Old School


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Established Member
7 Jul 2019
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Ontario Canada
Hi guys
Although I’ve been a wood worker for many years I’ve never considered myself adept at finishing.
I have acquired an old school desk complete with gum stuck under the seat. I’m appealing to you experts on what to do. It is in excellent shape and still has a finish on it, complete with some crayon marks etc.
I want to re-finish it for my 3 year old grandson.
Can someone please give me step by step instructions to achieve a 5 star result.
Do I strip it down to the bare wood to start or take another direction? It is made of cherry with some beautiful grain.
Thanks in advance

what are you wanting to achieve? a new looking desk, showing off the grain, or maintaining the patina of the old desk, and merely cleaning some of the grime off it?
Stripping is the way to go when refinishing in order to retain patina. Much sanding, or scraping, can easily remove enough wood from the surface that it can make something look like it was newly made.

If you don't have a go-to stripper it's hard to know what to advise. Many modern strippers have become shadows of their former selves because of the EU banning sale of methylene chloride/dichloromethate (DCM) to the general public. That was the active ingredient in strippers of old that meant you could often watch the finish bubble or wrinkle literally before your eyes; the majority of modern strippers are a mite slower than that! But they will still get the job done if you're patient and don't mind some extra effort.

A typical modern gel stripper will take a minimum of 20 minutes to half an hour to soften the first layer of finish (so you want to cover with cling film to prevent it drying out) and usually takes more than one application to get down to bare wood. I've found with Durabond it's best to remove the last traces using plenty of white spirit or acetone and not to follow the instructions which say to use water, although you want to wipe down with water at the end. If you do want to use the old style of stripper you may be able to find somewhere willing to sell it to you by pretending to be trade and signing a declaration. Be very cautious when using it.

After the stripper has done its thing, you've gently scraped off the softened finish (old credit/bank cards are great for this) and washed down you're ready for the new finish after the piece has had a chance to fully dry, which usually means waiting overnight or a full day. You'll probably need to lightly sand using a medium-fine paper to remove raised grain.
For your new finish oil-based polyurethane would be a good choice for durability and protection. It will closely mimic what was likely used on the desk originally if that matters, and oil-based finishes do the most to enhance figure which you've indicated you want.

Thin some decanted varnish by a third to a half with white spirits in a clean jar to convert it to wiping varnish, this is nearly foolproof to use (brush, roller or wipe on, then wipe away the excess) and generally ensures each coat will dry in a day. No sanding is needed in between coats, although you might need to sand after the first coat as it could have raised the grain slightly.

Apply between four and eight coats, depending on how thin the varnish is and how much of the excess you wipe away. You can apply as many as you like if you want to build up a decent thickness on the top for example, equivalent to 3-4 coats of full-strength varnish as often advised for full protection on a working table.

Give the varnish a fortnight at least to get good and hard before handing it over to the grandson for testing :)
ED65":eaf97ika said:
Stripping is the way to go when refinishing in order to retain patina.


That's terrible advice. Stripping certainly does not preserve patina.
I don't fix up old furniture often, But I am a qualified furniture restorer if that helps (doesn't really count for anything honestly! :lol:)

Most things you can get away with a light clean and a new finish depending on the finish already on it. I would mix a solution of 1 part boiled linseed oil, 1 part pure turpentine and 1 part methylated spirits, you know you've got it right when you shake the jar and it emulsifies into a creamy coloured solution. That mixture is very good for removing grime on the timber without harming the patina of the whole piece as some harsh strippers would, just pour a little into a saucer or the lid of the jar you're keeping it in and soak some 00 wire wool in the solution and scrub the piece. It's so controllable you can pretty much define how far you want to go with it and even enhance the piece by leaving dirt in certain areas etc.

After the piece has been cleaned I would be very tempted to use shellac on it as few finishes make piece pop as it does without making it look like plastic. Possibly with Cherry, I would go with a dark polish such as Garnet or Button but it's entirely up to you.
Yes when I read your post I went and looked at it closely. If that’s not cherry then I’ll need a new pair of glasses. Yes in Canada cherry is quite available but not at a dirt cheap price. Thanks for your help.
I was, of course, referring to the colour in the wood itself and not that of tired old finish, and any accumulated dirt and grime.

Whether anyone agrees that stripping rather than a refresh is the right call is their business but the OP expressly stated they wanted to refinish, so I used that as my starting point.