Top tips from an expert: 7 steps to restoring old, antique furniture

Mature Woman Upcycling Chair In Workshop At Home

If you are restoring an old piece of furniture, this step-by-step guide may be helpful. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Restoring your much-loved antique furniture is exciting, but no mean feat.

Jonathan Hateley, owner of Barrington Decorators, shares seven essential steps to a successful restoration project.

1) Assess the current state of your furniture

Identify whether your furniture has been varnished, lacquered, painted or finished with Shellac.

To maintain motivation, look online for inspiration and decide on your end goal before starting restoration work.

Barrington Decorators working on a piece of furniture in their workshop

Barrington Decorators run a repair and restoration workshop for period items. - Credit: Barrington Decorators

2) Set aside some time and space

Restoring furniture can be quite time-consuming. Make sure you can dedicate plenty of time to your project.

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You must have the appropriate space and be organised. For example, you’ll need somewhere to store parts of the furniture you may remove (like drawers or hinges) and a labelling system so you don’t forget what goes where when you put it back together!

3) Prepare and clean your furniture

How well you prepare the wood determines its overall finish and cleaning it can sometimes make it look good as new.

If your antique piece has a natural finish (oil, wax or varnish), start with a professional wood cleaner to cut through grease and dirt. If this isn’t enough, wipe with warm water and washing up liquid. Use a different rag to dry the wood after wiping so you don’t stain it or make it swell.

Washing up liquid can also clean painted, lacquered or Shellac-coated furniture.

4) Strip away unwanted coating

Note: this step can be skipped if cleaning your furniture returned it to its original state.

Use an off-the-shelf paste paint and varnish stripper, apply liberally and then wrap your piece of furniture in foil or sheets to intensify the process. Leave it for 20 minutes and then get a blunt putty knife or scraper and take off any unwanted coating.

Use sandpaper on the final layers for a smooth finish, making sure to work through the grades from roughest to smoothest.

Carpenter/cabinet maker smoothing out a drawer top with a scraper.

'When stripping your wood, make sure to use a blunt knife or scraper to avoid causing damage.' - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

5) Make the necessary repairs

You can do things like tighten hinges or fill in cracks yourself. However, you may need to enlist a joiner to make a replacement part if you are missing large pieces.

6) Re-finish it

Apply oil, lacquer, wax or varnish to your piece to bring out its natural beauty. Waxes and oils seep into the wood and feed it. The more you buff the furniture, the shinier it will be; buff it lightly and you can create a matte finish.

Varnishes and lacquers give more depth to a piece - the more you apply, the deeper the look.

You may consider painting your furniture if you’re not keen on its natural colour. I recommend using water-based acrylic paints and ensure you apply primers before your top coat. Finish by applying a varnish to increase durability and achieve a smoother finish.

7) The finishing touches

Hinges, doorknobs and handles can be cleaned up to complete the look.

I would always advise retaining original features – it’s better to showcase what the furniture already has than add new elements and potentially overshadow its incredible character.

Still need help?

Barrington Decorators professionally restore furniture, joinery, cabinets, floors, wood elements, decorative plasterwork and windows at its dedicated workshop in Cheltenham.

Visit for more information. Contact them on 01242 460104 or to book an appointment.

Barrington Decorators Ltd, Withytree Farm, Broadway Road, Winchcombe, Cheltenham GL54 5NT.