The wood in old furniture and woodwork often takes on a dry appearance, and people want to know what to do to restore life to the wood.
Because of widespread misinformation from furniture polish manufacturers that wood contains natural oils that need to be replaced by furniture polishes, many people think they need to apply oil to the wood. But the problem is rarely in the wood (and only woods from the tropics contain a natural oily resin anyway). It’s the old finish that has deteriorated and become cracked and crazed that makes the wood appear dry. Light no longer penetrates the deteriorated finish to reveal good depth and color.
Apply paste wax. If the problem is still pretty superficial, the thin wax layer will solve the problem.There are several ways to restore the depth and color. From least invasive to most, these include:
- Sand the surface lightly with fine sandpaper to remove the surface roughness, then apply a coat or two of finish. To do this successfully, you’ll need to remove most of the wax, if you tried the wax solution first. You can do this by wiping with mineral spirits or naphtha without damaging the underlying finish. To further avoid bonding problems, use shellac for the finish, because it will bond well over thin wax.
- Worst case, you’ll need to strip the finish and apply a new one. It’s almost always better to use solvent strippers than to sand or abrade off the finish because sanding will cut into the wood and remove the aged color (“patina”) it has developed.
In the example shown in the accompanying picture, paste wax isn’t going to help. It might be possible to smooth the surface with a light sanding, then apply more finish. But the cracking will telegraph through relatively quickly. The best solution in this case, and what I chose to do, was to strip the finish and apply a new one.