Antique Washstand Restoration

Article - May 18, 2009

This question comes from Jerry. Since I was not comfortable advising a refinishing process for a valuable antique, I reached out to the community and Adam King of Adam King Studio graciously offered his advice. Let’s see what Jerry is up to:

“I am currently repairing an old family washstand for a friend of mine and I would appreciate your input on what kind of finish to put on it that would not diminish it’s value or character. My favorite finish is wipe-on poly, but I don’t know if that would be the correct finish or not on such a cherished piece. Thanks”.

And Adam’s response:
You touched on two very important things that I will point out. First, is value. Unless your friend’s washstand bears the name Sheraton, Chippendale, or has at least a 250 year history, there won’t be much monetary value to it. Since it is a family piece there is a great amount of emotional value. I’m guessing that’s what led to the idea of restoring it in the first place; preserving memories. Second, is character. The perceived character of a piece does come from age, construction, finish”¦but if it needs attention and is better served by being repaired and refinished, then your restoration of the piece will bring its own character to it. Thereby, adding your touch to your friend’s family history and heritage of the piece.

Historically we see shellac, primitive varnish, and early forms of lacquer showing up on washstands from the 16th century all the way into the early 20th century. I’m guessing that your friend’s washstand is anywhere between 75 and 150 years old since these are the most commonly found age ranges of washstands. So it more than likely had orange shellac or a simple varnish as an original finish. Wipe on poly is easy to use, but it won’t quite duplicate the “character” you get form shellac as it ages. So, my choice would be to use either an orange or super blonde shellac. Super blonde simply because you can tint it with any color you like to age the piece. I would mix a 1lb cut and then dilute that in half with denatured alcohol to produce a padding shellac. Put that in a plastic ketchup bottle, like the one’s at your favorite burger joint, and you can easily squeeze the shellac on to a rag and wipe it on in long strokes. This mixture dries quickly so you can apply many layers in a matter of hours. Also, if needed, you can alternate layers of shellac and color to reach a desired antique effect. I hope this helps and be sure to post some photos when you’re done.

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