' Guide: Identifying the finish on wooden furniture – British Originals
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Guide: Identifying the finish on wooden furniture

Antique furniture care maintenance Antiques french polish furniture wood guide identification Restoration Vintage furniture wax

What finish do I have on my old piece of furniture ?  Some tips to help you. 

Finish

How to identify

 

French polish (Shellac)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normally found on pre 1920's furniture or more expensive later pieces. French polising is actually the technique of applying it slowly in lots of layers. The  finish itself is Shellac and comes in a range of colours from very light (Super Blonde) to orangy brown (Button) to deep and rich (Garnet)

QUICK LOOK.

  • How old is the piece ? If it's earlier than 1920 and has either a deep gloss shine (Good condition)  or a dull flat tone ( Unloved condition) it's probably french polished.

TEST 

  • Find an unobtrusive area. Get some 00000 steel wool aka, wire wool. Tip a small amount of denatured alcohol ( aka Methylated spirit) onto the wire wool ( don't soak it ) and rub leave for 2 minutes and touch it with your fingers is it sticky?.Leave for 5 minutes, has the area gone cloudy ? It's Lacquer
 

Lacquer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normally only found on post 1920's furniture, Similar to Shellac in shades but typically much thicker, and therefore on older furniture, darker.

QUICK LOOK.

  • How old is the piece ? If it's greater than 1950 and not a deep gloss shine it will be lacquer
  • Often in later pieces it was applied by spray gun, during application it can build up in joints especially underneath where sometimes you can see runs.

TEST 

  • Find an unobtrusive area. Get some 00000 steel wool aka, wire wool. Tip a small amount of denatured alcohol ( aka Methylated spirit)  OR Acetate* or Actetone* or Toluene* onto the wire wool ( don't soak it ) and rub leave for 2 minutes and touch it with your fingers is it sticky?.Leave for 5 minutes, has the area gone cloudy ? It's Lacquer

    Wax

     

     

     

     

     

    The simplest of all the finishes to identify and maintain. 

    QUICK LOOK.

    • A light shine, nowhere near as glossy as french polish or lacquer. Visible clumps of wax in joints & corners, brush marks. 

    TEST 

    • Find an unobtrusive area, ideally an interior edge or joint. Run your fingernail along it. Does wax come up and leave a visible mark back to wood? It's wax

    Varnish (Spirit Based)

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The bain of furniture restorers lives varnish is easy to put on to achieve a quick glossy finish but degrades over time and is hard to remove. 

     

    QUICK LOOK.

    • If the surface is flaking and bits are chipping off it's most likely varnish.

    TEST -  Basically if nothing touches it, it's varnish. This requires paint stripper & sanding to remove. 

    • Find an unobtrusive area. Get some 00000 steel wool aka, wire wool. Tip a small amount of denatured alcohol ( aka Methylated spirit) onto the wire wool ( don't soak it ) and rub gently leave for 2 minutes and touch it with your fingers is it sticky?. If not see below.
    • Find an unobtrusive area. Get some new 00000 steel wool aka, wire wool. Tip a small amount of white spirit ( aka Turpentine or mineral spirit) onto the wire wool ( don't soak it ) and rub gently. If nothing happens again it's probably varnish. It will only be removed by 2x coats of paintstripper.

    Varnish (Water Based)

    In the interests of completeness ( although we've never used this one ) To test for a water based varnish employ the same methods as above but use Xylene on the wire wool. If it goes gummy it's likely to be water based. 

    Paint

     

    Easily enough identified by colour alone but if it's a deep red or dark brown ( ie, a wood type colour ) check and see  if you can see the different colours of the wood grain. If you can when you look closely it's probably not paint but a thick lacquer. 

    NOTE

    * Be careful with these they can be pretty toxic, not really recommended for home use. If you must, a well ventilated area & a mask will be needed. 

    Unsure on some of the terms used above  ?  See our Glossary to help

    | Guides Home |  A bit daunted ? Contact us via restoration@britishoriginals.com for a personalised restoration quote | 



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