Want to refinish an old Danish chair, do I need to strip or just sand?
May 1, 2021 1:10 PM   Subscribe

I have an old Danish chair with a variety of small nicks and discolorations. I want to refinish it, but don’t know exactly how I should go about it. Do I need to actually use a stripper or can I just sand it? [photos and more inside]

[the chair, with closeups of the discolorations/nicks/scratches can be seen here]

Over the years, while the chair has remained comfortable, it has become less pleasing to the eye. I would like to get rid of the discolorations, nicks and scratches, but I don’t know how I should go about it. (The chair does come apart into four big pieces and then one front cross bar, which I assume might make the refinishing easier)

My main question is, should I worry about stripping the wood first to remove the thin shiny coating, or will sanding take care of this? Or will any remaining finish end up just gunking up the sandpaper, causing more headaches?

My only real experience with stripping wood was with a decorative door that had a lot moulding. I had used an orange-colored CitriStrip stripper that just seemed to forever smell of sickly-sweet off-brand Tang, and I would hate for this chair to wind up having even a whiff of residual fake orange stink on it.

The chair also needs to have the rubber webbing (that supports the bottom pillow) eventually replaced, but that can wait for now.

posted by blueberry to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is the finish flaking off like a varnish? Or is it possibly some kind of oil finish? My gut feeling would be to just give it a gentle sand and finish with Danish oil.

If it is an actual varnish, it will gunk up the sandpaper - but you can test this by just doing a bit of sanding and seeing how it goes. That's what I would do. You can always then move to stripping of you think you need to.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:25 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It’s not flaking, although I think a few of the nicks make have nicked off the varnish/coating? (I’m not in the same place as the chair at the moment, so I can’t look for sure)

Also, in regard to the sanding, would I be a fool to try and attempt it without a palm sander?
posted by blueberry at 1:28 PM on May 1

You could theoretically sand it off, it will just take longer and more elbow grease and sandpaper as varnish will gunk up the paper. You can get paint scrapers that use mechanical means to scrap a finish off and I find useful in projects like this, but your chair doesn't seem to have a lot of flat surfaces so not sure how well it would work.

If you go the Citri strip paint stripper route, cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit it works best when wet. The finish on this chair would most likely be much thinner than paint on a door so easier to remove. If it was my chair I'm lazy and hate sanding so would d remove the bulk with stripper, then gently hand sand. There shouldn't be any smell remaining after all that, then refinish with Danish oil. As Stilnocturnal suggested a trial sand in an out of the way spot would give you some idea of how easy sanding it all might be.
posted by wwax at 1:30 PM on May 1

Sanding should be fine. Chemicals can permanently damage the wood. Don't go too deep, some nicks are OK, I'm sure the result will be fine. If the sandpaper gunks up, use more sandpaper, it's not like it is expensive. And don't use a palm sander, you just take the time you need to do it by hand.

BTW, I don't think the chair is varnished, but it is almost impossible to judge from photos.

When you have sanded it, clean it with a moist cloth, let it dry, and treat it with oil several times over. Here in Denmark we have something called teak oil, I have the impression it is called Danish oil or something similar in the US. You can also use linseed oil.

On preview, yes it is Danish oil.
posted by mumimor at 1:32 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]

It looks like European beech with a thin wash of stain or maybe a tinted finish of something that's worn away. If you want it to look fresh and new then I'd wrap some 110 and then 220 sandpaper around something like a dense sponge or a piece of wood with cork glued to it. The paper might clog up but that's just part of sanding - you should have a half dozen sheets of each grit on hand. Always sand in the direction of the grain. It doesn’t look like it would take long to get below the stain....just don’t go nuts on any particular spot and don't just use folded up sandpaper or you'll make all the curves look kind of mushy. Then give it a coat of Tried and True oil, which is non-toxic and can be re-applied as needed.

I'd avoid using any chemical strippers or solvents because they might just carry the stains deeper into the wood.

