Even furniture that looks like a hopeless case can be reclaimed by dissolving the cracked shellac surface with denatured alcohol. Be sure to test the piece first. Identify finish type. Most furniture made prior to 1920 had a protective shellac finish. Over time, shellac darkens, cracks and needs to be removed. Chemical strippers may be too harsh for this project, so use denatured alcohol instead. It soaks into the shellac and dissolves the finish so it can be wiped off. Note: this technique will not affect polyurethane, which forms a plastic-like coating that must be sanded off. Old varnish or shellac can be identified by a black crackled finish. Crackling occurs with age and changes in temperature. Polyurethane does not deteriorate this way.
Begin the process of stripping down the surface by placing plenty of newspapers down to protect the floor from drips and spills. Wear rubber gloves and keep an extra pair handy in case the original ones get too sticky from the dissolved shellac. Be sure to be working in a well-ventilated area. Remove any drawers or doors and refinish them separately. Unscrew all fixtures, knobs, and hinges, Refinish them if needed.
Always work on a horizontal plane. Pour a healthy amount of denatured alcohol over the surface. Use paper towels to gently spread alcohol around. Wait several minutes for the alcohol to penetrate the finish. Wipe off alcohol and dissolved finish with paper towels. Apply more alcohol as necessary for stubborn areas. A soft brush is helpful for removing tough spots. Make sure the color is even. Repeat the same process for the faces of the drawers. Stand the drawers on end so that the drawer faces are horizontal. Do this for the front and sides of the furniture as well.
Once all of the old finish is removed from the furniture, use a solution of water and a mild detergent to wash off all the treated surfaces and make sure they are clean. Dry off the surfaces with a clean cloth. If desired, restain the surface with fine steel wool to smooth out the grain. Then use a small brush or a clean cloth to remove the last bits of steel wool from the wood.
Apply several layers of antique oil finish to surface of the wood, following manufacturer’s directions. Pour out a small amount of oil to work with and spread each layer of oil evenly over the surface of the wood with a clean, lint-free cloth. With the exception of the last coat of oil, lightly buff the surface of the furniture with steel wool after each coat of oil dries.
Removing the old finish before fixing any dents, scratches or loose fixtures. But take care not to repair the surface so much that it loses to fine, aged character and individuality. Fix and polish broken or tarnished fixtures, or replace them with reproductions to complete the revival.
Before restoring make certain the furniture is in good structural condition. If there are any matching pieces, give them the same treatment. Even furniture that includes small relief detail can be smoothly restored with the aid of a brush. To remove the old finish from hard-to-reach surfaces, use a soft toothbrush. It fits easily into tiny nooks and crannies. Let the alcohol penetrate well to dissolve the finish.