When it is OK to Replace Original Furniture Finish

This is certainly the original finish on this circa 1830 drawer front. Do you find it attractive?

This is certainly the original finish on this circa 1830 drawer front. Do you find it attractive?

Don’t touch that original finish! That mantra of the very high-end antique furniture market has been drummed into the collecting public psyche to the point that most people, expert or novice, are now afraid to take any steps toward restoration of a piece of furniture for fear of incurring a major financial loss in case the piece later turns out to be a priceless rarity. Appraisers now put a very high premium on an original finish, or at least what they think is an original finish.

This chest of drawers with mirror is from the mid 1910s. It has the original hand-applied shellac finish that has now oxidized and obscures the mahogany beneath. It is original but is it pretty?

This chest of drawers with mirror is from the mid 1910s. It has the original hand-applied shellac finish that has now oxidized and obscures the mahogany beneath. It is original but is it pretty?

This chest of drawers with mirror is from the mid 1910s. It has the original hand-applied shellac finish that has now oxidized and obscures the mahogany beneath. It is original but is it pretty?

That mindset certainly has its proper place in the rarefied atmosphere where 200- or 300-year-old treasures are being traded for amounts of money that would run many small towns for a year or so. The difference between a $2.5 million 18th-century mahogany game table in untouched original finish and the same table that was refinished 30 or 40 years ago is more than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. But does that same thinking apply to the 1940s dining room set available at auction for $500?

This elegant turn-of-the-century quarter-sawn oak china cabinet certainly benefited from refinishing.

This elegant turn-of-the-century quarter-sawn oak china cabinet certainly benefited from refinishing.

Only in the last few thousand years or so has some type of finish been applied to more expensive or esoteric wooden objects. Before that, wood just rotted away in its own good time. The original purpose of putting something on wood was to protect it; protect it primarily from its worst enemy—moisture—but also to protect it from abrasion and wear. Moisture, of course, makes wood expand and contract, which is inherently hurtful to a device or ornament designed for a specific function in a given place. Moisture also encourages wood destroying organisms like termites and beetles to help themselves to a decaying organic feast
A byproduct of the original finish function, protection, was that wood, when treated with some type of finish, actually was more pleasing to look at than plain old dry timber. Beauty became a part of the finishing matrix. Enhanced grain patterns and color resulting from adequate finishes became important considerations in assessing wood objects.

Over time, as the human environment moved to the more controlled atmosphere of interior space, the beautification function became at least as important as the protection function. While many 300-year-old, carefully preserved finishes are outstandingly beautiful, those less well-preserved are not so lovely. And in a significantly shorter period of time than 300 years, some finishes get to be absolutely horrible. Should they still be preserved simply because they are original?

Before refinishing, the rosewood in this Depression-era headboard was invisible.

A less-than-attractive finish on almost anything other than a certifiable treasure will invariably lower the value of the object. Why? Because the value of more recent items of furniture lies in the utilitarian function of the piece, rather than in its history and scarcity. There are only a very few Thomas Seymour and Charles Honore Lannuier pieces out there. Those 18th-and early 19th-century masters of American cabinetry just didn’t make that many objects, and those that survive are and should be treasured and preserved in as original condition as humanly possible.

But is the deteriorating, blackened shellac finish on a factory made piano stool of 1905 to be accorded the same reverence? Why should it be? It is unattractive in and of itself in its bubbled, crackled, scaly appearance. Not only that, but it is also hiding whatever beauty the underlying the 100-year-old wood may have to share with us. And on top of that, it has probably, in its deteriorated condition, lost the ability to perform its first and foremost function—that of protection. With its crackled surface and lack of adhesion, it is unlikely that the original finish would repel water from its wooden ward. It would be more likely to hold and absorb rather than deflect and repel.

Refinishing certainly enhanced both the appearance and the current market value of these two generic Mission style chairs from the early 20th century.

Refinishing certainly enhanced both the appearance and the current market value of these two generic Mission style chairs from the early 20th century.

In short, the value of the stool would be enhanced both monetarily and aesthetically if the original finish were to be replaced with a new, skillfully applied exterior. It could even be of the same chemical composition as the original, if that’s important to the final user. What is important is that the stool has been restored to its honored place next to the rebuilt piano rather than having been “preserved” in its “as found” degraded condition. Perhaps this is the step the high end appraisers are leaving out when they tell us the piece is worth less because it has been refinished. Of course, it is worth less than a piece that has an original perfect finish, which is extremely rare, but it is certainly worth more than one that has an obscure, unsound original finish in a most unattractive condition.

Many original finishes, while unsightly and sometimes damaged, can be cleaned, repaired and preserved through careful conservation techniques employed by skilled hands and knowledgeable heads. But such measures don’t have to be carried to heroic extremes in most cases. The results just don’t justify the effort.

A beautiful, honestly restored, fully functioning piece of furniture will always be more attractive and desirable than its run-down, grubby looking cousin, except in those rare cases already mentioned.


Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or e-mail them to me at info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800.387.6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352.563.2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.

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