How to refinish Heywood-Wakefield furniture – Palm Springs Stephan advises

Following up on the FAQ regarding Heywood-Wakefield refinishing, Palm Springs Stephan shares his wealth of experience on the issue. Thank you, Stephan!

Stephan writes:

Heywood Wakefield (HW) furniture has become almost synonymous with Mid Century Modern design, largely because of its simple lines and lack of “fussiness.” The pieces are usually solid birch (no particle board and no veneers) and finished in shades of blond. The 1950s were all about blond woods! And the best part for Retro Reno perfectionists is that they ordinarily dated their pieces using an old fashioned rubber date stamp, so owners will know exactly when their pieces were made. They also normally have the stain color name stamped next to the date, usually Wheat (pale blond) or Champagne (blond with faint pink tones), and more rarely Platinum. HW was mass produced and relatively inexpensive, so it sold well and many pieces are still around. At any one time, there are usually a hundred or so listed on eBay, for example. For a concise history of the Heywood Wakefield Company, see http://www.springdalefurnishings.com/concierge/what_is_heywood-wakefield.html.
Refinishing Heywood Wakefield (HW) furniture is really not that difficult, despite the claims to the contrary made by the very few pros who do it. It just requires patience, some time, and lots of elbow grease. Still, I have not found any good full-time refinishers on the West Coast, despite an extensive search. Even here in the Palm Springs area, where HW is still very common and the market for it is super-hot, there are no good refinishers. Most furniture restorers seem to want to refinish HW using simple clear varnish, but that entirely destroys the collector value of the piece, as well as the authenticity. And some commit the cardinal sin of refinishing it with non-blond stains such as oak and cherry. One might as well chop the piece up for firewood!
I have found only one qualified refinisher west of the Mississippi River who uses the authentic HW process: Boomerang Modern in Denver, Colorado (http://www.boomerangmodern.com/). I used to stand in their showroom and drool when I lived in Denver! It’s thanks to Boomerang that I became an HW fanatic. In Southern California, the only place I know of is Woody’s in the city of Orange, but they lean toward retail selling rather than refinishing. When they do refinish pieces, they prefer to do so with clear varnish … and they charge a huge price. Most of the authentic-process refinishers seem to be on the east coast, such as Strictly Hey-Wake in Maryland (http://www.strictlyheywake.com/).
The original HW process used an opacifier that made the final finish somewhat milky in appearance. The result is a marked muting of the visible wood grain. The process was apparently a multi-step one, but at least one specialist retailer has reduced it to an almost foolproof simple process. EBay seller Needful_Useful_Things custom mixes and sells pre-opacified varnish by the quart through his eBay store (http://stores.ebay.com/Heywood-Wakefield-Wheat-Champagne_W0QQ_trksidZp1638Q2em118Q2el1247 ). He also includes with every shipment a very detailed set of instructions for how to properly strip, sand, and revarnish HW furniture. His prices are high, at $45 per quart plus $12 shipping, but that is a heck of a lot cheaper than ruining the piece with clear or dark varnishes! And FAR cheaper than what it would cost to get a piece shipped to a distant professional HW refinisher, get it finished, and get it shipped back. I have purchased from Needful and used innumerable quarts of his Champagne varnish with consistently excellent results. I even custom designed and built a walk-in closet that is wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling birch and poplar wall paneling and shelving plus a built-in chest of drawers. The entire room was done with Needful’s Champagne varnish and I am thrilled with the result. If you follow his written instructions meticulously and do not try to rush the process, you cannot fail. Professional refinishers like Boomerang and Strictly HW use dust-free painting booths and compressed-air-powered paint sprayers that produce an absolutely perfect finish (and they are understandably critical of DIYers), but I am of the firm opinion that – for the money involved – most competent DIYers can do a near-perfect job for a mere fraction of the cost.
To retain the full collector value of HW furniture, follow the Antiques Roadshow dictum and do not alter the original finish. If you must refinish and you have oodles of money, ship your piece(s) to Boomerang Modern or Strictly Hey-Wake. If you are on a budget (as most of us are!), can use sandpaper, and have access to a large clean space in which to work, do it yourself! It is an extremely satisfying feeling to look at a nice piece of funrtiure and be able to say, “I did that!”

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Comments

  1. chriss says

    “To retain the full collector value of HW furniture, follow the Antiques Roadshow dictum and do not alter the original finish.”

    You know, I struggle with this idea. I and my girlfriend have just started collecting HW furnishings. We just bought a neat little knee hole desk in an unusual style (airstream?) but its finish is horrible. Perhaps in two hundred years having this original finish MAY make it more valuable but right now and in our forseeable future I don’t think it does. Those twins on ARS are kinda crazy about original “patina”! The French would never leave all that “grime” on a piece that they were selling at auction. I say that if it is a RARE piece, like a pre-production piece or a custom one of a kind, then don’t even CLEAN it! If it is a semi-rare piece such a low production number then clean it and see if you can live with it before having it RESTORED. Pretty much everything else is just mass produced and I wouldn’t worry about weather it has been refinished or not. I just don’t think in our lifetime that there will be enough of a market to drive prices to the point where “original finish” will make enough of a difference to put up with an ugly piece.

