax. Do this by washing with a mineral-spirits, naphtha or acetone solvent. Wash, don’t just wipe. That is, soak a cloth or paper towel with the solvent and wet the wood well. Then dry it quickly...

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