It's natural to want to protect or maintain the finish of a treasured old chair so that it preserves the chair's character without hiding it. If the chair is an antique and already has a finish, appraiser Karen M. Keane recommends altering that finish as little as possible. You have a few options for finishing a chair with traditional materials if it has already been sanded, or the finish has deteriorated and sanding is unavoidable.
Shellac and Varnish
Traditional surface coatings for wood furniture include linseed oil-based alkyd varnish and shellac. The latter, derived from insect bodies, comes from India and China in the form of flakes that must be dissolved in alcohol. Depending on the type you use, it imparts a more-or-less subtle amber tone to the wood. A traditional method for finishing wood cabinets, and one that can be applied to chairs, is to brush on two or three coats of shellac, scuffing each coat with steel wool before applying the next, and then applying wax and buffing it. Varnish is a much less subtle finish traditionally reserved for woodwork and trim -- not furniture.
Stains, Oils and Waxes
Traditional stains often consisted of little more than natural pigment dissolved in turpentine. Woodworkers used this to darken wood and make it look like mahogany. Tung oil, which comes from China, didn't come to the United States until the end of the 19th century, so the traditional penetrating oil finish is boiled linseed oil. Beeswax or paraffin wax is a third finish alternative that was used in lieu of other options or as a complement to one of them. Wiping a coat of wax on your antique chair and buffing it up is the best way to spruce it up without making it less valuable in the eyes of collectors, according to Keane.
If you have to sand off the old finish and apply a new one, one finish option is paint. Village craftspeople and traveling artisans in the period predating the first World War didn't have latex or polyurethane, and many used milk paint. This coating is a mixture of milk, lime and earth pigments. A traditional way to apply it is to paint one coat, scuff it with steel wool and then paint a second coat. Milk paint dries flat, so if you prefer a sheen, wipe on a coat of linseed oil with a rag.
The Value of an Old Finish
The use of nitrocellulose lacquer dates to the beginning of the 20th century, while that of polyurethane is even more recent, and the glossy look they impart actually detracts from the appearance of antiques. The original finish, which often includes a coat of paint, may have faded and oxidized over the years, but this gives the chair a mellow appearance that adds to its value. No finish you can apply is likely to match this faded quality, so unless the old finish has completely deteriorated, it's better to leave it as it is.
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