Refinish old furniture to its former glory — or have fun with paint?

Jessica writes with a question we all likely ask at one time or another in our collecting (and dumpster-diving) lives:

Hi there! It goes without saying that I love your blog or I wouldn’t be reaching out.

So, I have this little set. It’s a Heywood Wakefield table — missing its leaves — and two chairs. One with arms and one without. We found it free on the side of the road. The original labels and paperwork are still stapled under one of the chairs. Anyway, the poor set has been badly abused. The Champagne finish has seen better days, and obviously parts of the set have been lost along the way — the other chairs as well as the leaves. The table top has some spreading between the pieces of wood likely because it was left in the rain or somewhere moist. And lots of rings. *sigh*

So, my question is this. Do I pay to have this refinished in the right stain, and see if they can do anything about the spreading and stains. OR, do I have it done in something fun like a black lacquer? Its role is likely going to be an art table for the kids in their super cool retro playroom. At most, it could end up being my desk in my office.

The chairs are cat eye style. I’m not sure on the table. Trying to look that up now.

Any thoughts?


Hi there back, Jessica! Thank you, and good girl, dumpster diver! Excellent question — and a great one for our team of smarty readers weigh in on.

What do you think, readers?
Is it righteous to restore wrecked vintage furniture back to its original finish?
Or, can we get creative?

I definitely have an opinion, but family hold back.


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  1. chris says

    One more thought — someone may have said the same thing above… but this idea occurred to me.

    What if you have it refinished, then get a piece of glass cut to fit the top? That way the piece would be restored, but your kids could still use it for crafts.

    Just another idea. 🙂

    OR — maybe you could try to sell it to someone who is in love with HW! Then you could buy a sturdy craft table and maybe even some storage cubbies!

  2. Wendy says

    How about refinish the top (large flat surfaces are usually pretty easy) and then paint the legs and the chairs? It’s a little unexpected, but with a small eat-in size table with two chairs you can get away with a little whimsy?!

  3. says

    Follow your heart. Get creative. Go with your vision.

    It’s a piece of furniture. Yes, original vintage is beautiful. But so are up-cycled pieces.

  4. Katey says

    I’d restore it- I’d restore my $35 bargain Heywood Wakefield end table (turned tv stand) if I could afford it.

    If you can’t afford a pro job, it might be a good solution to cover the top with oilcloth while it’s a play-table.

    Painting it black gives me the willies because it will be very difficult to ‘undo’ someday.

  5. gsciencechick says

    I also do not like the look of painted H-W furniture.

    I bought table, dogbone chairs, and hutch off eBay, and I’m willing to take on the restoration. I’m hoping I will actually have the time over summer to do it.

    Thank you to everyone who provided links to products. This is a huge help.

  6. says

    I would definitely NOT paint this furniture. I actually refinish and restore modern furniture for a living and have for about 15 or so years now, and I am one of the few people around that knows the Wakefield finishes (and the Brasilia furniture I have done a lot of as well and it is a nice Claro Walnut underneath, which is hard to come by these days)…Also, that Wakefield you want to cover up with paint is solid Maple underneath. It is a preservation issue for me. No offense but you are destroying it by painting it, or making it very very difficult to restore if you (or another owner) ever decides to. I have reversed this many times and it is not an easy task. You can look at my online gallery and see some good before and afters. ( Lots of designers like to do this, but I wouldn’t advise it for any mid-century pieces, or anything of value, and I have raised many of these pieces from the dead. The fact that they are really well built and Solid Maple helps quite a bit. Anyway, that’s my two cents.

    • Patty says

      The “retro” Heywood Wakefield of the 50s is birch. Maple was only used in the early 1930s. They also made Early American/Colonial style Earlier they used wicker/rattan. See their website for more info. This style looks like the 50s to me, but I’m not an expert.

  7. says

    Oh, and whether it is in or out of style is really not an issue is it? I have been doing this (restoration) for years, way before MCM was all the rage and to me it is timeless, as especially are the Heywood Wakefield pieces, because they are so well built, well thought out/designed and executed as well as being built of a beautiful solid hardwood with excellent joinery. To me it is the place where Deco meets Modern and sometimes it’s not sure which it is, and I love that.

  8. Jessica says

    Hi again,

    Thanks so much for all the responses! I’m loving reading them all!

    For the record, I’m mid century obsessed and my first desire is for it to be as it should be. I always freak out when I go into a mid century home and it’s destroyed (some people call it remodeled).

    But in the case of this table, the chunks missing from it are fairly large. I don’t know how refinishing it is going to help that. We’re talking about a large chunk out of the edge. And then, there are the planks making the top. They are puling away from each other and warped. Again, it will take a LOT to address that and likely, the top would end up smaller in order to fix all of these issues.

    The chairs have more of a possibility of being near perfect even with the gouges. Hard to believe, but the seats have not been recovered since they were made in 1959.

