Before & After: A Blonde Updo

When it comes to blonde furniture, most mid-century collectors either love it or hate it. While it’s brightness may fail to lift the spirits of some, those who love it should know one important thing about it: it’s nearly impossible to refinish or repair damaged pieces. Unlike dark woods which are usually finished with clear or dark toned finishes, blonde furniture relies on several semi-opaque layers of tinted finish sprayed on in a factory to achieve the proper effect. Underneath those frosty layers of lacquer lies an unattractive, darker base wood. Without the use of spray equipment, it’s nearly impossible to achieve a uniform result when refinishing blonde furniture. That’s not to say there’s no way to salvage a blonde piece without painting it entirely. I offer this before & after/how-to as proof.

Blonde Buffet Before

Blonde Buffet After

I found this adorable late 1960s blonde server at a church sale for $10. It was a great size, had great lines and was in great shape except for one little thing—the finish on the top was destroyed. Scratches, water rings, peeling lacquer, you name it. It’s grayish pecan finish was surely impossible to ever attempt to match. Usually, I’d walk away. But the cabinet was in great condition, so I decided to simply change the color of the top to black and leave the rest alone. The result looks like it could have always been this way and it was certainly less difficult than addressing the entire piece. Now, I’ll walk you through the steps.

Tools:
Furniture Refinisher
Stripper Wash
#0000 Steel Wool
Painter’s Tape
General Finishes Water-Based Black Dye Stain
General Finishes Wipe-On Gel Urethane Topcoat (Satin)
Mineral Oil (Find at any Pharmacy)
Black Spray Lacquer (Satin)
Paper Towels
Glass or Metal Bowls

Step One: Removing the Original Finish
The most important step when you’re only refinishing part of a piece of furniture is to protect the parts you aren’t refinishing. Painter’s tape works well for this. I used multiple layers to prevent any chemicals from soaking underneath. Once the masking is complete, it’s time to get stripping. For pieces like this that aren’t painted, I prefer to use furniture refinisher as opposed to stripper.Why? Stripper is messy, leaves more residue and can be stressful to the wood. Furniture refinisher is a liquid that dissolves lacquer and varnish quickly with little residue while leaving the wood fairly unaffected. It’s easy to use. Pour some of the refinisher in a glass or metal bowl and, wearing gloves, dip a biscuit of steel wood in the refinisher and rub over the piece in a circular fashion. Continue this until the finish is mostly removed. At this point I like to get a fresh piece of steel wool and fresh refinisher and go over it a second time. Once the finish is removed, wet paper towels with the stripper wash and wipe over the area to remove any residue. Remove the painter’s tape carefully and wipe any seepage underneath with a clean paper towel. Allow the piece to dry. Unless the wood was severely damaged, it shouldn’t need aggressive sanding. Usually a quick sanding with 320 or 400 grit sandpaper will be all that is necessary.

          

Step Two: Staining
Before staining, it’s a good idea to mask off the area you won’t be staining with painter’s tape. For extreme color changes like this, I prefer dye stain. Traditional wood stains are great for moderate toning, but don’t build up pigment fast enough for a major color shift, especially black. The dye stain is water based and dries fast and fume free. Apply the stain very liberally with a foam brush in the direction of the grain. Allow it to sit on the surface for five to ten minutes and then wipe up excess with a rag. For major color shifts, you can expect multiple coats. To go to nearly full black, this took 4 applications. I didn’t stain this until it went jet black because I wanted to see some wood tone through the finish.

          

Step Three: Topcoating
Once the stain is fully dry, it’s time to top coat. You can use any top coat you like. My personal favorite is Wipe-On Gel Urethane from General Finishes. It wipes on evenly and bubble-free with no brush streaks. Just be careful not to leave drips or heavy overlaps so you don’t have to sand much. After each coat, I like to buff the surface with steel wool to help the next coat adhere better. 3 coats should be sufficient. It’s worth noting that black is a tough color to topcoat over. It tends to highlight any imperfection in the topcoat. To remedy any inconsistencies in the top coat, dip steel wool in mineral oil and very gently buff the surface in the direction of the grain. After buffing, wipe down very thoroughly with absorbent rags. The result will be a flawless satin finish.

If all this sounds scary to you, rest assured it’s not. Once you’ve done it a couple times, you’ll be amazed at how quickly it goes. If you’re not changing the color of a piece, simply skip step two and you’ll have the same great results. I was very happy to give this buffet a second chance at life while being able to preserve some of its original features. I did choose to paint the brass hardware black to help tie-in the new black top. Personally, I feel like this piece may look better in it’s new form than it did originally.

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4 Comments

  1. Michelle Rheuport
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Very nice job Austin. Looks great! I agree with you, it looks better black than all blonde.

    • Austin
      Posted October 19, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Michelle! Sometimes all something needs is a touch of black for contrast to make it a little sexier.

  2. Posted October 19, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    It looks like it was manufactured this way. BEAUTIFUL job!

  3. Patty
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    this looks great! Thanks for the tutorial!

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