A professional furniture restorer shares her secrets on making repairs that last.
Crystal Dvorak has been fixing, creating, restoring, and upcycling furniture for more than 20 years. The owner of Urban Patina in Shakopee, MN, she’s seen every problem a piece of furniture can have. And she’s fixed them. These are some of her tried-and-true techniques for repairs that stand the test of time.
Loose Rungs on Your Chairs
After years of being pushed and pulled to and from the dinner table, chairs can suffer from their wooden joints coming loose. The first casualties are often rungs popping out of the legs. “This happens even more frequently with new furniture that’s not constructed as solidly as older furniture,” Dvorak says.
Those loose rungs need to be re-glued. First, remove the old glue. “Sand the end of the rung clean, down to the wood,” Dvorak says. “Then use a syringe to insert wood glue into the opening in the leg. A syringe lets you get the glue right where it’s needed without having to completely remove the rung.” Then insert the rung and clamp the chair tight until the glue is dry. “Keep in mind that not all wood glues perform the same,” she says. “I’ve tried almost every wood glue out there, and I use Titebond III. I buy it by the gallon.”
Few things are more unnerving than sitting on a wobbly chair. If gluing loose rungs and tightening the hardware doesn’t work, then add right-angle corner braces. You can buy the braces at hardware and home improvement stores for just a couple bucks for a four pack. Make sure to buy the paintable kind if you want to paint the braces to match the chair.
“Add a brace where each leg meets the seat. You may have to bend the brace a little so it’s flush against the chair leg — you don’t want a gap between the brace and the leg,” she says. “Be sure to drill pilot holes before inserting the screws through the brace. That’ll keep the wood from splitting.”
Pieces Coming Apart at the Seams
If furniture starts to separate at the seams where two pieces of wood come together, a simple solution is to add flat corner braces, which are available at hardware and home centers for less than a dollar each. This eliminates having to drive screws through the seam in the hopes of pulling the gap closed. Add the brace in an inconspicuous location, like the back of the piece. “Place the bracket over the joint where the wood is the thickest so you get the most bite with your screws,” Dvorak advises. “Use clamps to pull the seam tight, then drill pilot holes through the bracket, drive in your screws, and you’re done.”
“When people drag furniture instead of picking it up to move it, they put a lot of pressure on the leg and can cause it to come off,” Dvorak says. Some people compound the problem by trying to drive several screws through the furniture into the leg to secure it. That causes more problems by splitting the wood.
Instead, Dvorak sands the part of the leg that faces the furniture to allow the glue to form a stronger bond. Then she applies wood glue and clamps the leg firmly in place. “You also have to use fasteners. You have to pre-drill to keep the wood from splitting, then drive two screws that give you at least two inches of bite into the leg.” Countersink the screws, fill the holes with wood filler, sand the area smooth, and apply a finish.
Broken Drawer Corners
Dresser drawers are usually made of thin, flimsy pieces of lumber, and the dovetail corners are notorious for coming apart. “I get a lot of dressers where people tried to pin the corners with brad nails,” Dvorak says. “That doesn’t work. The wood is too thin to nail, and pinning it cracks or breaks the wood, making it even harder for the joints to go together. Plus the nails usually end up coming through the wood at an angle and are then poking into your drawer.”
The best fix starts with removing any nails from the corners. Then gently take the corner the rest of the way apart and sand away any remaining old glue. Apply wood glue, reassemble the corner and clamp the drawer until the glue dries. “If the drawer is sticking, apply beeswax along the bottom rail to help it glide,” she says.
A Veneer That’s Seen Better Days
Most furniture has a veneer covering. Even dressers, tables, and desks made from real wood probably also have veneers. Over time, the veneer can come loose from the underlying wood surface or chip off.
“When it’s lifting, first clean out any debris between the veneer and the surface underneath,” Dvorak says. “Use your syringe to squirt some wood glue under the veneer, then press the veneer down. Place a wood scrap or shim over the veneer and clamp it down. The scrap piece of wood keeps the clamp from damaging the veneer and applies even pressure. If there’s nothing to clamp to, place wood over the veneer and weigh it down with paint cans or something heavy.”
If the veneer has chips missing, fill the area with a wood filler such as DAP Wood Filler if you plan on applying a paint or stain finish. Make sure the filler can be painted or stained. “Otherwise, you’ll need to replace the damaged veneer,” Dvorak points out. “You’ll need a veneer that’s the same species and has the same wood grain as what you have now, then play the mix-and-match color game to find a stain that is a very close match to your current finish.”
When one leg on a table or desk is shorter than the others (or maybe your floor is a little wavy), then the furniture will rock up and down. Luckily, this is one of the easiest furniture problems to solve — and it doesn’t involve sticking matchbooks under the table legs. Dvorak recommends that you fasten nail-on glides to the ends of the legs. The glides are basically cushions attached to a nail that you stick in a leg. They’re designed to keep the legs from scuffing the floor, but they can also be used to level a table. The glides cost about two dollars for a four-pack.
Measure the gap between the short leg and the floor. Next, drill a pilot hole and insert a glide in the three non-problem legs. “Use washers to shim the last one,” Dvorak says. “Place washers over the last leg to get the thickness you need, then insert the glide.”
When the screw holes in wooden handles are stripped, you won’t be able to tighten the handle no matter how hard you try. You’ll need to fill the holes with wood putty so the screws have something to bite into. “Make sure the label on the putty says it’s drillable,” Dvorak says. “They’re not all the same, and some won’t take well to drilling.”
Once the putty is dry, drill a pilot hole and reattach the handle using a screw. “You don’t want to use a nail,” she says. “A nail won’t hold the way a screw does.”
Those Pesky Scratches
Dvorak says she doesn’t use wood markers or fillers to fill in scratches because the process involves a lot of trial and error to get the right match, and despite all the choices available, it can be nearly impossible to get the perfect color. Instead, she prefers a paste finishing wax that starts at six bucks a 1 lb. can at hardware and home centers. “You can use a clear wax or one that’s close to the color of the furniture,” she says. “You can buff out minor scratches and make the surface smooth without having to worry about color matching.”
Deep Surface Damage
Sometimes, as with water damage or burns on the surface, the problem is too severe to buff out. “There is no quick and easy fix for this,” Dvorak says. “To do it right, you have to refinish the piece.” This entails stripping off the finish and sanding the surface, then applying the new finish. “It takes time, but you’ll end up with a quality surface,” she says.
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