Top Five Restoration Tips - Salvage Hunters: The Restorers

One of the things, for me, that is most satisfying about making a house a home is the idea of recycling and perpetuating pre loved furniture.  Around 90 percent of my home is thrifted, upcycled or recycled and it’s something that I’m really passionate about.  Most vintage furniture was solidly made, with dovetailed joints and quality materials – made to last, made to be practical and made to be loved.


One of my favourite buys was a £5 sideboard from Gumtree that arrived in a very sad condition.  The glass fronted doors had been updated with plastic edging and the legs had been painted.  The piece itself was solid, so I cleaned it up, removed the edging and stripped the legs.  I wallpapered the inside as it was stained with age, which immediately transformed it into a cool, contemporary piece for my home - it’s current position is the focal point of my hall. 

I’ve always loved looking for items that are restorable for my home.  So when I was asked to talk about a new programme for TV channel Quest called Salvage Hunters:  The Restorers, I jumped at the chance.

A spin off from the hugely popular show Salvage Hunters, the brand new series, Salvage Hunters: The Restorers, concentrates on the team behind the scenes.  In each episode, Drew Pritchard will be handing over the neglected items to Rebecca who oversees the expert team, whilst also delving into the rich history of each piece.  She’ll be exploring how each item was originally made, where the material came from and why it became the must have item of its time.


One of the team is Alex Webster, an Antique Restorer, French Polisher and Cabinet Maker who was born and raised in Colwyn Bay.  After working for his father during school holidays in his restoration business from the age of 14, he set up his own business, The Emporium, seventeen years ago.  He works with antiques dealers, clients and interior designers across the country, as well as National Trust properties, historic houses and estates, Hotels and restaurants.

One of the aspects of the job that Alex enjoys the most is turning neglected pieces back to their former glory in a sympathetic way that looks like they have always been cared for.  He works on all sorts of pieces, from an easy repair to individual pieces from the 15th century including Chippendale – he’s worked on pieces worth more than £50,000.  No pressure!

So I thought it was worth asking Alex for his Top Five Tips for restoring an unloved piece of furniture to its former glory.  These are all common issues with old and vintage furniture.


Tip Number 1:  How to remove white water marks from a French polished top

When liquid is left to sit on a polished surface too long it will sink into the finish. The bottom of a hot cup will do the same with heat softening the polish and then trapping moisture inside as it cools. Removing this is often simple.

To start, you will need an extra fine 0000 grade wire wool. Make a tennis ball size pad with a ball of the wire wool, start rubbing gently with the grain of the wood and then increase the pressure until it starts to disappear. Be careful that you don't go right through the finish down to the bare timber below, because if this happens it's time to call a professional. Once the stain has gone, continue over the whole area to ensure a uniform appearance. This should leave your top clean, watermark free but with a matt finish. Bringing back the shine can be achieved by using a good quality beeswax. Use a colour that matches your furniture, apply with a soft cloth and then buff off for a shine. This can be repeated until the desired shine is achieved.

A cheeky tip if you have a highly polished piece of furniture... a higher shine can be achieved by using a soft cloth and a metal polish such as Brasso or t cut. Apply to a soft cloth so that the cloth feels damp with the polish, not wet, and concentrate on small areas at a time, buffing small areas then going over with a clean cloth, like you would with the wax. As with all restoration methods, always try on a small discreet area first to ensure the method works on the individual piece. 


Tip Number 2:  Removing the grime off the bottom of kitchen table legs, or re-colouring them if they have lost their colour due to cleaning / bleaching the floor

It's common to get a build-up of grime on furniture legs and so a gentle solution for removing this stubborn problem in needed. This can be difficult to remove, but an extra fine 0000 grade wire wool and some white spirits will break this down and make it easy to remove.

Just pour a small amount on to your small ball of wire wool and rub the area gently until it starts to remove. Particularly large pieces may take some time if they need going over completely. Keep changing your wire wool for a new piece to ensure the grime is removed. The white spirit can sink into the grain of the wood and appear darker – allow this to dry and it will lighten.

Once dry use a clean, dry piece of wire wool to clean over the area to remove any residue. You can then revive any colour that has been lost on the bottom of the legs with a wood dye that matches the colour of the table, and finish with a beeswax to complete the finish. 


Tip Number 3:  Reviving desk and writing box leathers

As with all work surfaces, these can often become worn and dull. A good natural looking shine on a leather makes all the difference. 

For this I use French polish. This comes ready mixed in a bottle but for a finer finish pour some into a pot and add a splash of methalated spirits. About 1 part meths to 4 parts French polish. This just thins it out a touch. Paint a fairly dry coat over your leather and apply quickly. As a rule, try to apply the polish within a couple of minutes of starting because it will start to dry and can leave drag marks with the brush. Repeat this process one hour later and allow to dry overnight. Gently rub again with an extra fine 0000 wire wool to help make the finish uniform and polish with a beeswax to leave the leather looking polished, nourished and rich with an original looking patina. 


Tip Number 4:  Using wax sticks to hide scratches

Wax sticks are available in various sets and colours. These can be used as both a filler for deeper scratches and to hide more minor scratches by using them almost like a crayon. For the deeper scratches, I like to break a small piece off the stick and melt it. This can be done in a spoon over a candle or the hob. This also gives you an opportunity to mix the colours together to get a perfect match.

I then use a small paint brush, dip it into my melted wax and fill the hole. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, and then use a plastic card such as a bank card and gently rub over the area to remove excess wax until completely flush and smooth. Then use a soft cloth or your finger to gently rub the wax until it shines. This will help blend it in with your polished top. 


Tip Number 5:  How to darken a piece of furniture

To darken a piece of furniture it usually needs to be brought down to its bare wood state. This can be done by sanding or by using a varnish stripper or methylated spirit and wire wool, but this is often the most time-consuming part of the darkening process. 

Once stripped, paint a coat of stain over the piece as even as possible, ensuring no brush marks. Use a stain that reflects the shade you desire. The dye should not take long to dry and will then need to be sealed with a neat coat of French polish. Again, paint this on evenly and fairly dry to avoid an excessive tacky looking finish.

If the furniture is still too light you can apply another coat of stain exactly the same way and then apply another coat of French polish to seal. Once happy with the shade of colour add a thinned coat of French polish for a finer finish. This then needs to be left overnight to harden, before using a good dark coloured wax to achieve a softer more natural finish.

Again, be sure to try any of these techniques on a discreet area before tackling the more visible, larger areas. They might not suit your piece and you do not want to cause costly damage. Build your skills and confidence steadily.  

These tips are all easy to undertake at home and well worth a try if you have an item you are looking to restore.  There’s nothing better than being able to bring a preloved piece back to its former glory.

This new series, Salvage Hunters:  The Restorers,  follows the team as they restore a variety of objects, such as a Howard & Son’s sofa and a 1930’s electric light, through to an original Louis Vuitton trunk and a model of the iconic Steamboat Willie.   You can see Drew, Alex and the restoration team at work and see the artisan techniques and skills used to bring forgotten treasures back to life when the series starts this week.

You can watch the new series of Salvage Hunters: The Restorers on Quest at 9.00 pm on Wednesday 4 April 2018 (Freeview 37, Freesat 167) and find out more about the team on the links below.

Facebook @ukquest

Twitter @questtv

This post was produced in conjunction with The Discovery Channel.

Lisa Dawson4 Comments