Restoring Cabinet Finish

One of the most common questions we get regards procedures and products for restoring the finish on old cabinets. The material below shows what can be done, without stripping the original finish, and discusses products used to do the job. (At the end I have added a brief note on total stripping/refinishing, as I have done it).


National Parlor Cabinet Restoration

Here is the National Parlor Treadle I found recently. The "resident" head was a National Occidant badge name. Fortunately, this machine was identical to the Improved Belvedere badge named National that belonged to Mrs. Captain's Aunt Martha. We had the Improved Belvedere head, but no cabinet, as the treadle cabinet was thrown away when it was electrified. Hopefully, the pictures will give a good idea of what about 2 hours with Murphy's Soap, Old English, and Howards products can do.

Cabinet before. Note severe scratching… there is far more you can't see. Note fading and total flaky drying out in lower right third.

Cabinet after treatment. Most of the scratches don't show, and most of the fading in the lower third have filled in. Color is darker, but more even.


Before again, with the Occidant head in place. This head is not as good as it looks here. There is rust, just visible, on the slide plates, and fairly severely on the end plate and wheel edge. Entire machine is covered with a hardened yellow oil coat.

Corner view of after.

In place in the sewing room

Close up of the "new" Improved Belvedere head… Ann's Aunt Martha's old machine, purchased in 1920 from Lord's Department Store (later Lord and Taylor's). It was electrified and put in a new non-treadle cabinet in 1923.

Head lowering… note that the hinging is at the right, not in back. I have never encountered this arrangement before, but it makes sense in terms of keeping the parlor cabinet as narrow as possible. Also note that the raising/lowering supports are steel bars… a nice feature considering we just heard about a support cable snapping.

Here is the head completely lowered, hanging like a bat in Carlsbad Caverns


 Several of you asked for more detail on what I did with the National cabinet... here it is:

Step 1: dilute Murphy's Oil Soap per instructions, wet cloth, not too sloppy, and very gently scrub entire cabinet, watching for loose veneer, etc. Be careful not to let real water run anywhere it shouldn't. This step doesn't look like it does a lot. In fact, it may appear to dull the finish, but actually, it is washing off the simple dirt layer that prevents the later oil applications from sinking in. Wipe dry when done. (You are gong to need a lot of soft clean cloths here...)

Step 2. Put a generous amount of Old English Scratch Remover on cloth and wipe and rub into entire cabinet surface. Old English comes dark and light. I used dark, but if I had had light, I would have mixed them, hoping for a little lighter finish. However, the dark finish does help hide blemishes better. After letting the Old English work, wipe off. More cloths...

Step 3: Repeat the Old English procedure, but with Howard's Restore-a-Finish... Golden Oak. Around here it is available almost universally in antique stores and malls. This is really a diluted stripper... you apply it and rub, again gently (unless a particular area seems to call for harder... you get a feel for it) with medium steel wool. What is happening is that the diluted stripper is gently melting the finish edges around the scratches and holes and smoothing things out. You don't want to leave this on too long. Your aim here is not to strip the finish but to restore it. I apply, rub, whistle a couple of tunes, and then wipe off. More cloths... Study the situation and you may want to repeat this step.

Step 4: After wiping entire cabinet, squeeze Howards Orange Feed and Wax onto cloth and begin rubbing this all over. Allow to set for awhile... maybe 20 minutes, then wipe off, and then buff. Again, study the situation and see if you might want to do this again.

Step 5: When you stop, the cabinet will look beautiful. Over the next few days, the wood will absorb the oils and some of the scratches will show up again, but not as badly. You will want to repeat Step 4 in a week, then again two weeks after that, then maybe every month or 6 weeks for awhile. After that, just use a good furniture polish... I like Old English. If you continue this care on a regular basis over a period of approximately 50 years, you will achieve a rich, deep, lustrous finish much like what Grandma could have if she hadn't been so busy…

(Note: Howards has a scratch remover and also Howard's Orange Oil Polish. I'm sure these are as good as the Old English products if you prefer to stick to one line of stuff. In truth, I probably use the Old English because it's what my mother had me use on the furniture in our house when I was a kid… one whiff of it and I'm back in the old house, polishing the folding leaf coffee table. Also, the Howard's Restore-a-Finish comes in walnut and mahogany, so there is a choice of color available, and I'm sure you can blend it.)

Dick Wightman

Total Refinishing

I feel that there are many books and instructions on this, and most are good. However, I have had requests to include a brief word here.

I have only stripped one cabinet. It was too far gone to just restore. It had been outdoors for years on a porch and had started to "silver out". This was a Model 40 Queene Anne cabinet in burled walnut and was worth a lot of work to save. I stripped it using Formby's stripper.

First I disassembled the entire cabinet… every piece. Then I painted the Formby's on with a brush, allowed it to work for perhaps 10 to 20 minutes, then using steel wool and rough work rags and a hose with a gentle stream of water, wiped it off. It took several applications to get all the old finish off. One wants to be very careful when using water on veneer, but in this case, I felt I had the situation under control and got away with it. If the veneer had been questionable at all, I would have used dampened rags rather than the hose.

Once I had all the finish off, I smoothed using fine steel wool. As best I recall, I didn't use sandpaper, or if I did, I used only very fine and that very sparingly.

For refinishing, I didn't use a stain, as the walnut had come out pretty good. I used tung oil as the finish, and it did a fine, fine job. I don't care for varnish finishes, they often end up looking too thick and/or too shiny. The old cabinets seem to me to look best oil finished.

This cabinet was smooth. If you were doing an old treadle, with pressed in or glued on carving, you would need to do a lot of work with tooth brushes. You would also need to be really careful with the water, as the old hide glues were water soluble.

This isn't much on this subject, but again, I haven't done it much, as I favor restoring the original finish, and I feel that the instructions you get with the better refinishing products are pretty good. I believe the better woodworking stores may have rentable videos on refinishing, too.

Hope this helps a bit. Don't have any "before" pictures of this job, but here are some afters:

 Captain Dick


Here is a picture of another "save" possibility, (with thanks to Gail Richter in NE Wisconsin… her husband did the work) Here the top layer of veneer was too damaged to save, and was removed. Underneath was a smooth piece of wood, which was simply refinished. I have lifted some veneer and found smooth wood, in other cases rough pieces assembled under the veneer. However, this is an alternative worth pursuing. Also, while actual veneering can be a touchy job, don't overlook taking the veneer off and replacing it with a layer of door skin, 1/8" plywood. It's thicker, but if a working treadle that looks good is what you're after, that is another possibility. I have also seen formica used effectively.

Dick Wightman