Restoring MCM Furniture

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Tim Young
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Restoring MCM Furniture

Postby Tim Young » Wed Sep 30, 2009 12:47 am

I recently (finally) started trying to restore some of my thrift store and estate sale finds. I found a great book that I really like and would highly recommend called "Furniture Repair and Refinishing" by Brian Hingley. It is out of print but can be found used at Amazon. I didn't see a thread about restoration tips (I searched but may have missed it) so I'd like to start one. While the book that I bought has great info on furniture restoration in general, it's not specifically geared towards 50s/60s era furniture, so I'd love to hear any tips you guys have. I don't know how many others here are into this (I know from reading other posts that Slim is!), but I'm hoping there are a few. The project I'm working on now is gluing some cracks and loose joints in a coffee table that I think is probably walnut (I'm not very good at wood ID as of yet). It has an oil finish and I've cleaned it up with scotch-brite pads (the grey ones, equivalent to 0000 steel wool) and mineral spirits and am planning to put some dark walnut colored danish oil on it in the next couple of days.

Here's my first question. Other than oil finish, what is the most common finish on MCM pieces? Is it lacquer? I have a few things that have blistering in the finish and I'm thinking I'm going to have to go ahead and embark on stripping and refinishing them. I was thinking of trying Howard's restor-a-finish first (which I've used successfully on a couple of things), but I doubt it will take care of the problem. Is the finish likely lacquer or was shellac, polyurethane, or varnish also used? Maybe I'll take a pic and post it. Anyway thanks for any help, and if anyone else has any tips, stories, or questions about furniture repair/restoration/refinishing, I'd love to hear.

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Postby wwilber » Wed Sep 30, 2009 6:45 am

There have been some threads in the past that deal with finish work on specific items, but I think this is a nice idea to consolidate tips and information.

I have done a good amount of refinishing, and most recently I completed a pair of chairs. One had similar issues you describe with finish condition, and the other had been painted black. I am assuming the original finish on the first was laquer, because it was very difficult to remove. I have had success with restor-a-finish in the past, but the finish was too far gone for that to help, especially on the arms where the finish was nearly worn off completely.

Minwax's Antique Furniture Refinisher is another product I have used successfully, and works well without having to use stripper, but again the "laquer" finish did not respond well to this and I ended up having to strip both chairs. The laquer finish on one was so tough, I had to apply stripper three separate times to get it all off.

I finished these with Minwax stain in English Chestnut. It was a very close match to the original color, with enough of a red/brown mix that is common in mid century finishes. I ended up using a wipe on poly for a top coat. At least now after all the work, I have a pair of matched chairs!

Image

This was one of the chairs before, though this doesn't show the extensive wear on the top of the arms

Image
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Postby Tim Young » Wed Sep 30, 2009 10:42 am


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Postby wwilber » Wed Sep 30, 2009 11:42 am

Thanks!

My guess is that a lot of pieces could have either laquer or varnish since both were commonly used at the time. The hard resin in varnish may be what gave me such trouble on the one chair. I have had other pieces that the finish was removed quite easily, and I usually test out a spot first to see what will work best.

Of course there are a variety of products to use as a top coat, I just decided to use a wipe on poly for these because I am comfortable with using it and it is easy. I also like danish oil because you can re-apply it later on if needed. These chairs will get a good amount of use, so I wanted a top coat I knew would hold up well.

I did three coats, and buffed each coat with fine steel wool between applications.
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Postby Tim Young » Wed Sep 30, 2009 6:50 pm

My understanding is that if you're using Danish oil, you don't put a topcoat (poly, lacquer, varnish) on it, right?

What type of minwax stain did you use? I see "wood finish", "gel stain", and "water based wood stain" on their web site.

Here's a picture of the coffee table I'm working on.

Image

Image

And here are some end tables. They had water stains on them, and I rubbed them down with mineral spirits and very fine scotch brite pads. I was planning to do another coat of Danish oil, but I like the way they lightened up with the mineral spirits so I may stop here.

