Prior to refinishing your antique wood-inlaid furniture, have it appraised — when it turns out to be precious, take it into a guru, because it’s easy to ruin it. Antique inlay is art, and overlaying it with contemporary materials without regard to the techniques utilized by the creator of the piece is comparable to painting a neon mustache on the Mona Lisa. If the piece isn’t that precious, you can treat the inlays as shingles in the refinishing process.
Start by Earning Repairs
Inlay materials are frequently very thin — 1/16 inch or even thinner — so it’s common for borders to curl. It is almost always preferable to mend these curls than it is to attempt to replace the inlays. To cure curling borders, put a towel over the inlay; place your iron to medium dry heat and place it on the towel. This loosens the adhesive, letting you lift the inlay slice far enough to find some carpenter’s glue under it. Alter the inlay. Wipe off excess adhesive, and set a piece of waxed paper over the inlay before you weight or wax it to hold the wood down while the adhesive dries.
Strip the Finish
When working with inlays, it’s ideal to remain sanding to a minimum to avoid the chance of wear-through, thus a chemical stripper is essential for eliminating the old finish. Use a strong stripper that contains methylene chloride — that is no place to get a soy product. Wear gloves and a respirator. Expand the stripper with a paintbrush, and scrape it off with a plastic paint scraper, which won’t disturb the borders of the inlays. Wipe down the piece with lacquer thinner to remove as much stain as possible. Avoid using water and water-based goods; water raises the timber grain, and that could be disastrous.
Sand Like an Old Master
Sanding is the only means to remove stripper residue and smooth the timber for refinishing, however delicacy is the order of the afternoon. Confine the seams grits into 120 and above, and mud by hand, with the grain of the wood. If you find it necessary to use a palm sander, maintain light pressure; use bright light and verify the surface often — the advantages of the inlays are especially vulnerable to splintering. The wood grain of the inlay pieces may run counter to the main grain, but do not attempt to sand every single inlay individually — you’ll only produce a cacophony of scratch marks. Just sand the whole surface for a unit.
Modern film finishes — especially polyurethane — appear strange on antique woodwork, especially when inlays are involved. One or two coats of penetrating oil followed by an application of paste wax and careful buffing is the finish most likely to replicate the original. If you prefer a film, look at applying several coats of shellac, sanding each coat with 220-grit seams before applying the next. A shellac finish can also be buffed up with paste wax. If you insist on varnish, use an alkyd-based product — it’s much less likely to come up with a plastic-like sheen than polyurethane.