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With Furniture Refinishing, You Have to Go With the Grain

Furniture stripping and refinishing is an art, but one that's within your grasp -- if you're patient.

It was a measure of my burgeoning love for wood that caused my wife, Lorraine, and me to spend the first night in our new Hudson Valley home without a front door.

We had fallen in love with the metal grating and honey finish on the original side door of our 1860 Victorian, and I decided that the front entrance, buried beneath geological layers of flaking paint, needed the royal treatment right away.

After barely extricating the oak behemoth from its hinges -- they don't make 'em like that anymore -- we dropped the door off at TNT Furniture Strippers, just down the road in Hyde Park, N.Y.

At the time, I could only have guessed what stripping wood entails. (In TNT's method, it's a spray bath and scrub in a gentle methylene chloride, followed by a pressure-water washdown to remove any chemical residue.)

Ditto for refinishing wood. I could, and still will, go on endlessly about the revelation I had upon retrieving the door. Copper hardware? Beautiful grain? Who knew? The thing was a piece of art as well as history, and the $600 outlay was among the best investments I've ever made.

Several, related postscripts hatched from this experience. Lorraine and I were so excited by the transformation that we decided to stockpile worn-down midcentury modern chairs for rehab and eventual sale on


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. The stockpiling part was easy, a job for garage sales and Craigslist. (Friends have dubbed our home "Craigslist Manor.")

But refinishing -- oof, there's the rub. You rub (first, with 120 grit sandpaper), vacuum, stain, dry, repeat (buffing this time with 220 grit sandpaper, and maybe steel wool, too), varnish -- and, again, this is only after you or your stripper has stripped the piece. TNT has generously provided more detailed

refinishing instructions

for would-be do-it-yourself customers, as they did for me and my newly stripped door.

Refinishing School

Still, absorbing the instructions is hard enough work, never mind actually enacting them.

Months passed without me refinishing our gorgeous door, despite buying all the necessary products from TNT. This was partly out of fear that my novice technique would ruin it, and partly because the thought of painstaking manual labor somehow always makes me sleepy. This handiwork also explains why it's usually twice as expensive to refinish as to strip.

"On stripping, you're paying a little bit on labor, more on the chemicals, and a lot more for getting rid of the chemicals," says TNT owner Richard Tanner, 54. "For finishing, you're paying a little bit on the chemicals and a lot on the labor."

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The refinishing cost had indeed scared me off at the time, and I ultimately hired our house painters to complete the door: It deserved some measure of professionalism. But I decided I needed to stop back into TNT and talk to Tanner about his life's work -- and, when I would eventually get started, my new hobby.

Tanner opened up shop in 1977 for just $3,500, after a childhood and young adulthood spent finishing and restoring unpainted or found furniture.

"My wife still laughs about the time I went deer hunting and came back with a wingback upholstered chair," says Tanner, whose 8,500-square-foot shop also employs his son, Neal, and Brian White. (Tanner has other good woodworking-related stories, including one about a brush-stealing pet ferret and another about a staffer of client Eddie Murphy warning him not to make eye contact with the actor/comedian should he make an appearance.)

He assured me that I was not alone in my failure to see the job through: Contrary to all the talk of do-it-yourselfers, he says that less than one-quarter of his current jobs are stripping-only, a reversal from 30 years ago.

"Supposedly, people have more time now, but I don't see it," he says. "I know I don't have any more time."

Time is far from the lone hurdle for the DIY-minded. Finding a well-ventilated workspace can be an issue; so, too, is properly disposing of the material you just stripped, especially if it's lead paint. (TNT employs a hazardous-waste hauler, and the paint is later burned in cement kilns.)

Did I mention that the work can require the patience of a saint?

"I always tell people, it's not rocket science, but you have to be in the right mindframe to do the work," Tanner says. "If you're in a big rush, don't do it. With refinishing, if you don't sand properly, everything else is going to be a mess all the way down the line."

TNT also fields more requests for "freshening up" work, which can include restorative silicone washes and lacquer sprays. The shop takes on the touch-up jobs reluctantly, as defining successful work can be a subjective matter. "People have a picture in their head of what the result should be," says Tanner. "It's always a dance with that stuff."

That stuff helps pay the bills, though Tanner prefers more inspiring fare, artisan's work such as crafting trim with wood putty such that you'd never spot the repair. The occasional instances where people refuse to believe that the pristine finished piece before them is the same heap they brought in "keeps you going through the bad times," Tanner says. "The one thing we always say about this business is we may not make a lot of money, but the satisfaction factor is there."

I knew I had found a talented firm upon getting back our front door, but I had been flying blind: My research hadn't extended beyond a quick Google search of local businesses. Noting there are no professional organizations to speak of in his field, Tanner suggests that would-be wood-fix consumers seek out longstanding, preferably larger-footprint shops.

"Little garage operations can hang around for a while because they have low overhead," he says. "But if you don't do this work well, you're generally not going to be around long. With any hands-on work, if you're going through the motions, it shows, and if you love what you do, it shows."

Inspired by Tanner's words, I decided to tackle stripping one of a pair of 1960s Baumritter lounge chairs in the back of the TNT shop, using an over-the-counter stripper, while Brian White did the other. The sweat on my forehead in the pictures alone tells much of the story.

It took me four-and-a-half hours (I skipped lunch); White was done in 20 minutes. But the deep sense of satisfaction I had both in the act and upon seeing the finished product after it had dried overnight means I'll definitely strip again.

Now all I've got to do is refinish the chair ... or maybe bring it back to TNT.

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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y., and senior writer for

Golfweek. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.