When you visit an antique store you'll see many beautiful antique mahogany sideboards that have not aged gracefully. If the sideboard's surface appears cracked or dingy, however, it can be restored by carefully stripping off the old finish. As you do so, it's important to use materials and techniques that will not damage the wood. Before you start a stripping project, remember that many appraisers insist that an antique sideboard should conform to its original appearance if the item has significant historic value.
The Beauty of Mahogany
Mahogany is a beautiful wood with a red to reddish-brown color and a subtle interlocking grain pattern that has made it a popular choice for home cabinetry. The mahogany's grain can appear as a set of straight-line veins, or it can take on a curly or quilted appearance. Historically, many furniture designers selected a feathery grain pattern described as "fiddleback" for use on the doors of a sideboard. Mahogany is particularly valued for a quality called chatoyancy, in which the wood appears to change color when viewed from a different angle.
Traditional Finishes for Mahogany Sideboards
If your sideboard was manufactured in the 19th century or the first half of the 20th century, it was probably coated with shellac or varnish. The coating was intended to harden the mahogany surface and protect it from dings and scratches, while also sealing out ordinary household humidity. Initially, these finishes added gloss to the surface, but that initial sheen would often wear down over time to a duller shine. Exposure to direct sunlight could also cause an aged varnish to darken and crack, obscuring the beauty of the wood beneath.
The ideal way to remove worn-out wood finishes is with a chemical treatment that minimizes the need for scraping and sanding. N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone is the primary ingredient in many brands of "safer" paint and varnish removers. This type of stripping compound is a slow-working paste that can be applied to the entire sideboard at one time, including any grooves or fine detailing. In two to four hours, the old varnish can be gently lifted away from the wood using a plastic putty knife, although you may need to use a stiff-bristled toothbrush to reach into some finely carved details.
Restoring Antique Sideboards
You should not strip a museum-quality mahogany sideboard if the original coating contributes tangibly to the furniture's historic nature, because you will diminish the item's value. Less than 1 percent of furnishings fall into that category -- such as a sideboard used by Jane Austin or Mark Twain.
That said, a damaged finish detracts from a sideboard's appearance and its value. Whether the sideboard is modern or antique, any refinishing effort should stop well short of making the item look brand new, so you should avoid using a plastic-looking polyurethane or a water-based finish after stripping off the old coating. It's best to follow up by using a traditional varnish or shellac finish that restores the sideboard to its original glory.
- Understanding Wood Finishes; Bob Flexner
- Professional Refinishing: Onsite Architectural Paint Stripping; Dean Camenares
- Joint Service Pollution Prevention and Sustainability Technical Library: N-Methyl Pyrrolidone Based Cleaners And Strippers
- Williamsburg Art Conservation Inc.: Historic Varnishes and Resins
- The Wood Works Inc.: The Antique Roadshow Recognizes Furniture Restoration
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