Product Review: Howard Restor-A-Finish

If you’ve ever done even the lightest internet search for any topic related to restoring furniture finishes, you’ve no doubt run across the name Howard’s. A favorite product of dealers and collectors, it’s often touted as a miraculous cure-all for whatever ails your wooden furniture. Despite the widespread enthusiasm, I’ve remained a skeptic. Why? Howard’s and several products like it are basically waxes that apply over an existing finish. The waxes and added colorants restore shine while filling in scratches and imperfections. It sounds great, but waxes don’t play well with traditional wood cleaners or wood finishing products. In other words, once you use Howard’s, a piece will require some special care and any future attempts to refinish the wood might not end well. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder about the hype, so I decided to put Howard’s through it’s paces with the most difficult project I could find.

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Ok, this 1950s desk isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but for Howard’s to be an option the finish must still be somewhat present. When I found this on Craigslist the ad said there were some scratches overall. In person, those “scratches” turned out to be deeply carved words.

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Further complicating things is the fact that the wood is white pine with a dark walnut finish, causing every scratch and blemish to stick out like a sore thumb.

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Ordinarily I wouldn’t attempt any scratch-fixing on a case like this, it would just automatically go to the refinish pile. And in actuality, I would normally never even consider buying a piece in this condition unless it was something really special. But I decided  if I was going to give Howard’s miracle potion a shot, it might as well be on something that desperately needed a miracle. Here goes nothing.

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Howard Restor-A-Finish comes in a range of colors to match whatever finish you’re working with. The directions say to simply wipe on the product and let dry or, for extremely rough finishes, apply with #0000 steel wool and wipe dry. I figured the latter applied to me. The product has a very strong odor and I wouldn’t recommend using it indoors. The consistency and application was very similar to applying Danish oil. I rubbed the product on one area at a time, wiping off excess with a rag. After the product dried, I followed their recommendation to apply a coat of Howard’s Feed-N-Wax, a solution of orange oil with carnauba wax and beeswax and let dry.

Drumroll please…

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Overall it performed better than I had imagined but didn’t quite live up to the hype. That being said, it did improve the appearance ten fold. Minor scratches and nicks disappeared, but deeper gouges tended to take on a dark and dull appearance. It didn’t quite fully restore the sheen as I had been led to believe, but it didn’t do a half bad job either.

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The carvings in the top are still visible, but much less jarring than they originally were. I think it gives the desk some character. Nothing short of sanding the entire top down and refinishing could have remedied this, but I will say the product did a good job of covering scratches in a light wood/dark finish situation that’s normally an uphill battle for any method.

Pros: Howard’s mostly does what it says it will do—fix scratches and minor wear. It’s relatively inexpensive, comes in a wide range of colors, is compatible with most wood finishes, is easy to apply and dries quickly (though in my experience it took longer than suggested on the package to fully cure). The resulting finish doesn’t leave a waxy feel like similar products such as Briwax.

Cons: It has strong fumes, though not worse than most wood finishing products. It may require special care with products that contain wax or oil rather than aerosol polishes or cleaners. If wood surfaces require refinishing in the future, residue from this product may hinder the ability of stains or finishes to bond to the wood or cure properly.

Summary: I would recommend this product for pieces that just need a refresh—those with light scratches, nicks or mild water rings. It performed well, but it’s not a magic bullet and it won’t resolve severely damaged finishes. For best results, use it with woods that are naturally closer in color to the final finish of the piece to avoid any exposed wood from becoming darker or a different tone than the surrounding finish.

The results of this were so similar to my experiences using Danish oil to fix scratches that I’m not sure there’s any real benefit to using Howard’s, especially considering Danish oil doesn’t affect a piece’s ability to be refinished in the future. But I do plan to try Howard’s on a few different types of woods and finishes before making a wholesale judgment for or against it.

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30 Comments

  1. Michelle Davis
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I have a Lane Acclaim coffee table with two different finishes – a light and a darker one. If I try Howards should I get two different colors or can I get away with using one? If one, would you suggest I match the lighter or the darker color? Thanks!

    • Austin
      Posted May 22, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Hi Michelle! Lane Acclaim is a bit of a sticky wicket because of the two types of wood. I’ve refinished about a dozen pieces of it and it is tricky to get it right. The good news is the original finish on Acclaim is a slightly amber color. In other words, the finish doesn’t change the color of the walnut much, only the lighter wood. So I would choose a product that most closely matches the color of the lighter wood. Something with a slight orange tint like maple should be perfect for Acclaim. If you’re just trying to correct minor scuffing and scratching, you might skip the Restor-A-Shine and just try Howard Feed-N-Wax or, my preference, Watco Rejuvenating Oil. Of course, if the finish on your piece is severely damaged (i.e. patches missing, water stains, etc) I would probably recommend refinishing over rejuvenating. Good luck and let us know how it works for you!

