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Restore an Antique Oak Table

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Restore an Antique Oak Table

Thoughtful finishing and new leaves prepare this classic for the next 100 years.

By Kevin Southwick

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This old table looks like a prime candidate for refinishing. Strip off the old finish, sand out all the dings and scratches, spray on a catalyzed lacquer finish and it would look brand new. But in my opinion, doing this would rob the table of its history. Lovers of antique furniture value an original finish in part because of the witness it bears. In its present condition this table does that – it tells a story 100 years old. But let’s face it. As it is, the table is an eyesore.

That’s the conundrum of working with antique furniture. In some cases, the original finish adds real historic, aesthetic, and monetary value. But in pieces like this, saving all of the original finish makes no sense; the poor condition of the top’s finish is actually a detriment. Sentencing these pieces to the stripper’s tank, the first step in most refinishing today, isn’t always the best approach, either. I believe that most owners of antique furniture want to be good stewards of their pieces, which includes maintaining the furniture for future generations. Sometimes that means preserving the original finish; sometimes it means refinishing. In the case of this old table, it means a little of both.

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The pedestal’s original shellac finish is dirty and has worn away in areas near the floor. But overall, it’s in good condition for its age and can be restored without stripping.


The top’s original shellac finish is so heavily worn and badly damaged that it can’t be restored. The original leaves are missing, too, so new ones have to be built. One challenge is to replicate the pedestal’s restored finish. Another challenge is to make new leaves that match the old top.


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker January 2008, issue #133.

January 2008, issue #133

Purchase this back issue.

Purchase the complete version of this woodworking technique story from AWBookstore.com.