HOME DESIGN : A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ORANGE COUNTY LIFE : How to Give New Life to Old, Dark Woodwork

Years back, dark, heavily stained finishes on furniture were popular. Since that time, the natural aging process has served to make those old finishes turn even darker. Some now look nearly black.

But fashion changed, and here we stand today, surrounded by all this old, dark woodwork, furniture and paneling, wishing for something lighter in color and more natural. Nearly everyone wants the faded, "driftwoody" English country look.

Getting this look isn't particularly tricky. It just takes a lot of work, most of it tedious. Once you get the old finish off, putting on the new one is a breeze.

But before you tackle the English country finish, you should realize that this pale look isn't at home on all woods. Some, like mahogany or walnut, just don't respond well. But most common woods, including pine, maple, cherry and oak, will.

And though this finish is most often used to give new life to old wood, you can also use it to good effect on bare pieces from the unfinished furniture shop. (In this case, you get to skip all the tedious stripping and sanding directions coming up.) If you are redoing a previously finished project, however, your first step is to get off the old finish.

The best way to get this done is with paint and varnish remover. If you are working on a piece of furniture, consider taking it to a professional stripper. He can do a better job than you can, possibly for less than you will pay for all the supplies to do the job yourself. And he will save you a lot of work, plus exposure to some chemicals your body can probably do without.

If you are working with paneling, window and door casings, or other trim attached to your house, you will probably have to do the work yourself. Get a quality, semi-paste-type paint remover (those with methylene chloride generally work best), a cheap natural bristle brush and a stiff putty knife for scraping. For safety, you will need rubber gloves and goggles.

I would also recommend a painter's respirator. This is similar to a gas mask. It features canisters of activated charcoal that absorb the solvents in paint remover before you inhale them. This can prevent headaches, dizziness and more serious health problems that halogenated hydrocarbons such as methylene chloride are know to trigger in susceptible individuals.

If possible, work outdoors. If not, open plenty of doors and windows for good ventilation. OK, brush your remover on the work, laying it on thick. Let it work for a good 30 minutes, then scrape it off with your putty knife. If you work has grooves, a wire brush will help get them clean. For turnings, you can work rough twine like a shoeshine rag into tight spots to grub out stubborn finish. If all the old finish doesn't come off in one treatment, brush on some more remover and repeat. Then wipe everything clean with a rag. It is not absolutely necessary to get every last bit of the old finish off. Tiny traces will help give you that old-fashioned, refinished look you are after.

Your paint remover should take off most of the old stain (if any) under the old finish. But if the wood is still not as light as you like it, you can lighten it up with a bleach. Oxalic acid--sold at paint stores--usually does the trick. If not, you may need a two-part bleach, also sold at good paint stores. Use these bleaches according to directions. They do a good job of lightening wood, but are not very effective at bleaching out wood stains applied years ago. But these should come out with your next step.

Sanding: This will smooth out the rough spots and help remove any residual wood stain still on your work. Start with a fairly coarse 80-grit paper. Then go to 120, but don't go any finer than that at this point. If you are working with a veneered surface such as plywood paneling, sand only very lightly with 120, or you could cut through the face veneer.

Glazing: All you folks with pieces from the unfinished furniture shop can join in here. We're ready to mix up and apply a white glaze. This will lighten the wood a bit more and help accentuate the grain. You can make your own glaze, starting with a pint of white oil-based paint. Cut this about 30% with paint thinner, mix well and brush it onto some scrap wood to see if you like the effect. Let this glaze set up for about 20 minutes, then wipe it off with a clean rag. If the result isn't white enough, alter your mix, using more paint and less thinner. If it's too light for your taste, increase the amount of thinner in your mix.

Satisfied? Shift over to your work and repeat the paint-on, let-set, wipe-off process. You can let your artistic sense come into play during the wiping phase. You can wipe very carefully, leaving just a trace of white in the pores of the wood. Or you can work more lightly, leaving white in grooves, inside corners and other tight spots as well. If the overall look of the wood is a bit hazier than you would like, sand lightly with 220 paper. This will knock off most of the surface glaze, letting the wood show through more clearly, while still accentuating pores and grain.

Conversely, if you would like a stronger glazed effect, let the first coat of glaze dry overnight, then repeat with another brush-on and wipe-off coat.

After your glaze has dried at least a day, you can apply one or two coats of clear finish to seal the wood and produce a smoother, more finished feel. Use a water-based acrylic such as Fuller-O'Brien Pen-Chrome Super V, not an ordinary varnish or polyurethane. Unlike varnish or urethane, the acrylic won't yellow and darken with time.

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