Please Tell Me About Finishes - Why is My Mom's Stuff so Awesome?

lulusongJanuary 7, 2013

My mom gave me a 20+ year old coffee table. It's got pretty veneers on top and the rest is solid wood. The thing is, I never use coasters on it and slide around dessert plates on it. AND YET, it is pristine! Well, I can see there are some scratches in it, but you have to angle your head. And anyway, it still looks brand new. Shiny, beautiful.

In contrast, I have a Crate & Barrel coffee table. It does not look new. The color has dulled since I bought it. And every scratch shows. the stain on top is very dark, and the wood underneath is lighter...so the fact that scratches show up makes sense.

But why doesn't the scratches in my mom's old table go need enough to show the underlying wood? And how do I find quality furniture like this myself? Do I need to look for a certain kind of finish? Or is it the technique with which the finish is applied?

Would love your thoughts on this.

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HandyMac

If the finish on your Mom's table is actually floor finish(factory applied) or epoxy, that would explain the durability.

As for Crate and Barrel---probably lacquer---that is fast and easy, but has zero long term protection properties.

As for finding quality furniture, define quality. I have built some oak ply desks/headboards/dressers that will out last me. They do the job well, but are not exactly 'In Fashion'.

    Bookmark   January 7, 2013 at 11:51PM
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lulusong

Thanks handyman. I just looked on my mom's table. It's "Henkel Harris" -- are you familiar with this brand and what kind of finish they use?

Is "floor finish" the industry term I should be using?

    Bookmark   January 8, 2013 at 7:30PM
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bobismyuncle

Henkel Harris is (or was, they're closing) a high-end furniture manufacturer. The difference is quality goods made is USA vs. goods at a price point made in Asia.

I'll bet the Henkel Harris also has lacquer on it. But it also has a fine finish made in multiple steps, not a colored lacquer (toner / shader) sprayed on once or twice. When the lacquer comes off or gets scratched, so does the color with it.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2013 at 7:47PM
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brickeyee

"My mom gave me a 20+ year old coffee table. It's got pretty veneers on top and the rest is solid wood. The thing is, I never use coasters on it and slide around dessert plates on it. AND YET, it is pristine! Well, I can see there are some scratches in it, but you have to angle your head. And anyway, it still looks brand new. Shiny, beautiful. "

Sounds like varnish.

It can forms a very hard film that is impervious to most routine damage.

It fell out of favor since it has a long drying time compared to lacquer (many hours compared to a few minutes to dust free for lacquer).

Most of the old varnishes are no longer made due to the tight VOC rules.
Polyurethane finishes are the 'new' varnish.

Behlans still makes Rock Hard Table Top varnish, but you may not be be to even purchase it in your area depending on state VOC rules.

It is also takes some practice, skill, and VERY good brushes to apply it.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2013 at 2:07PM
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tuesday_2008

As other responders have said, it basically boils down to quality manufacturers and the finish process they used. In the newer stuff we get today, you might find a one or two step finish.

Just to show you an example of good quality older pieces, I am attaching a link to another GW poster who has been furnishing his home with vintage and antique pieces. The one I am linking refers to Hinkel Harris and Stickley chairs. He also bought an awesome Stickley table for his DR. As you can see the finish is immaculate.

Hang on to your mom's coffee table.

Here is a link that might be useful: Kevin's post on chair selection

    Bookmark   January 9, 2013 at 2:38PM
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lulusong

Great advice. Thanks all!

To get a bit more specific, what kind of questions should I ask to find out if a piece is a gem like my mom's Henkel Harris? Should I ask if it's a "two-step process" or ask if it's "varnished"?

I know with sofas, for example, if I'm looking for quality, I might ask if it has "8-way hand tied springs" and "kiln dried hardwood." Similarly, what are the cues/industry terms I should use to ascertain wood finish quality?

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 2:02PM
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camlan

I'm not sure of the exact terms you should be looking for.

But you can ask if the stain and finish are done in the same step. Older or more quality furniture is stained and then a finish is applied in a separate step. So the finish can get scratched, but the scratches aren't as noticeable.

Lots of modern furniture gets finished with a product that has both the stain and the finish in it. Scratch the finish; scratch the stain. So scratches show up in the wood's natural color.

Or, the finish coat is very, very thin, and the finish itself isn't very durable, so scratches easily get down past the stain layer and show up easily.

Different finishes have different qualities. You have to consider your needs and what will be happening to the furniture. Are you more concerned with scratches or water rings, for example.

I've linked to a chart that shows many common finishes and their pros and cons.

Here is a link that might be useful: furniture finishes

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 2:16PM
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lulusong

Thank you camlan!

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 8:06PM
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brickeyee

"20+ year old" H-H is most likely lacquer.

Get some lacquer thinner and test on the underside in a corner.

If it gets sticky it is likely lacquer.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2013 at 10:26AM
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bobismyuncle

I repair close to 1000 pieces of furniture a year. It varies from Ashley at the low end to Widdecomb/Henkle Harris at the high end, and everything in between. In the last 10 years, I remember seeing 3 pieces of furniture that wasn't lacquer (or shellac).

If it's more than 100 years old, it's probably shellac since lacquer was developed after WW I. Shellac declined in production use over the next couple of decades. Unless it was custom finished by uncle Fred in his workshop, or a craftsman made custom piece like a wood countertop or one-off piece, it's probably not varnish.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2013 at 6:55PM
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