  2. says

    The picture above illustrates problems with the finish process – the sheen is not correct at all even though the color may be close. I tried to eBay varnish mix referenced above some years back just to see how it compared to the original. It is a nice finish, but the time involved is considerable because it is an oil based system. Also, the mix of drier makes it a tedious process that is impossible to finesse (which is one of the pros of oil based finishes). The original HW finish was not oil based, but rather layers of toned lacquer. If you are truly interested in having your HW pieces restored properly and maintaining value, take them to a professional. If you’re doubtful of the possible results, ask for a sample first.

  3. Kara Kerpan says

    I wish someone on the west coast was a seasoned HW refinisher. I have not found anyone that is experienced in this type of refinishing or who really knows what I am talking about. If anyone has good leads, let me know- I live in Oregon.

    • Barry Johnson says

      There is someone on the west coast, (who used to work for the retired and gone out of business Penny Lane Store in L.A. that dealt in vintage Heywood Wakefield.) His name is Salvador Valencia. He doesn’t use the refinishing imposter sold by ebay either. He uses something much closer to the original finishes… if not the real original finishes. He refinished a piece for me and matched the color exactly with another piece of H.W. furniture I have. GREAT WORK… IT’S BEAUTIFUL! Salvador has a small shop in Baldwin Park, a suberb east of L.A. (quite near the 10 and 605 freeway interchange). Contact him at (323) 493-7335.

      • Julie says

        I’m sorry, but I can’t recommend Salvator Valencia. He refinished a H-W buffet, nightstand and dresser for me on 2 separate occasions, and they are beautiful. Then I gave him the matching dresser’s vanity, pouffe, a lamp and another nightstand. We asked him if he could complete the job in 6 weeks, as we were moving to Portland. Yes, no problem, 4 weeks, he said. But 4 weeks turned to 5, then 6… We kept calling and calling, asking for our furniture. The day before the moving truck came, Salvator showed up. I was already out of town, moving with 2 small kids, I needed to clear out. My husband was wrapping things up in LA. When they were returned, my husband said they looked fine. I believed him. However, H-W isn’t “his” thing. They are my pieces, inherited from my great aunt. I know them like my children. He just knows them as furniture, apparently. The pieces were wrapped like everything else, and onto the POD with everything else. PODS were stored until we moved into our new house– yesterday (3 months later). Furniture was unwrapped. I just about screamed when I saw Salvator’s latest work: my wheat H-W vanity, pouffe, nightstand and lamp are Snooki orange, with streaks of gray at the edges. There is a deep gouge in the top of the nightstand, underneath the staining. The furniture pad covers adhered to the vanity top and nightstand sides. The finish came off with the padding, leaving a textured surface with embedded fuzz. So my furniture must have been still tacky when he returned it. And now? We have left 3 urgent messages, and he has not returned our calls. My husband is in the doghouse. He should’ve never accepted this. What should’ve been a great day, moving in to our first home together, marred by ruined heirlooms. I am beside myself in anger and grief. Salvator must have waited til the last minute, then did a shoddy job. Does anyone think that these pieces can be repaired? Recommendations for Portland? Next up, I’m anticipating a lawsuit. I want my money back! Actually, I just want my beautiful furniture back. 🙁

    • Michael Cowan says

      John Lake Ltd. Antique Restoration and Conservation. Located in Portland near the Washington Square Mall. 18 years refinish and conservation with an understanding of the process needed.

  4. Rebekah says

    I just read the Heywood Wakefield website and it says that on all of their new pieces they use a “Kem-var” finish in “Amber” made for them by Sherwin Williams, and it goes nicely with the original champagne or wheat colors.

  5. Wesley Mosteller says

    My take on refinishing Heywood Wakefield (or any other modern collectible furniture) is this – And please note the term MODERN FURNISHINGS!!!! To me a large part of what makes a modern 40’s 50’s era piece of furniture appealing is the fact that you can decorate a home to look like you just walked back in time and so much is still in remarkably good condition , whereas in an actual ANTIQUE piece of furniture a great deal of it’s charm is attributed to a certain amount of wear and tear ( or better known as patina). However the further you get away from a time period the harder it is to find examples in very good condition. If a modern piece of furniture is not in very good shape , but can be restored then by all means I think you should breathe some new life into it. I would however stick to as close to original as possible.(choosing finish colors etc). Also another thing to consider is the simple fact that each of us is only on this earth for a short time , and the things we live with should be enjoyed by us, and you feel it needs to be refinished then by all means refinish it and enjoy it!!

  6. Paul Ford says

    IMO, The best refinishing stain out there is sold by The Restoration Studio.
    http://werefinish.com/heywood_wakefield_refinishing_ki.htm

    My wife and I have purchased from them 3 times already. Our last purchase was a gallon of Wheat stain that we are using to refinish the cabinets on a 50’s trailer we are restoring. They didn’t offer the stain by the gallon on their website, but we called and asked and they sold us a gallon for the price 3 quarts (4th quart was free).
    We also refinished a half dozen Heywood pieces already. We tried the stuff on Ebay also…no comparison!

