How To: Refinish wood paneling

June 6, 2012

Q. I want to restore the walnut paneling in our 90-some-year-old house. In spots, the wood has been lightened by sunlight or marked by pet stains, and there are minor scratches. A wood artisan says any work on the finish will ruin the patina of aging. However, the finish is dull. Is there a one-size-fits-all type of restoration product I can use? I certainly do not want to paint the wood!

Martinsburg, W.V.

A. “The patina is already gone if the sun has damaged the wood,” notes Jarrod Hawksford, who works at Colonial Restoration Studio in Gaithersburg (301-948-6652, www.colonialrestoration
studio.com
). And if the paneling does have a patina that’s worth preserving, there are still ways to darken it by adding a topcoat that leaves the original finish intact.

Get a couple of evaluations and estimates from people who specialize in architectural refinishing or who do furniture refinishing and are willing to make house calls. Steve Nearman, owner of the Master’s Touch (540-371-5566, www.furniturerepair.net), a furniture and cabinet refinishing company in Fredericksburg, runs a Web-based directory of restoration professionals (www.prorestorers.org) that can help you find someone in your area.

If you want to do the work yourself, stick to methods that don’t require stripping. Clean the paneling first, and test in an inconspicuous spot before committing to the whole room. Options include shellac with wax, wax alone or a finish restorer. Shellac and wax are both easy to undo, because you can strip them off using denatured alcohol (for shellac) or mineral spirits (for wax).

Shellac sticks to most finishes that are likely to be on 90-year-old paneling. You could use tinted shellac on areas that the sun bleached and a lighter color (made by diluting the first color with clear shellac) elsewhere. Woodworking supply companies, such as Woodcraft (www.woodcraft.com) and Rockler (www.rockler.com), sell shellac flakes in several colors. Dissolve the flakes in denatured alcohol to create the finish.

Applying shellac is a little different than applying paint, so ask for directions when you buy the materials, and get a good-quality, natural-fiber brush. After the shellac dries, add luster by rubbing the paneling with a fine scrub pad or 600-grit sandpaper, then applying a very thin coat of paste wax. Polish that with a clean cotton cloth.

Or you can skip the shellac altogether and just wax the paneling. In that case, you might want to use a darkly tinted wax on bleached areas and a more lightly tinted wax elsewhere. Tinted waxes also help minimize scratches. Find these waxes at the same woodworking supply companies that sell shellac flakes. If you start with wax and it doesn’t produce the results you want, strip it off, then try shellac.

Finish restorers are trickier to use. They soften existing shellac, lacquer or varnish and allow you to wipe off the old finish or move it around and reuse it. Formby’s Furniture Refinisher (www.formbys.com) and Behlen Furniture Refinisher (www.hbehlen.com).

I am planning a bathroom remodel that will incorporate a dressing area. I would like to reuse the vanities that are in both sections, but the cabinet in one room is painted maple, and the one in the other room is stained maple. Do you know a company that can either strip and restain both sets or paint them so that I can reuse them in a single room?

When cabinetmakers build pieces that are going to be painted, they often use “paint-grade” wood, lumber that’s strong but not necessarily pretty. So if you were to go to the trouble of stripping the painted piece, you might discover that the maple underneath has dark streaks and isn’t wood that you want to stain.

Painting is simpler and surer, especially if you paint both cabinets so they match. Any good painter should be able to do a nice job. Make sure the process includes cleaning, scuff-sanding, priming and two coats of paint. Semi-gloss is a good option. Allow plenty of time for the paint to dry before you steam up the bathroom.

If you’re planning to change the hardware, select it before the painter begins. If holes for attaching the handles or pulls are spaced differently, you’ll want to have them patched before the pieces are repainted.

Send questions to localliving@washpost.com . Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

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