What’s The Difference Between Refinishing and Restoring?

By Karl

People who work with old furniture tend to throw two words around: refinishing and restoring. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but the reality is they are two distinct processes. Refinishing is often part of the restoration process, but a full restoration can entail much, much more.


Refinishing is what most people think of when they acquire an old piece of furniture. Basically, it means removing damaged, failed, or just plain ugly finish (whether it’s paint, shellac, or polyurethane) and applying something different. Refinishing can transform a natural wood armoire into a crackle-finished confection, take an often painted piece back to a more natural state, or make a piece of oak look like ebony.

Refinishing can also include updating hardware or making minor cosmetic repairs (filling in or sanding out dents, for example).


Restoring a piece can entail a whole lot of work. Restored furniture is furniture which has been brought back to its original state through repairs, replacements, and refinishing. This might mean getting a replacement leg hand-carved to match its broken original counterpart; hunting down rare, handmade drawer pulls on Ebay; or gluing up new veneer to replace missing sheets.

On very old or abused pieces, restoration can take months of hard work. The reward is often well worth it, though, yielding an heirloom-quality piece that will last for decades. When antiques are badly damaged, restoring them can sometimes increase their value (this article can help you decide if it’s a good idea to refinish your antiques).

The key to preserving the value of a refinished or restored antique is to use the same techniques and materials the original craftsman would have. This means using pigment stains and linseed oil or shellac instead of all-in-one finishes or polyurethane, and hide glue instead of epoxy. It means having an experienced woodworker hand-carve missing appliqués. It may mean spending hours upon hours creating a specialized finish such as a French polish.

The rule of thumb when restoring a valuable item is to do as little as possible to achieve the desired result. Some items look 100% better with nothing more than a good cleaning to remove wax, dust, and other crud that has built up over the years. Old finishes that have cracked, crazed, or discolored can be saved with a variety of techniques.

When materials need to be replaced, remember to replace like with like. If the missing drawer was made of oak, don’t try to fashion its replacement out of pine because it’s easier to work with.

Full Disclosure

It may not matter to a buyer if you’ve refinished a 30 year old dresser. But if you’re fixing up antiques for resale, it’s important to disclose any repairs, restoration, or refinishing you’ve done (or hired someone else to do!) on the piece.

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