My husband and I started our family shortly after graduating from university, so there was never really a time when we had extra money for things like interior decorating. Our apartments were decorated with hand-me-down furniture gathered from generous family and friends, and we were totally fine with that.
Years later, with the advent of Freecycle and Craigslist, we gradually started swapping out certain pieces for others that worked better in the spaces we happened to be in at the time. Living off one income in order to home school (in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world) makes you creative when it comes to making a home, so we quickly learned how to restore and repair furniture that nobody else wanted, using our sweat equity to turn other people’s cast-offs into treasured pieces.
This table is one such example. We were thrilled to nab it on Freecycle not long before moving into our current house, as we’d only had small, apartment-sized tables in the past (for our small, apartment-sized homes), and were needing something larger to go in our new dining room. It was covered in layers of chipped, bubbling paint, and some of the leaves were painted different colours, but the pedestal was fantastic. I’m a big fan of shabby-chic (I like to tease my husband that that’s why I chose him), so we lived with it that way for the better part of a decade.
Last year, in a burst of energy, I spent a couple of weeks stripping and restoring the tabletop to it’s original glory, thinking I could always repaint it if the wood was in terrible shape. Luckily, it turned out that all those layers of paint were hiding the most beautiful dark walnut wood underneath (why did anyone ever paint it?!), and the few dings and scratches only added to its rustic charm. I sealed the newly exposed wood with some hemp oil and homemade spoon butter, and it’s now the focal point of our open plan living space.
Also in our dining room, we used to have a glass fronted Ikea cabinet that served us well, but its particle board construction and melamine paint job didn’t contribute much in the way of character or charm, so when I spotted this old wash stand on our local buy/sell, I knew it would look great in that corner. Unfortunately, it had been living in an unheated garage for years, so the wood was slightly water damaged and scratched from having stuff piled on and around it. I originally thought about painting it, but decided to see if I could do anything to make the wood look better before making such a permanent change.
I did some research online, and saw several people talking about using a combination of olive oil and vinegar to clean and restore antique wooden furniture. Ratios varied from 3:1 olive oil to vinegar, to 1:1; seeing as how I would rather save my olive oil for cooking, I went with the latter (vinegar is cheap, after all). I was a little worried that the acidity might do some damage, but figured that if worse came to worse, I could always go back to my original plan of painting it.
It turns out that my fears were totally unfounded. The wood came back to a gorgeous lustre, the water spots and scratches all but disappeared, and the piece ended up looking like something worth ten times what we paid for it!
The oil and vinegar combination did an amazing job of bringing the wood back to life, without taking away that gorgeous antique quality, namely the dark patina in the grooves that furniture restorers use dark wax to replicate. I still plan to move the towel bar to the other side, but for now, it looks great in its new home, and I even get a hit of the hand-painted tile look that’s so popular right now, without having to fire up my tiling saw!
Our next purchase was this old English writing desk, from a farmhouse in Devon (via some neighbors who’d brought it over decades ago). It was in decent shape when we got it, but I gave it a quick wipe down anyway to make it gleam.
Which brings me to my biggest challenge yet. Was my oil and vinegar concoction up to the task?
Since we moved in, our entryway has been the scene of a rotating pile of shoes, helmets, gloves, scarves, backpacks, you name it (teenagers, amiright?). I knew I wanted to replace the coat and shoe rack combination with something that had drawers and doors to hide everything, and was on the lookout for just the right thing. Finally, this gorgeous old hutch was posted as an auction on our buy/sell page, and due to the fact that it had been living outside on someone’s porch, and the doors and drawers had swollen to the point that they would no longer close, we got it for next to nothing.
The hardware was badly corroded, and the wood was extremely scratched up and watermarked, but I wasn’t about to give up hope. Besides, I wasn’t convinced I wanted a heavy piece of wood furniture in such a small space anyway, so if I had to paint it a lighter colour, it might be the best thing in the end.
After a week or two indoors, everything dried out to the point that the doors could fit into their original places again, so I decided to go ahead with the cleanup process. I used apple cider vinegar this time (which is preferable for darker wood), and as it had in the past, my glorified salad dressing worked wonders on the sad, dried out woodwork.
The feet started out worn and absolutely parched, but now they’re close to their original colour.
The oil and vinegar even cleaned up the hardware nicely, removing the worst of the corrosion without stripping away that old world charm.
The wood soaked up the solution…
…and the scratches and water stains are no longer the focal point. They’re not totally gone, but I have no desire to remove all of the character. Part of what I love about old furniture is the story it tells through the wear it sees over the years.
What’s stunning is how much darker and richer the wood looks (though the cell phone photo below washes out the bottom right corner a bit). I love the detail in the carving, and how well the lines match that of the piece in our dining room. It needs a small repair where a piece of trim fell off (see bottom right corner), but that’s a simple fix.
I still feel like it’s a little heavy for the space, but will live with it a while before deciding. I’m typically more a fan of milk painted furniture (I’ve got some projects to show you another time), but this quick and easy restoration method has given me reason to pause before grabbing my paint brush. I find I enjoy the hit of warmth the wood pieces add to our home and I think the combination of the painted and the unpainted wood bring out the best in each other.
If you have some tired looking wood furniture that could use some love, I hope you’ll give this a try. I keep the leftovers in a bottle for occasional touch-ups, but you can dilute it even further (as much as 8:1 or so) with vinegar to use for dusting. Add a few drops of essential oil, if desired.
It just goes to show how far a little elbow grease will go. It’s important to be able to see past any dust and damage, and take in the lines and details. Be patient, keep your eyes open (some of my favourite things had been tossed out as garbage!), and the right thing will come along. Many people will walk away from something in bad shape because they think it’s too much effort, but armed with a little creative thinking (and a couple of pantry staples), you could end up some great deals, and a house that’s not an exact replica of the showroom at your local big box store