Most Common Mistakes
Not cleaning the surface thoroughly before refinishing. Sometimes, if a piece of furniture is not too badly damaged, or if it is just worn, it is possible to patch up the original finish so that the authentic quality of the furniture can be saved.
Thoroughly clean the surface of the piece with a commercial wood cleaner, mineral spirits, or wax remover, to determine whether the present finish is salvageable. Then carefully look over the item to determine if a total refinishing job is necessary.
Determine which top finish was originally used. Begin by soaking a cotton ball with denatured alcohol. Apply this to an out-of-view area and let soak for ten minutes. If the finish dissolves, it is shellac. If not, apply a lacquer thinner with a brush to an out-of-view spot on the piece. If this method dissolves the finish, you know you are working with lacquer.
If neither of the above tests brings results, your piece has either a varnish or a synthetic top finish, both of which require a liquid stripper for removal.
Often surface blemishes, such as white spots and water rings, have not penetrated deeply. Use a 2/0 or 3/0 steel wool pad and a little paraffin or linseed oil to rub the spot. Rub with the grain of the wood. Once the spot is removed, wipe the surface with a dry rag and add a paste wax.
If the finish is merely worn out, you can sometimes overcoat with the same finish. (Follow the procedure outlined above to determine which finish to use.) Apply one coat and allow it to dry thoroughly. Then rub with a 2/0 or finer 0000-00 steel wool pad and wax with a paste wax. (Always test an inconspicuous spot before applying the finish to the entire piece.)
If the finish on the piece is in good condition, with only slightly damaged areas to be touched up, I recommend the reamalgamation technique. Use the appropriate solution tested in the procedure outlined above to dissolve the finish of the damaged area. Dip a natural bristle brush or fine steel wool into the solvent; then brush or gently rub it into the damaged area until the defect disappears. Apply more solvent to the area with long, light strokes - with the grain - to smooth the amalgamated finish. Once this is dry, remove any rough spots with a 2/0 or 3/0 steel wool. Finish with a paste wax.