- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Jamie Cetto, owner of the Virginia Stripper in Woodbridge, needs a couple of buckets, paintbrushes, chemicals and Scotch Brite pads to turn a less-than-desirable table or dresser into, as he says, “something out of the showroom.”

Mr. Cetto has mastered a few tricks to refinishing furniture, a skill the do-it-yourselfer can learn from home-improvement books, workshops, television programs and unfinished furniture retailers.

The 33-year-old and his staff work mostly on family heirlooms dated from the 1920s to 1950s, with a few pieces dated as recently as the 1980s, he says.

“If the piece is old, they’re put together better, so you have better quality,” Mr. Cetto says.

Refinishing wood furniture involves stripping, sealing, staining and varnishing to transform a damaged or already finished piece to nearly new condition or to change its look.

“If you can get someone to walk you through it, it’s a pretty simple process,” says Jim Shebest, store manager of the Merrifield Home Depot store. “The results can be pretty amazing.”

Paint associate Jei Bae demonstrated the process at three refinishing workshops held at the store earlier this month, part of ongoing home-improvement instruction provided at Home Depot stores nationwide.

Mr. Bae guided customers through the steps and explained the different products that can be used for refinishing wood furniture.

“We’re here to teach you and to make sure you get the right products,” he says.

The quickest process, Mr. Bae says, involves products that consolidate two or more steps into a single step. One such product is a combined stain and polyurethane, a varnish that provides a high-gloss, mirrorlike effect.

This type of product works best for staining dark wood a lighter color and takes about four to six hours to use, including drying time, Mr. Bae says.

“There are all kinds of different ways to refinish furniture,” says William (Bill) McCabe, owner of W.J. McCabe Furniture Service, an in-home and in-shop furniture-refinishing service in Rockville. “Strip it, wash it, repair any damage, then it’s a matter of what you’re going to do after that.”

Mr. McCabe recommends refinishing furniture outside because chemicals will be involved, and also says to wear protective eyewear and rubber gloves.

The first step, unless the furniture is unfinished, involves stripping the wood to remove any old stains, paint, varnish or other finishes.

“It’s usually best to strip off the old finish with a chemical,” Mr. McCabe says. “The problem with sanding down the furniture, you risk damaging the furniture, and it takes you forever.”

Caution should be taken with refinishing antiques and older furniture, Mr. Bae says.

“You have to be careful with the wood,” he says. “If you strip it, you might strip too much of the wood particles. The chemicals can be too strong.”

Refinishing an antique also could reduce its value.

“If it’s worth a lot of money, I would take it to an antique dealership to get the best advice,” Mr. Bae says.

For newer furniture, a chemical stripper can be applied with a paintbrush or foam brush. The stripper reacts with the finish on the furniture, softening it so it can be scraped off the wood. A paint-remover wash then can be used to remove any remaining chemical.

Mr. Cetto prefers using a gel-paste stripper placed in a bucket. He applies the chemical to the furniture with a 2-inch bristle brush, one side at a time, and uses a paint scraper to scrape off the material once it wrinkles or buckles. He dips a Scotch Brite pad in another bucket of lacquer thinner to scrub the stripped areas, allowing the lacquer thinner to neutralize the stripper and clean the wood.

At this point, Mr. Cetto uses a coarse sandpaper, usually 80 or 100 grit, to remove any scratches and gouges from the wood, preferring to use 120 grit for veneer to avoid sanding through the thin sheet of wood. He uses sandpaper up to 150 grit to finish off sanding, then makes any repairs that are needed.

(Grit refers to the number of abrasive particles per inch of paper. The lower the grit, the rougher the paper. For example, 40 to 60 grit is for heavy sanding; 360 to 600 grit is for fine sanding.)

A wood filler, for example, can be used to fill cracks, seal up holes and even out scratches. A primer can be used after the filler dries to prevent discoloration between where the filler is placed and the wood is left alone, Mr. Bae says.

Mr. Bae recommends using a pre-stain wood conditioner for unfinished and soft woods, especially pine, to help the wood evenly absorb the stain and finish without blotching. The pre-conditioner can be applied with a foam brush, paper towel or clean rag as long as the applicator is free of lint, then the excess wiped away, he says.

The next step, which is staining, can be done with oil-based or water-based stains.

Oil-based stains are more durable and provide more color choices than the more environmentally friendly water-based stains, Mr. Bae says. He recommends stirring the stain, not shaking it, and applying it with even strokes, then leaving it to dry for five to 15 minutes before a second coat, if needed, is applied. The stain should be left to dry for two to four hours, he says.

The final step is adding the finish, which will provide a piece of furniture with luster and shine, fill in the grain and protect the wood, Mr. Cetto says. He recommends applying the finish, or clear top coat, with a roller brush, then using a horsehair bristle brush to smooth it out. The finish also can be applied with an aerosol can or spray gun, he says.

Lacquers are a type of finish that are a glossy, often resinous type of material that do not require use of a sealer. Oil-based polyurethanes, another type of finish, add a rich amber color, while water-based polyurethanes, which do not turn amber, dry quickly and are easy to clean up, according to a step-by-step handout from Home Depot.

Before a second coat of polyurethane is added, Mr. Bae recommends using 220-grit fine sandpaper or steel wool to lightly scratch at the first coat. The scratches open the first coat and give the second coat, which will not stick to gloss, something to which to adhere. The excess stain can be wiped away with a lint-free cheese or tack cloth, he says.

The finish and other chemicals used for each step of the refinishing process take about 24 hours to dry completely, Mr. Bae says.

“It’s almost like you make it yourself, so there’s a lot of self-satisfaction and pride that goes into [refinishing furniture],” says David Sommer, immediate past president of the Unfinished Furniture Association in Mt. Laurel, N.J. “Buying a piece of unfinished furniture, then finishing it yourself … is becoming more and more popular. People do like to personalize their furniture.”

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