Refinish, restore or conserve?
Aunt Tilly finally decided to give you that old dining room set you always loved, but countless family get-togethers have taken their toll. Or maybe you spotted a great antique credenza at a secondhand store, and its worn-out, scratched finish has you thinking twice. There are many reasons for refinishing older and antique furnishings.

Whatever they are, there's no doubt refinishing or restoration can be an environmentally friendly and economical way to give older tables, chairs, chests and sideboards a new lease on life. But before you call up your neighborhood furniture refinisher, you'll want to consider what type of refinishing needs to be done, especially if you are worried about resale value.

For example, the chemicals and oils used to finish 18th- and 19th-century furniture aren't used today, and stripping away an original finish will not only diminish value, but replacing it with a new finish will result in furniture that looks more like an antique reproduction than an antique.

But quality refinishing jobs aren't cheap; at times, they can cost more than a piece of furniture is worth. So how do you determine whether it's worth doing?

Start with a photograph. Most antiques dealers realize that an educated public is good for business and don't mind offering a little free advice.

"If you take a photograph to reputable antiques dealers, chances are, if they are familiar with the type of piece you have, the owners will let you know if it is of any real value or not," says Philip Dubey of Dubey's Antiques in Baltimore.

Antiques professionals and credible refinishing and restoration professionals can also assess whether a piece is worth refinishing.

"I wouldn't recommend improving a $500 sideboard for $1,000 to create a $1,000 sideboard," says Dubey. "Of course, that is only if you are considering value. If it is a sentimental piece, that throws economics out the window."

Determining whether or not a piece is worth improving goes hand-in-hand with the type of work that needs to be done. According to David Duggan, owner of David Duggan Antique Furniture Conservation and Restoration Services, there are three categories of work that can be done to rejuvenate old furniture: refinishing, restoration and conservation.

"Conservation involves the preservation of original material in its current condition. The primary goal is to stabilize the piece and preserve the finish, surface, structure and design," says Duggan. "If you have a piece of furniture where the joints are damaged — for example, a tenon is in pieces, or a dovetail is split — that threatens the stability of the object, and you have to rebuild the joint in the original manner."

Restoration takes conservation a step farther, includes repair and remanufacturing of broken pieces, veneers and carvings, and is typically reserved for quality antiques or family heirlooms with a monetary or sentimental value that would be improved by the work.

"A good restoration," says Duggan, "adds new material to an object to make it complete and as close to its original condition as intended by the maker. New parts are made by studying what remains of the original object and copying the original measurements and tool techniques to match the character of the original object."

Conservation and restoration both seek to maintain the original finish.

"Older finishes are renewable," says Jim Adajian of Adajian & Nelson, which offers antique repairs and restoration. "Restoring an original finish involves cleaning and renewing it to take away water stains or surface scuffs, but won't take the finish off down to bare wood."

For 20th-century furniture, or older pieces that were refinished within the last 75 years, refinishing is probably the way to go.

"Twentieth-century finishes like lacquer and polyurethane are not renewable; those finishes will degrade and will need to be refinished," says Adajian.

Refinishing involves stripping away the existing finish, preparing the bare wood, staining the piece, if desired, and adding several layers of new finish.

"For antiques, it is a treatment of last resort," says Duggan, "because not only are you adding a new finish, you will not be able to preserve any of the finish that was there before. You're also destroying the patina, texture and appearance of the old wood, and those elements are very valuable and impossible to recover."

For newer furniture, however, refinishing is a great way to get good furniture for much less than it would cost to buy similar quality new.

"I can refinish older furniture for one-third the cost of buying new, and what you are going to get is a much better-built piece of furniture, constructed with better wood, with great details like inlays," says Jeff Levy, owner of Cadden Furniture.

"I could probably refinish a table and six chairs for $2,500 to $3,000 for the set. But purchased new, a decent mahogany dining set can easily be $6,000 to $9,000 for real wood with quality construction," says Levy.

Restoring an existing antique finish can sometimes be even less expensive than refinishing, with the added bonus of preserving the market value of the antique.

If the furniture isn't really damaged AND just has a poor finish, "restoring an existing finish on a typical mahogany dining table with two pedestals and two leaves could run anywhere between $1,200 to $2,000," says Adajian. "Refinishing the same piece with a high-quality renewable finish might be $1,500 to $3,000.

"Sometimes, even if a piece isn't of great antique value, but of good quality and of sentimental value, you might consider an improved finish with something like a French polish that is renewable and easier to maintain in the future," says Adajian.

Especially if Aunt Tilly is now expecting you to host the holiday gatherings.

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@chesapeakehome.com.