Restoring furniture the eco way

Photo: iStockphoto.com/Mona Makela
How to refinish chairs and tables with eco-friendly paint and fabric

The showrooms of most furniture outlets today are stocked with very eco-unfriendly products. That's because most affordable furniture is made using particle board, a product made of wood chips and binding resins, including formaldehyde. Most furniture paints, sealants and wood-like veneers also contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other toxic ingredients. On top of that, many cushions and fabrics contain PVC (also with formaldehyde) or polyurethane (a blend of fluorocarbons, acetone and methylene chloride).

So trying to furnish your house with chairs, tables and sofas that are not harmful to you or your environment can be very difficult, either because the price for solid wood furniture with low (or no) toxins is prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable.

Fortunately, there is a readily available, green way to furnish your home: restoration. Restoring old furniture can be eco-friendly on many levels.

By restoring your furniture, you are:

  • decreasing demand for virgin lumber, helping to save forests
  • reducing by one chair or table the volume of a landfill, and often the carbon emissions from its transfer to a landfill far away
  • improving indoor air quality and the local environment through the use of eco-friendly paints, primers and polishes

Restoring the eco way also jives well with antiquing, as the materials used over 100 years ago at the furniture's inception predate the chemistry of today’s toxic products. Thus, restoring an antique to its original allure and luster is often inherently eco-friendly.

Still, whether restoring a Victorian armoire or repairing a set of dining room chairs picked up at a garage sale, the "eco way" remains the same.

Restoration

Step one in restoring a piece of wood furniture — the most common material for DIY restoration — is removing the existing layer(s) of paint or finish in order to apply a new one. Here, the eco path demands a little elbow grease. The easy way out is to use paint thinner, but thinners are full of toxic fumes, making them easy but not very fun or healthy to work with. Instead, choose sanding. You may have the option of using a small power sander, but given that the woodwork on furniture is typically ornate, especially on table legs or arm rests, expect some hand-sanding and hard work, bearing in mind that the eco-ends justify the means.

Paints and Primers

Once the old finish has been removed, you are ready to refinish. Here, you'll want to ignore most of what is on the shelf at your local hardware or paint store, as these products likely contain VOCs and other toxins. Instead, search around for one of a growing number of eco-friendly alternatives.

Major paint manufacturers like Miller Paint and Benjamin Moore are now manufacturing low-VOC paints by popular demand, which puts alternatives on more and more store shelves. Hardware and building supply stores are also good sources. Rona, for example, sells the Rona Eco collection of 16 premixed low-VOC shades made from 90% leftover paint. And there are also a plethora of independent manufacturers that have led the way in eco-friendly paints and finishes. Often the best way to find out what’s available is to look up the manufacturer (perhaps through a Google search), and then look for retailers in your area.

Bioshield is a popular name in eco-paints. They make paints using raw materials, oils, minerals and other natural materials that are 100% environmentally friendly. That includes milk-based paints, which, when it comes to antiquing, are especially useful given that a lot of the furniture paint used in the 19th century and earlier was milk-based. Bioshield is just one of many such manufacturers.

For restoring wood to its original look, try restoration products made from a blend of natural oils. These products penetrate the wood (this is especially useful on outdoor furniture) to revive its own natural oils. These products typically have a slight tint to help give gray wood back its luster.

Maintenance and Protection

Part of restoring furniture is maintaining and protecting it from natural wear and tear. Sometimes refurbishing can be as simple as the application of a good polish or cleaner. But of course most of the traditional products we use for this contain toxic materials. There are, however, some exceptions. Polishes made from beeswax are a good example. There are also all-purpose restoration products like Restore Furniture Polish.

Eco-Friendly Fabrics

Most furniture is not all wood, even wood furniture. Upholstery is ingredient number two for chairs, sofas, love seats, ottomans and other furniture. Most furniture upholstery is made from cotton, synthetic fabrics or leather. For eco-friendly restoration, avoid leather. The environmental harm caused by factory farms alone is reason enough to avoid leather, not to mention the extremely toxic process of turning animal hide into finished leather.

Conventional cotton and polyesters (synthetic fabrics) are not so eco-wonderful, either. While cotton is a natural fiber, its farming demands 24% of the herbicides and fertilizers used worldwide, according to Eco Friendly Emporium. Polyester is typically made from petroleum byproducts and is where you'll typically find the PVC and polyurethane mentioned earlier.

Eco-friendly alternatives include organic cotton and hemp. Hemp is abundant, extremely versatile and often grown organically, and the sale and use of hemp fabrics is growing rapidly. Organic cotton is obviously better than non-organic, although it still requires a large amount of water to cultivate.

Wool is a rare but available upholstery material that is also a renewable resource. The key is to look for wool from sheep not treated with pesticides, and those that are not victims of animal cruelty. Wool is naturally fire-resistant, warm and long-lasting. Look to outlets like Earth Friendly Goods, Furnature and GreenSage for eco-friendly fabrics you can use in restoring your old furniture.

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Dan Harding is a well-versed veteran of solar critique, commentary and reporting.  He has published well over 1,000 articles on a wide variety of solar industry topics, ranging from cutting-edge technology and gadgetry to political satire and powerful editorials. CalFinder is proud to tout Dan as our resident solar expert. He holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University, and enjoys reading, writing and home construction.