Image

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Postby wwilber » Wed Sep 30, 2009 8:35 pm

You can put a topcoat on danish oil, if you like. If left as is, you can always apply more oil later if needed. All of the closet and sliding doors in my photos above were finished first with natural danish oil, and then a poly topcoat. I just got done with refinishing the last set of closet doors today - a project that has been going on for too long! Thanks prevouious owner for painting them :? Six sets of closet doors and four sliding doors...but worth it.

The stain used on the chairs was "wood finish" oil based. I have tried water based in the past (not Minwax) and found that the color sometimes lifted when applying a topcoat, so I don't know if that would be a good option.

It may be just me, but the photos of your tables aren't working? You can always add a link instead - I would like to see the progress.
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Postby Tim Young » Thu Oct 01, 2009 12:20 am

Hmmm. I wonder why they're not working. Try the direct links:

http://snodart.com/timpublic/Web%20Images/IMG_0500.jpg
http://snodart.com/timpublic/Web%20Images/IMG_0501.jpg
http://snodart.com/timpublic/Web%20Images/IMG_0499.jpg

Your doors look great in the picture. Care to share more about the process of doing a wipe-on topcoat? Is it much easier than using a brush or sprayer? Does it come out smoother?

Does a poly necessarily look different than a lacquer or varnish, or is it all in how you sand it or rub it with steel wool?

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Postby Tim Young » Thu Oct 01, 2009 12:31 am

I just did a bit of reading on water-based polys. Minwax makes one that is low-VOC. We have 2 kids and try to be as green and conscious of indoor air quality as possible, so I like that option. Any opinions on water-based poly?

By the way, I just tried my direct links and they only worked if I cut and pasted them into my browser. Not sure why.

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Postby wwilber » Thu Oct 01, 2009 8:52 am

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Postby Slim and Gabby » Thu Oct 01, 2009 10:45 pm

Tim, if you're going to use Danish oil and seal it, give it about two weeks of sitting. I used it on a shotgun stock I'm restoring and I got blisters, !@#$&*!!!! If it happened to my gun, it'll happen to your furniture (it actually IS a mid-century collectible). The oil was still breathing and needed more time to cure/set up. It recommended a week, which wasn't long enough.
If you have kids, I'd seal it with something. I like the way shellac looks, and then steel wool it to give it a nice finish that's not so glossy.
Just so people don't get all weirded out you can see my work here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/93018283@N ... 157719883/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/93018283@N ... 157719883/

On a side note, now I'm getting into vintage scuba diving; I just love old shtuff!
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Postby Tim Young » Fri Oct 09, 2009 10:51 pm

Slim, I've been waiting for you to weigh in! Thanks for the advice. I'm still on the fence about doing a topcoat. I hear what you're saying about the kids thing. I may try the water based poly low VOC wipe on stuff.

Today I picked up a hutch at a thrift store, 2 painted end tables, and a rosewood bedroom set for my son. Still haven't finished the coffee table. I need to quit buying project pieces and finish some stuff! Luckily, the hutch is in good shape and doesn't need much. The bedroom set is really nice looking rosewood. I've already worked on one of the night stands. It had some white discoloration on the top. I cleaned it with mineral spirits and scotch brite pads and then did teak oil. It had an oil finish. The other 2 night stands are painted and need to be stripped. They're going to need some work but only cost $10 for both, so I couldn't say no. I can't tell what kind of wood they are - I'm thinking maybe maple or poplar. I'll try to get some pictures of them. Here's a really dark and bad phone pic of the hutch. I took this to send to the wife who is in out of town at the moment.

Image

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Postby Slim and Gabby » Sun Oct 11, 2009 7:55 pm

Pen-gu-ins is pracatically chickinz, and I hates to see chickinz cry so much, I has to put’em outta ther mizzery!

