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Visit your local library or bookstore, and you’ll find loads of how-to books on furniture restoration. But don’t let the seemingly simple directions and nifty illustrations fool you — some projects are better left to experienced professionals. Just because you have the ability to restore a piece of furniture doesn’t mean you should. The truth is do-it-yourselfers — from novices to those with years of experience on home projects — simply don’t have the same caliber of resources as trade professionals, may it be training, technical skill, tools or an intuitive eye. Here are five furniture restoration projects that should be left to the pros because the risk of making a mistake just isn’t worth it.
It’s not uncommon for beginner do-it-yourselfers to make mistakes restoring wood furniture because many things can go wrong. You must use the right technique, clean with solvents, remove finishes, correctly identify the wood type, sand, match colors and more. Other things that make wood restoration projects tricky are physical strength demands on the laborer, the need for a number of tools, an ideal workspace with natural lighting, storage space if you don’t complete it immediately and time (some finishes can take months to dry). Professionals stress that amateurs avoid restoring complex wood furniture such as items that are too heavy to lift, are missing parts or veneer, require upholstery removal, are valuable or have intricate carvings.
Ornate, Carved Pieces
Restoring wood furniture can be time-consuming and challenging, especially ornate carvings or intricately shaped features like Barley twist legs on a table. Mistakes made to ornate work can mean damage to the piece or compromising its design and value. According to Mitchell Kohanek with The National Institute of Wood Finishing, accurate restoration involves the understanding of organic chemistry and a mastery of wood-working and wood-finishing skills. It takes Kohanek nine months to prepare someone for a profession in the finishing of wood. He likens the work done by an amateur versus professional to an essay written by a high school student verses English graduate student.
If an upholstered furniture piece is of sentimental or financial value to you, perhaps it’s worth having restored, rather than trying to conserve original materials and rebuild it yourself. Why? You need about 20 tools to do the job, which can be expensive to rent or purchase. Also, the techniques employed are often tiring, difficult or lengthy. In fact, it’s not unusual for the restoration of an upholstered chair to take about 18 hours to complete. There are many cumbersome steps involved, including stripping off old upholstery, cleaning framing and upholstery, repairing frames, finishing, replacing cushion fillings, applying trimming and more.
A furniture piece must be at least 100 years old to qualify as an antique [source: Wagoner]. Museum-quality items should always be restored by a professional. By refinishing common antiques at home, you risk making a mistake that can lower its value, damage the patina that gives it an old look and proves its age, overdo the restoration by replacing more than necessary, or harm the wood’s aging process or finish. If you don’t know what to look for, you can sand or scrape away desirable marks of age like small, concave grooves created by jack planes used a century ago or numbers chiseled into items in a furniture set to mark their order.
“No inexperienced person should try to restore antique furniture. Period,” says Clinton Howell, a member of the National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America, “How many people feel that they could do as good a job defending themselves as their lawyer?”
Expensive furniture is costly for a reason. Whatever the reason — noteworthy design, exceptional durability of materials and construction or rarity in the marketplace — restoration can also be pricey. So can mistakes. Steer clear of refinishing a costly furniture piece if you can’t afford to buy a replacement that’s identical or similar in quality if you botch the job. Consequences of an uncorrectable mistake can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, if that piece is no longer for sale, or if it would be difficult to find (and you don’t have the time or resources to track it down), consider turning it over to a professional for restoration.