QUESTION: I picked up an old bedroom bureau at an auction. The auctioneer never actually said it was an antique, but he did say it was very old. The finish on it appears to be in good condition except it is quite dirty. When I asked what the finish was, the man said it undoubtedly was varnish, but he couldn't be sure. Regardless of what the finish is, can I remove it and put on a new finish without harming the bureau?
ANSWER: You should be able to refinish the bureau without hurting it in any way, but it sounds as though only a cleaning may be in order. Try wiping the bureau with denatured alcohol. Try it on a small section first and, if it seems to be doing the job all right, go ahead with the rest of the piece. If the finish is varnish or lacquer, the alcohol will clean it well.
If the finish is shellac, the alcohol may cut into it a bit, but you still will be able to refinish the bureau with varnish. Should you desire to apply a lacquer finish, you are better off to remove all the old finish, apply a coat of lacquer thinner and then a final coat of lacquer.