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Postby nichols » Sun Oct 11, 2009 9:08 pm

There's a neat chair restoration blog over at Reduxiture:
Image
http://www.newpuppyla.com:8080/blog/red ... fter_t_b_a

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Postby Tim Young » Tue Oct 13, 2009 12:49 pm


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Postby Slim and Gabby » Wed Oct 14, 2009 6:27 pm

"Irk, irk, must not kill, must not kill, must not kill..." I'm sure you were thinking just about those same words. If you want a "fire and forget" finish, that is, do it once, and NEVER worry about it again, EVER. Marine Spar Varnish, the application is a bit long, drying 24hrs. between coats, you want about three, but geeeeeezzz, "Coaster, schmoster, who needs em?" "Hey, lets dance on the table..."
Just a thought,
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Postby Tim Young » Fri Oct 16, 2009 8:40 pm


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Postby wwilber » Fri Oct 16, 2009 9:01 pm

The can of Minwax polycrylic that I have says that it can be applied over oil based finish, paints or stains.
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Postby Tim Young » Fri Oct 16, 2009 9:13 pm

I suppose I could have just looked at the Minwax website, which I just did and it says exactly what you said. Not very resourceful on my part. Glad to hear that it works though. I think I'm going to give it a try.

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Postby Slim and Gabby » Sun Oct 18, 2009 6:39 pm

Hey, if it works , it works! Sorry, I'm just stuck in the 1960's, and a bit of a purist. We were so poor growing up, early 1970's, that we had stuff from the 1940's-60's that we just used because it was there to use; "Why replace it if it still works..." We never thought about how toxic some of the stuff might be. I have a friend who is old, now paying for it, who REFUSED to wear a respirator while painting cars! He always shot cars with lacquer: lacquer thinner will flash rapidly, that meaning, it goes from a liquid to solid very fast, literally in minutes. You can watch it change before your eyes, kinda neat and kinda spooky. You can imagine what this does to your liver, kidneys, heart and brain, YIKES! I make a point to wear a respirator and shoot outside. I don't blame you for wanting to use lower toxicity products, but some applications work better with those AWFUL products:
Here's some of my work:

Image

A few years ago I was asked to restore the nose art on a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, 1950's eara, at Castle Air Museum in Atwater CA. That was some pretty nasty stuff I used to do the art, they use it for deep-sea oil rigs, but a water based paint wouldn't have worked because the aircraft is outside sitting in the CA Central Valley weather: it's either mind numbingly hot or bitter cold, maybe 2 days of the year are nice, that's a joke, but the weather is extreme to say the least!
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Postby Tim Young » Tue Oct 20, 2009 12:07 am

Slim, you're amazing. How many people can say they've restored the art on a superfortress?

Here are some pictures of the finished coffee table.

Image

Image

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Postby wwilber » Tue Oct 20, 2009 7:38 am

The table turned out really well! Did you have to replace the glass, or was it in nice shape to begin with?
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Postby Slim and Gabby » Tue Oct 20, 2009 7:57 am

Tim, those look great, when can you bring them by... oh, you mean they're NOT for me!
The next thing I want to try is tung-oil:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tung_oil

Yeah, I know you know about it, but... the Danish oils look great, but it's that curing time that's so darned irritating to me. I used it with shellac and it blistered the first time, then the shellac would reactivate under certain conditions.
Does your wife appreciate all your old stuff, or does she just nod and smile while she desperately tries to figure out some way to stop the madness?
Keep up the good work brother! Now you need an old slot car set in the garage just so you can be extra super cool especially with the kids:

Image

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Postby Tim Young » Tue Oct 20, 2009 3:36 pm

Thanks guys. I was pretty happy with how it turned out.

wwilber, you're 3 posts from being a modern master! I still remember the day I made it. Mostly because it was 18 posts ago. A lot of pride. Congratulations. About the glass, I did replace it. The glass was actually in decent shape, but it wasn't tempered. I had a friend sit through a glass tabletop in high school so I get nervous about it. It was tempered and she wasn't hurt. I'm paranoid about it a bit. There's a local glass place out here who did it for me for $40.

