Refinishing Church Pews

Advice on cleaning and refinishing church pews using the original finish (probably a nitrocellulose lacquer). August 21, 2012

The church my wife grew up in is an approximately 100-year-old building with pews the same age. The pews are white oak with an old finish that is faded and very dry. A work day has been scheduled for early March and I have been asked to recommend what to oil the pews with. What is the best thing to put on these pews? The work day is set for a Saturday and I am thinking it might be better to do the pews on a Monday or Tuesday to allow them to dry before the Sunday bests are used to shine the finish. Would something like Old English oil be good? Because I have a sawmill, I am the expert, but know very little about finishing.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
First of all, if you oil the wood with BLO, or the like, it will take several days to weeks before it will dry. Secondly, one coat will not do the trick. Old wood will suck up finish like you won't believe. Thirdly, prepping the work will take many days of sanding through any old finish and smoothing and leveling the wood for finishing. You didn't mention how many pieces there were and how big they are. My suggestion is to set up staging and prep areas for cleaning, sanding, oiling and drying. My guess with old wood would be 2-3 coats of oil, or oil/varnish mix, and 3-5 weeks (allowing for drying between coats) to complete the work. With old wood, you need to respect and cherish it and do it right.

From contributor M:
Forget the oil unless you want to be strung up by every church lady after they discover they have oil stains on their best Sunday go-to-meeting duds. We normally charge from $850-$2200 per pew depending upon its length and detail to strip and refinish. That will tell you the work that you would be in for if you did them the right way. Yes, I know this is Church, and you can not charge them, and they don't have the money anyway! As nice as they are about you spending your labor, it still has to be done right. If not, you will get to redo the job in the future. With that said, do not oil them!

100 year old pews were most likely finished with a nitrocellulose lac (since about 1900). Providing that the finish is not too far gone, do a clean and re-coat. First, number the pews to their location (old churches do not have level floors). Have one crew bring them outside and have one person scrape off the gum. Two guys need to scrub them down with naphtha and another crew lightly 280 and scotchbrite. You get to spray on two coats of a pre-cat vinyl sealer. Have your next crew 280 and scotchbrite the sealer after it dries. Show someone how to touch up the bad spots, then you get to final them with two coats of pre-cat lac or, even better, a CV. With the right crew, dry weather and a weekend, you should be able to knock out 50 to 75 pews. Lots of work, not a lot of material cost, done the right way, and you do not get the fun of walking out of church and seeing oil stains on all of those white dresses!

From contributor S:
If you want to keep it easy, test out Restor-a-finish.

From contributor D:
Clean and recoat is the way to go. Do not oil and do not use Old English. A simple C&R is 22O scuff, wipe down with naphtha. Apply a coat of SealCoat (shellac). When that's dry, give it a quick scuff, and apply a coat of wiping varnish (mix a good poly 50/50 with mineral spirits). You can do it all in one day, and you can do it in place. Just be sure to ventilate.