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.

  1. Nick Klaus 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.

  2. Hank 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.

  3. 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. 🙂

  4. Hank Tosh 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.

  5. Hank Tosh 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. (http://www.toshmahal.com) 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Lisa 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.

  9. 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?!

  10. 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!

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