      • Michelle Davis
        Posted May 22, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        Thank you for your reply. It’s in fairly good condition with minor scratches; however, it has one prominent water ring. I think I’ll try rejuvenating first since it seems easier than refinishing. I’m a newbie! lol

        • Austin
          Posted May 22, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          I understand, Michelle, and there’s no reason to do more work than you really need to do. If you want, feel free to email me a picture of the table and damage (austin@snag-blog.com) and I can give you more specific recommendations to increase your chances of success on the first try 🙂

  2. Susie
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    The finished desk looks great! It seems you can do wonders with any product.

  3. John Navest
    Posted December 3, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    I have a very beautiful (many different colors/grains/with some marbling) two piece shotgun stock. It is American walnut with an oil finish and the MINOR scratches are not the issue. Dullness is. I am planning to start with “Howards Restor a Finish” and then use “Howards Restor a Shine”. In all the articles I read about these products (and others) are the words “steel wool”. I don’t mind telling you that I get goose bumps (even 0000 steel wool) if instructions mention to use this. Any advise for me? And if you should answer this please consider talking to me like I am a ten year old because I am a novice and don’t want to mess this up. Not on this nice stock. Thank you.

    • Austin
      Posted December 3, 2014 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      I totally understand not wanting to mess something up, although I’ll admit I know a lot of what I know by messing things up a few times over the years. To be honest, I’m not sure any Howard’s products would be my first choice for a fine gunstock. Since guns are handled a lot and used outdoors, possibly in the elements, Howards products probably aren’t a good fit. Typically gunstocks have a fine, hand-polished finish. There are a lot of products out there sold specifically for gunstocks—and I know nothing about any of them. You might want to research those as well as traditional methods of finishing gunstock. Gun people know their stuff, I’m sure anyone in a local gun shop could offer advice. This link may also be of some help: http://www.brownells.com/gunsmith-tools-supplies/stock-work-finishing/wood-finishes/index.htm. Good luck!

      • John Navest
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        Thank you

  4. Joe
    Posted January 9, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Nice product but have noticed the scratches return the next day

  5. rodney hestdalen
    Posted May 15, 2016 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Hello, I have a cherry wood Stickley Butterfly dining table that is dried out in places and basically needs some rejuvenation and protection. The original finish was just a natural clear oil rubbed on, no stain to allow the cherry wood to naturally darken over time. I purchased the Howard restor-a-finish ‘Neutral’ product along with the howard feed-n-wax. I was about to start the project and then read your review. Would you recommend this for my dining table? Is the restor-a-finish a good product for non-stained cherry wood? Or would you recommend something like Danish oil and then some sort of protective product? The table was purchased prior to kids, and now with children, it does see a lot of food, drinks, etc and its washed frequently with soapy water. Look forward to your insight, thanks!

    • Austin
      Posted May 16, 2016 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

      Hi Rodney. I would not recommend using these products on an oil finished table like you’ve described. I would recommend a suitable oil finish such as Danish Oil or Teak oil for more satisfactory results. You might also consider using Watco’s rejuvenating oil to restore the existing finish. Some may recommend tung oil and a top coat of satin wax for added protection, but I’m not really an expert in those types of finishes.

      Bear in mind that oil finished wood is not as serviceable as film forming finishes, especially if it is exposed to water at all. Oil provides some protection, but it won’t stand up to repeated cleaning with water or exposure to food stuffs unless it is reapplied fairly often. And Howard’s products won’t really offer you much more protection than a proper oil finish. It might actually offer less.

      So, if the table gets repeatedly washed, I’d recommend either clear coating the top with a quality urethane like General Finishes Arm-R-Seal that can literally be washed with soap and water or plan to re-oil your table every few months to protect it from stains. Good luck!

  6. mj wyman
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    please help me make a decision. i want to re-finish kitchen cabinets that are a little dry and some of the bottom cabinets by the sink have white horizontal lines (i guess from water). also they lack patina. i have read so much about watco danish oil and howard restor-a-finish that they both sound good (this is my first time doing something like this). i am not sure which product to go with. your advice would be gratefully appreciated. thank you

    • Austin
      Posted July 11, 2016 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

      The quality you get from either product will depend a lot on the wood and the type and condition of the original finish. If you’re just looking for a product to rejuvenate them (i.e. they’re worn but not necessarily ready for a total refinish) I’d go with a product from Watco called rejuvenating oil. It wipes on over the original finish and then you wipe it off after a few minutes. It will conceal some wear and dryness. As for Danish oil or Howard’s, these products have coloring so they may be necessary to conceal scratches on woods that are a different color than the finish applied over them (i.e. a light wood with a dark finish). For my money in that case, I’d go with Danish oil. Good luck!

  7. Ed Yarbrough
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Are there any finishes that can be applied over Howard restore a finish?

    • Austin
      Posted September 29, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Restor-A-Finish is made of. I’m not sure it contains waxes, which would hinder the application of just about any finish or whether it’s primarily solvents and oils. If you’re concerned, I’d try applying Howard’s on a piece of scrap wood and experiment with finishing over it. Spraying de-waxed shellac over the entire piece before top coating would also ensure that your desired top coat will adhere properly and not fisheye as it cures.