    And believe me, I know the value of Heywood Wakefield. I have loved it for a long time. I live in MA where it was made and these are not my first pieces. I have a basement full mid century items waiting to be refinished and reupholstered. And you can tell I love it because I drove by the set to drop the kids off at daycare, called my husband and told him to grab it on his way by since I couldn’t fit it in my car, nor could I lift the table alone. I’m also considering calling the real estate company that is selling the house to see what else may be inside. 🙂

  9. says

    You Should ask about the inside of the house 🙂 That could be a treasure trove. Sounds like the table is pretty rough. Once the spline joints start breaking down, there is not a lot you can do to save it. Probably exposed to way too much moisture. Solid wood always moves and cups, but that really expediates the process. Sounds like you have a serious love for the stuff, I have for a long time, it’s good to love what you do. As far as the material its made of, I wouldn’t necessarily trust the website, as the company was sold and i think (my opinion, as I have seen a few newly made pieces) the quality has really suffered. I also have restored dozens and dozens of wakefield pieces and I know my woods. It is my firm belief that they probably used solid rock maple (the joined pieces would include curly maple, birdseye and straight cut in many cases ) and not birch as some would have you believe. birch may look similar, but has many different physical characteristics and reacts differently when worked. I think maybe they just had a surplus of this material before they switched and used what they had before they completed the changover, probably a transitionary thing. Anyway, the chairs will probably be restorable. the fact it is solid allows a good restorer to ‘raise the gouges out’, possibly fill in some cases. Anyway, good luck with it. Sorry for the long winded response.

  10. says

    I’m going to be totally cynical here and say that if you want to paint it, then absolutely go ahead and paint it.
    It’s right in that grey area where it’s good enough to keep, but it’s going to take a lot of effort to get it back to a totally restored state. I’m not sure it’s worth the trade-off to bring it back. Can you find the pieces necessary to have a complete set? Absolutely, but that means that someone else who wants those pieces won’t get them.

  11. Panzyzz says

    You could check with Chris over at Strictly Hey-Wake:
    about restoring it and IF its worth it. If not, I’d strip it and maybe do a clear lacquer, but I love the used, loved look of furniture even if they are dented, scratched, or broken. Heywood Wakefield quality furniture isn’t made anymore (IMHO), so use it!

  12. says

    So a full restoration or refinish might not be within your means. It might be out of your comfort zone financially or ability wise. I am of the opinion that it really Should be refinished or restored. What you could do is sell the set for whatever price you see as appropriate and use that money to buy something that either doesn’t need work or would suffer less from being painted. It’s free money!

    Also, if you are in the Florida area you might wanna contact A Modern Line. He refinishes Hey / Wake AND gives classes on refinishing your OWN Hey / Wake!

  13. sam says

    It’s an art table for the kids ! Let them paint it. No matter how young they are, you can figure out a way to involve them in painting it, and it will truly become your family’s heirloom.

  14. gsciencechick says

    I was just looking at CL, and lo and behold I see a set of painted H-W dining furniture.

    (link long gone)

  15. Emily says

    What a pretty piece! I think it could be really lovely left as wood. Have you thought about trying a product like Restor-a-Finish? I’ve had really good luck with bringing back damaged finishes so that they look much nicer. It doesn’t really seem like it would be worth it to have a full strip and stain done, particularly if your kids are going to use it as an art table.

    Good luck whatever you decide! It is a lovely piece–what a find!

  16. says

    I actually ran across this post and comments while looking for Hey-Wake online.

    For what it’s worth, (and it’s worth ALOT apparently these days!), I had seen 2 different yet complete sets of dining tables with chairs in two different states.
    I was drooling, trying to figure out how long it would take to save up for one of them! One set was priced at 7,000, and the other was at a local store that needed to get rid of it, priced at $4,000!!
    Needless to say, I decided to wait and see if they would come down in price.
    Lo, and behold, I walked into a retro furniture store in Lubbock, Texas and there in the back warehouse (where they store their newly acquired MCM pieces to clean up before they go in the showroom), sat a Hey-Wake dining table, two chairs, and a complete bedroom set with headboard, footboard and two nightstands!! All were in need of a little cleanup work, but at the price of $350 for the whole lot, I jumped on it!! (My biggest problem was going to be finding a way to get it all home!)

    My point to this is – Yes, you can do whatever you want with it, but it is a valuable piece of furniture that deserves to be restored. If you don’t want to, then pass it along.
    I’m in the processing of restoring ALL of it myself, and I purchased the Hey-Wake stain off of Ebay, too. I’ve stripped all the pieces, and about to sand them. Yes, it takes a little elbow grease, but in the end, it’ll be worth it for me to have these collectibles in MY collection! And for me, the icing on the cake is doing it myself…
    Good Luck!

  17. Pat Wieneke says

    go to your closest Woodcraft store and talk to them about Briwax. I have been using it on a Lane MCM dining set that has seen better days ( much better) that I bought for $100.
    The Briwax is really easy to use and if you don’t want to continue. It cleans, blends and enriches color and take care of minor scratches and marks. even some white wet rings… If it doesn’t give a good finish, you can take it off with Xylene.
    They make those wax filler crayons that you can rub or melt into spots to fill holes, deep scratches and gouges.
    If there is cupping, you can ask them how to correct that. A lot of times, it is not as hard as you think to correct.

  18. Just another Pam says

    BriWax is a great product and lasts forever because you use so little of it….tiny, tiny bit on the cloth as you have to buff it out. However, and I’m sure Pam is stick to death with me saying this, make sure you have a lot of ventilation. Apparently it’s used on the Queen’s furniture but she has much bigger rooms and people to do the work but the fumes are aggressive to say the least.

  19. Karon says

    1. She should as an appraiser the value of the pieces not a blogger.
    2. If it has little or no value, she can do whatever she wants with it. It was headed for the dump after all.

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