Refinishing Old Church Pews

Thoughts on how to figure out what the original finish is on some church pews, and refinish with a compatible formula. February 13, 2009

I have an opportunity to repair and finish 100 solid oak church pews, in collaboration with a colleague who will sub the work out to me. They are mostly 12 feet long, free-standing, as shown in the image below. End caps have some carving and fussy delicate turning that trims out the panel on these. Overall the repair work is bread-and-butter and within my area of comfort. The finishing will be a challenge, and I'll be bringing someone on board just to spray these pews. Because the finish on the seats and backs is in good shape, and the ends have a nice patina, it's been decided that top-coating is preferable to a complete stripping and refinishing. It's assumed to be the original finish, probably good varnish, maybe spar varnish.

I need some help deciding on the best finish that will be both efficient for such a large project, and long-term durable without any chance of failure. I do have an end panel to experiment on. Can I scuff and top-coat with lacquer, which would be efficient and quick-drying? Or would a good conventional varnish be safer to bond to the existing finish for long-term results? Logistically, the plan is likely to be to work on batches of 10-at-a-time on a one or two-week cycle. Transporting them from the church and back to the shop is a really big part of the workload, but it's the finishing that has to be without any glitch or potential failure down the road. Any advice will be appreciated.



Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor D:
We've done this type of project a few times. I don't think lacquer over varnish is a good choice - poor adhesion. Scuff, color, and recoat with varnish. We've done it with a wiping varnish, which worked quite well.

From contributor C:
Lacquer is a very bad idea. The wiping varnish that contributor D recommends is fine (and easy for learning finishers) but use about three times as many coats as you would with a spray or brush varnish because the build is much thinner and that affects durability. A 2k urethane would be even better but much more expensive and complicated.

From contributor B:
I agree with the varnish re-coat, but disagree with the 2k urethane coating because it's on top of the old varnish - not a good idea.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
I'd be surprised if the original finish is varnish. If acetone or lacquer thinner makes a spot on the existing finish get soft and sticky, it's not varnish. I also agree that using a wiping varnish (not polyurethane) is a good idea. I'm a fan of Waterlox original for this type of work, though there are a number of other good choices.

Spar varnish is actually softer than interior varnish and isn't often used on furniture. It has a higher oil content which makes it more flexible so it doesn't crack as easily with the expansion and contraction of wood exposed to temperature extremes and direct sunlight. It also contains UV absorbers and blockers to reduce the damage the sun does to the finish and surface of the wood. Spar varnish is not "tougher" than interior varnish.

From contributor R:
My vote goes for a nice de-waxed orange shellac.