    While I personally have not tried their newest product out yet, they now sell Heywood Wakefield touch up kits too, for those who only need to fix some scratches.

    • Nancy says

      Thanks Paul! I saw some cute pieces in an antique store recently, and am thinking of giving them a try. The mid-century furniture had nice clean lines and a compact size to fit in post-war homes. But the wear of a few decades was apparent, and they look like candidates for restoration.

  7. says

    May I ask if all of you spray on your varnishes? Also, are the kits for DIY’s provided in lacquer or other bases? I’ve also read of the dangers of the dust created by sanding HW pieces; is there any truth to that?
    thanks, D

    • pam kueber says

      Daryl, note that I will not let anywhere here attempt to answer the question regarding potential “dangers of dust…” On this and similar questions, I suggest you consult with a properly licensed professional. Good luck.

  8. Jess says

    Dear Wise Retro-Renovators,
    I’ve come across some HW pieces in an original “fruitwood” stain, which seems to be much less common/popular than the wheat or champagne finishes. One is a table that desperately needs refinishing. It’s a CL find and it’s not entirely clear the piece is salvageable–lots of damage–but I’d like to give it a shot. Any leads on where to find a passable HW fruitwood stain? The suppliers listed above only carry wheat and champagne. Thanks for any tips!

    • Malissa says

      I work for a woodworking shop in PA. We do mostly high end residential work in the NYC area. Our finisher is helping me with a lamp table I am refinishing the top of. He matched the stain to the rest of the piece. I watched him doing the color match and there are many layers involved in getting it just right so a one coat fix is not going to happen (I have not tried the 2 companies who sell the refinishing kits so cannot say how they work, but I certainly am curious and the reviews are good so worth a try…but buying off the shelf products to do this will be a fail for sure). He is used to doing this in his work here. We deal with a lot of exotic woods but the layering tricks he uses helped him with my piece. He does not know anything about Hey Wake specifically, but if you can find a skilled finisher, they can do it. I loved watching him and hearing his thought process as he forensically took apart the piece. Also, everything he used on my piece so far is from the Sherwin Williams Kemvar system and is only available to professionals. The staining step alone looked nothing like it should, it was only after he used toner on the Medium Rubbed Effect Varnish Sealer that it really started to pop. He used some black which really added dimension to grains. Then he hit it with red. It’s very close at this point. He was tempted to hit with some yellow, but I think it’s pretty damn close and would hate for it to be too yellow. Next I will scuff with some 320 grit paper and then do the top coat. I’ve been posting pics of the progress on my blog of sorts. Was really wondering if anyone had experience with the lamp table…the inside of it does not have much of a sheet to it. It is very matte. The top coat we were going to do is Med Rubbed Effect which has some seen to it, but we also have a Matte…he was thinking use half and half. I was wondering if anyone else has this lamp table and if you also think the inside is very matte and the legs/top had more sheen. He also thought of spraying the whole table with the topcoat even though the rest of it is original finish. Please post any thoughts on my wall! THANKS! https://www.facebook.com/madformodmalissa

  9. Karen says

    I have my moms full dining set and bedroom set (in storage) in platinum, and all the surfaces need some TLC. Any recommendations in Michigan?

  10. Gene Aguirre says

    I have my mother’s dining set including china cabinet and dearly love it. What is the best product for taking care of on a regular basis? I use Orange Glo on other pieces but don’t know if that’s best for HW. Thanks in advance for your advice.

  11. Cheryl says

    I have several pieces of Heywood Wakefield furniture in Indiana. My Aunt left it to us and I don’t know what to do with it. I live in AZ and have shipped some of my favorite pieces. However, nobody seems interested in the furniture, but it is so awesome, I just can’t take it to some kind of auction. Does anyone know a dealer in Northern, IN?

    Pieces include: Long 3 drawer (curved) dresser w/ mirror, 1 high-boy dresser with cedar box at the bottom, 2 night stands and 1 full headboard & foot board (side rails)

  12. Sherry says

    I am in St. Louis MO and there’s a Mid Century Modern Dealer here. If it’s the “right” wakefield product, he will move it quickely!! GREAT store if you are in St. Louis!! Hope this helps!

    The Future Antiques

    http://www.tfa50s.com/

  13. Steve Gordenier says

    Hi:

    Looking for some advice. We have a number of HW pieces that we have collected over the years. I bought a nice two level coffee table a few years ago that somebody had poured some really heavy poly finish on and just left. I had it stripped professionally, then bought a champagne stain and varnish kit from The Restoration Studio. The table came out beautifully, but the color seemed a little lighter than I expected. I understand that HW furniture over time has often acquired a sort of orange tint, so I wasn’t disappointed. It really came out nice. But now I have acquired a very nice HW credenza which matches our HW china hutch. Trouble is the top needs refinishing. I know that if I just refinish the top it will be much lighter than the rest of the piece. The stain the Restoration Studio provides is water based, as is the varnish. Does anyone have suggestions as to what I could use to mix a slightly darker (more orange) stain. I have some experience with matching colors on furniture, but it’s been mostly oil-based stain and I’m not quite sure where to start with this stuff.

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