You COULD also use a cabinet scraper but sharpening those is a whole deal of it's own. On preview, I'd personally stay away from any of the paint scrapers that are sold in the hardware stores. There are too many curves in this.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:37 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]

BTW, you might want to have it evaluated before you modify it. I've been googling a bit with no success, and my books are 500 km away, but some of these chairs are very valuable if unadulterated, and much more so in the US than here in Denmark. Carefully sanding and oiling it should be OK, but the reason I advised against using a palm sander is that you will definitely devalue your chair radically if you use one.
posted by mumimor at 1:53 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]

I agree with the other posters- light manual sanding, then hit it with a tung oil or Waterlox. Check out Daniel Kanter's instagram feed- he has a story called "trash table" that is a mid-century modern table that he refinished using this method.. He has other threads about refinishing furniture too.
posted by momochan at 2:30 PM on May 1

Wash it first, with a rag moistened with water that has just a a little detergent in it. Then evaluate the finish.
posted by Glomar response at 2:38 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]

I would not use a palm sander on something like that - electric sanders are really designed for use on flat surfaces, and it would be way too easy to sand off too much on small curved surfaces like that chair. Plus then you'd want to hand sand anyway to get rid of the electric sander marks. Doing it by hand is the way to go.

I have hand sanded similar before, and it's a chore but it's not that bad as long as it's not a thick varnish. Worth it for a nice result.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:35 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Also, don't feel you need to sand the paler, "dry" looking spots away entirely. Those tend to vastly improve just with the application of oil, not instantly but after a few minutes as it soaks into the wood.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:38 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Mild/fine sanding only: all the rest is character.

I would refinish lightly, maybe with raw linseed oil (which I find to be beautiful and forgiving on old stuff, highly fault-tolerant).
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:19 PM on May 1

Response by poster: So, here’s a silly question, but oil… once the wood is sanded and the oil is applied and the wood is wiped down with a cloth, the oil’s not going to seep out, like leaving oil on carpets/floors/other-things-it-touches, right?

I’m assuming the wood sucks most of it up…?
posted by blueberry at 4:23 PM on May 1

Only so-called "drying oils" are appropriate. Applied in thin layers, they polymerize with exposure to air and leave a dry finish.
posted by Glomar response at 4:36 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Tried-and-True is one of those, for instance. Each coat is easy, and on that piece you might be quite happy with only one coat.

It doesn’t look that bad to me; you might be happy after a thorough going over with Howard’s Feed-n-Wax; here are detailed pictures of nicing up a MCM chest that way. If you get in the habit of a light coat of that on all your wood a couple times a year, it will get better looking over time without much more trouble than just keeping it wiped clean.
posted by clew at 4:44 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Here's an overview from a true expert https://homesteadfinishingproducts.com/cleaning-waxing-old-furniture/
HOWEVER, contrary to the content linked above, I'd skip waxing with your piece. Oil would be more suitable. Boiled linseed oil, true tung oil, or walnut oil are good choices. The wood should be warm and humidity relatively low when you apply oil. Put the oil on thinly. Let the wet, but thin, layer rest for half an hour. Then wipe the excess off. Let that coat sit until the next day and repeat at least one more time.
Drying oils produce heat as they cross-link and this can lead to the spontaneous combustion of oily rags if they are wadded up. Most woodworkers I know dry the rags flat to prevent this. I know people who have lost their homes from oily rags catching - it is not a myth.
posted by Glomar response at 5:18 PM on May 1 [10 favorites]

There used to be a product called Formby's Furniture Refinisher that was great. It would melt down the old finish, removing much of it and leveling out the rest. It was gentle and wouldn't cause problems from harsh chemicals on aged wood, i.e, didn't destroy the patenia. I have "rejuvenated" a number of pieces with it and then finished with a coat or two of tung oil and was very happy with the results. However, I see that they were bought out my Minwax, and they maybe changed the formula for the worse. In any event, the reviews are mixed.
posted by rtimmel at 5:48 PM on May 1

Here's a simple start to the project that may be all you really need. Get some microfiber/blue shop towels, and some Murphy's Oil Soap (diluted per label instructions) and give it a thorough cleaning first. This will get some moisture in the dry spots, and let you know what really needs remedial assistance. There's enough oil in the soap to feather out the places where it looks like the finish has failed. Gently rinse well.

Let it dry and live with it for a week afterward, and then think about proceeding to stronger measures.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:28 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

I spent a summer working for my uncle at his antique shop. Older furniture had varnish. You can use Danish oil to renew it, or a 1:1 mix of boiled linseed oil & turpentine. His advice was to use this mixture 1xday for a week, 1xmonth for a year, 1xyear for life. Each application dissolves some old finish and removes dirt, and dries with a fresh finish. I've used it with very good results on varnished wood.
posted by theora55 at 3:00 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]

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