Refinishing a piece of vintage or antique furniture that is in good condition is, in my opinion, akin to replacing original mouldings or marble fireplace mantles in a historic home. It's just sad. That said, there are times when a piece (like my rocking chair, above) is crying out for a little love and attention. So, how do you know when it's ok to refinish an antique?
There are differing opinions on the subject but when it comes to refinishing a vintage or antique find, I live by simple two rules…
1. If the original finish is in reasonably good condition, leave it alone!
In most cases, retaining the original finish will add to, or preserve, the value of the piece. Refinishing a vintage chair or table can be tempting, but even if it doesn't match the other pieces in your home, consider preserving the existing finish. Think of yourself a conservator protecting a small piece of design history.
2. You cannot destroy something that has already been destroyed.
The corollary to the argument for preservation is that if the finish is already totally destroyed by the time you find it, you can feel pretty confident that refinishing will not be detrimental to the value or integrity of the furniture--things can only getter better!
At this point the choice of finish is up to you, but I usually tell my refinisher to try to bring the wood back to its original finish (which may still be visible in places like beneath the seat of a chair). This ensures that the refinished piece still looks "correct" for the time period and style in which it was designed.
For example: a black lacquer finish would look great on an Art Deco arm chair, but would be out of place on a Gustav Stickley rocker.
For more information on refinishing antiques, visit Antiques Roadshow on PBS.
Image credit: Bethany Adams