Slim, I'm really interested in tung oil, too. I just bought some from this place:

http://www.realmilkpaint.com/oil.html

From what I've read about it, though, the curing time is even longer than danish oil. I guess there are big differences between pure tung oil (what I bought) and "tung oil finish", which is mostly what you'll find at Home Depot type places. Apparently that stuff has very little, if any, real tung oil in it. Some people think of tung oil as the holy grail of finishes if you do it right. And from what I've read, some people's idea of doing it right means applying a coat, letting it cure for 2 days, wet sanding, and repeating. I read a post from a guy who did this 16 times (!!) and said his finish ended up looking like a $50,000 Steinway piano. So it sounds like it can be built up to a glossy finish. From what I've read, the way to do it is to make a 50/50 mix of tung oil and mineral spirits and start with this, then move to a 75/25 tung oil/mineral spirits mix on subsequent coats. So a lot of patience required. I read another post by a guy who did multiple coats like this on a built in piece in his house and then waited 2 weeks and coated with a water based poly. So I'm intrigued. I don't think it darkens wood as much as danish oil, so I'm considering using it on some lighter colored stuff I have.

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Postby wwilber » Tue Oct 20, 2009 4:25 pm

I used tung oil on a table I worked on with my mom many years ago. It was for my 4-H home furnishings project. This really explains a lot of my dorky-ness.

Anyway, it was a small side table that my parents still use in their living room. I'm pretty sure we used Formby's, so I don't know how it compares to the link you provided. Regardless, the finish was really nice, and still looks great, even without any kind of topcoat. Easy to use too, obviously, since I think I was probably 12 or 13 when we refinished the table.
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Postby Tim Young » Tue Nov 03, 2009 12:28 am

Here's my latest issue. I have a bedroom set that I'm working on for my son. The pulls are brass and are really, really tarnished. I've been able to get the tarnish off and make them look great with Brass-O, but wow, it takes a lot of time and elbow grease. Are there any short cuts here? I have a lot of pulls left. There's gotta be some amazing home remedy like dipping them in Coca-cola or cat urine or something? After spending hours on just a few, I'm game for anything.

This is a rosewood set that I'm doing with Teak Oil. I'm not really sure how Teak oil differs from Danish Oil, but I read somewhere that it works well for oily woods like rosewood (and teak). They had some water stains and dry patches that are coming out nicely by rubbing them with grey scotch-brite pads and the Teak oil. Pictures to come.

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Postby Slim and Gabby » Tue Nov 03, 2009 10:07 am

I'd recommend getting a bench grinder, you can get various wheels for them, wire wheels and buffing heads: you can pull a shine out of them like you can't imagine, as if they were gold plated! You can also use them for all sorts of other things, just use your imagination... is a bolt too long, do you need to get a burr off of a hinge-pin, etc. If you're that into restoring vintage stuff, this is something that will speed things up: once you figure out how to use it, you'll wonder what you ever did without it!
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Postby Tim Young » Tue Nov 03, 2009 7:43 pm

Great suggestion Slim. I can see how a bench grinder would be handy. Maybe I'll price them out. Here's a pic of one of the end tables. I was able to get both of them done since they only had a few pulls. I still have the dresser to do, which has many more.

Image

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Postby Nick32vic » Tue Nov 10, 2009 12:26 pm

Tim,

Look into getting a sears craftsman bench BUFFER. Its sort of like a bench grinder but specifically for polishing things. If your doing any bigger stuff than drawere pulls don't get the Craftsman one because bigger stuff bogs it down. I polish alluminum alot and have a huge bench polisher with special wheels and polishes. If your just doing drawer pulls you don't need a huge buffer but this site has all the wheels and polishes youd need, not to mention a lot of info and tips about polishing different kinds of metal.

-Nick

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Postby Tim Young » Wed Nov 11, 2009 10:01 am

Sounds even better Nick. I found a promising one on my local craigslist. Might go check it out. Thanks.

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Postby Nick32vic » Wed Nov 11, 2009 10:37 am

If you get a bench buffer Tim, make sure its mounted solid and be EXTREMELY careful when polishing things you cant get a perfectly solid grasp on. Ive polished a bunch of bolts and every once in a while one gets caught and the wheel shoots it out of my hand. I read up and watched alot of videos when I started polishing stuff. Its very rewarding, you just gotta be careful.
-Nick


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