' Guide: Identifying the finish on wooden furniture – British Originals
| Fine Wandmakers | Antique Furniture |
Cart 0

Guide: Identifying the finish on wooden furniture

What finish do I have on my old piece of furniture ?  Some tips to help you if you are starting your own project or just curious. 

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 tiny layers which refract the light to create the shiny effect.  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. Especially if it doesn't seem to be  thick covering. 

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 slightly sticky? Leave for 5 minutes, has the area gone cloudy and when dry comes off as a dust  ?      Yes to both - It's French polish
  • This can be done on an even smaller area with a cotton bud ( cue tip - USA ) and Methylated spirits. 
French polish is much easier to clean and remove than Laquer or Varnish ( see below ), and can often be easily cheered up with a very good clean and adding some new layers. 

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 after 1950 and not a deep gloss shine it will be lacquer
  • Typically  much thicker than French polish due to the application method.
  • 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. You won't typically see runs or bare patches in French polished pieces - only spray lacquered ones. 

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 soft and sticky? Leave for 5 minutes, has the area gone cloudy ? It's Lacquer
Often due to the thickness of application this can be very difficult to remove. It clogs sanders and needs multiple coats of stripper to remove. Surface repair is often the more cost effective option than stripping and refinishing. 

      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 becoming flaky. It's hard to remove and penetrates wood so effectively it needs removing before other finishes can be applied. 

       

      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.  

      Be warned- some old furniture has Ochre red, White or eggshell blue paint applied underneath or internally. THIS IS OFTEN LEAD (Pb) BASED and was used to protect against woodworm. DO NOT sand this without proper mask and protection as inhalation is bad. 

      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

       | Fine Wandmakers |
       | Antique & Vintage Furniture for Sale  |
       | Antique Furniture Restoration Service |

       

      ' Product reviews added 06/07/18