  8. Judy
    Posted November 2, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I’ve updated our kitchen but kept the custom built oak cabinets. Is there a product that I can use that with rejuvenate the finish, and enhance the brown tones but not the out-of-date golden tones? I was about to try Howard’s when I ran across your article and these mixed reviews.

    • Donna
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Have you received a response yet? I have a similar project.

    • Austin
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Hi Judy, sorry for the slow reply, we’ve not been very active on the blog lately. Most cabinets are finished with film-forming finishes like lacquer, urethane or conversion varnish. There really aren’t topical products that would easily modify the color of your cabinets short of refinishing them. A gel stain may allow you to change the color without stripping and refinishing the wood but it would still be a significant amount of work.

  9. Martin
    Posted November 4, 2016 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Hi
    I have a brand new solid oak table which I foolishly scrubbed at to remove a mark. There’s now an apple sized dull patch where the sheen has been removed. I have tried spraying with furniture polish which appears to work only for the dullness to return once the polish dries out. I don’t want to strip the whole table as its brand new and it just has this one dull patch. Will Osmo oil soak in to restore the sheen or is there another solution?

    • Austin
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Hi Martin, sorry for the slow reply, we’ve not been too active on here lately! If you haven’t solved your problem yet, I would recommend buying a product called Novus 2 plastic polish. It may help bring the sheen back. If it gets too shiny, use #0000 steel wool soaked in mineral oil gently to buff the sheen down. Good luck!

  10. Martin
    Posted November 4, 2016 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Posted November 4, 2016 at 5:06 am | Permalink
    Hi
    I have a brand new solid oak table which I foolishly scrubbed at to remove a mark. There’s now an apple sized dull patch where the sheen has been removed. I have tried spraying with furniture polish which appears to work only for the dullness to return once the polish dries out. I don’t want to strip the whole table as its brand new and it just has this one dull patch. Will Osmo oil soak in to restore the sheen or is there another solution?

  11. norm
    Posted May 19, 2017 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I have a 125 year old dark oak piano stool that I’ve just restored with Howard’s Restor-a-finish. It looks good so far and the worn areas look better than the stool I just finished with Danish Oil. I haven’t used their Feed-n-wax, and didn’t see it at the hardware store. I usually use Old English for the final. Would that work with the Howard’s?

    • Austin
      Posted June 12, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m really no expert with Restor-A-Finish as it’s not a product I’ve had luck with. Most Old English products do not provide much long-term protection, though I do use their Almond Oil on oiled pieces periodically. I do believe Howard’s recommends using Feed ‘N Wax after using Restor-A-Finish.

  12. L's Refined Refind
    Posted May 31, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I have used Howard’s RAF on quite a few projects with great success. I currently have a walnut dresser that it worked wonders on it – even a very crackly crumbly finish around the mirror frame. However, the top surface had some places that had very little original finish remaining and a large cloudy area. With a lot of back and forth with the steel wool, portions are looking very good and all is looking improved. What I’m wondering is if I could use a little stain (what type?) either before or mixed with another application of RAF to get a more uniform color and finish. Any idea of possible results? That has been the thing I’ve found lacking is the absorption of color – sometimes only in a spot or two. Suggestions welcomed!

    Also – I have regularly used Feed N Wax and now tried Citrus Wax with very good results. Both do have a bit of an oily residue which disappears quickly.

  13. John Mathias
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I have a solid wood head board – footboard that has some scratches mostly on the footboard . The problem is the person I got it from used a lot of perfume and smoked! The bed smells BAD! What would you recommend to fix the minors scratches and to seal out the smell. Thank you for your time!

  14. Phil
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I need to redo an entire house of wood trim, windows and solid wood doors. All are in good shape. What product
    would be best to just make look new again without compromising the finish or future care of the soon.
    Restore a finish with feed n wax, watco rejuvenating oil or danish oil?
    Thank you

  15. Vera
    Posted August 7, 2019 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Can I use this product on my entry door on the outside? It is made of solid mahogany sections.

  16. Marian Fuentes
    Posted June 17, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I have kitchen cabinets left over from another house that are a mahogany color and I would like them very dark gray or black. Is there anything I can use over them to do this without stripping. Restore a finish, water based oil modified polyurethane with tint?

    Thanks so much, Marian

  17. Valerie
    Posted August 18, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I used Howard’s Restor A Finish. It worked good but it was not the color I wanted. Do you know how I remove this product from my dinner oak table?

  18. david schwartz
    Posted August 28, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Hi Austin, i just picked up a old Curio cabinet with glass inserts, and used Howards restore a finish , and like you said it worked fairly well I’m going to try the feed and wax to see how it works, but just in case i might like to remove the Howards stuff and use a Varathane to get a hard gloss finish, how hard is it to remove the Howards stuff
    Thanks
    dave

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