How to Refinish Wood Furniture

person staining wood

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Overview
  • Working Time: 8 - 10 hrs
  • Total Time: 1 wk
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $50 to $75

Your wood furniture piece is valuable to you. Your furniture may hold substantial monetary value, too. So when it's in bad shape, why replace it? Furniture refinishing—the craft of making old pieces new again—is within the grasp of any do-it-yourselfer who is interested in this fascinating craft. Furniture refinishing rarely costs much: It's mainly about devoting enough time and patience to this exacting yet rewarding project.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Sponges
  • Clean buckets
  • Respirator
  • Eye and hearing protection
  • Steel wool
  • Putty knife
  • Waterproof gloves
  • Paint brushes
  • Clean rags
  • Sandpaper, varying grits
  • Oscillating electric sander
  • Manual sanding block

Materials

  • Dish soap
  • Liquid paint stripper
  • Mineral spirits
  • Wood glue
  • Pre-stain wood conditioner
  • Stain
  • Wood coating

Instructions

  1. Clean Furniture

    With warm water and a squirt or two of dish soap in a clean bucket, wipe down dusty, dirty, or mildewy furniture with a sponge. Change out the water for clean, cool rinse water. Use another sponge and wipe down the furniture with the rinse water. Let the furniture dry for a day or two until the wood is thoroughly dry.

  2. Apply Stripper

    Because wood furniture usually does not have many flat surfaces that are easy to strip with a sander, use a liquid stripper.

    Wearing gloves, eye protection, and breathing protection, brush on the paint stripper in a thick coat or as recommended by the instructions. After an hour or two, the paint should start to bubble up. This means that it is ready for scraping.

    If you are using citrus-based paint strippers, you may need to wait for up to 24 hours for this less-potent (but environmentally friendly) stripper to take action. In some cases, wrapping the areas where the stripper has been applied with plastic may expedite the stripper.

    Warning

    When using strippers or any caustic chemicals, work only in open or well-ventilated areas. Working in these areas does not preclude the need to wear a respirator. Always wear an N95 respirator when working with these chemicals.

  3. Remove Existing Finish

    Once again wearing gloves, eye protection, and breathing protection, scrape away the wet paint with the putty knife. You may want to use improvised devices of different sizes to work into all of the areas: old screwdrivers, 5-in-1 tools, paint lid openers, and more. Steel wool is especially valuable for getting into small spaces. Be careful not to rub too hard, as this will gouge the surface.

  4. Repair Furniture (Optional)

    Wait a day or two for the furniture to thoroughly dry. With the wood furniture cleaned and stripped, you can now clearly see any damage to the piece. Loose sections may be able to be tightened by applying wood glue, then clamping them. Missing sections of wood possibly can be strengthened and replaced with epoxy resin wood filler or other wood filler product, depending on your intended finish. Be sure to read product instructions before proceeding.

  5. Sand Wood

    Sand the furniture down to bare wood. Use the oscillating electric sander on as many of the flat, broad sections that you can. Use caution and work slowly near curved edges to avoid creating unintended flat spots. Switch to a manual foam sanding block to tight areas and grooves. Begin with lower gauge grits and work up to grits in the #220 and #320 range.

    Tip

    If you want to achieve a glass-smooth, pore-free finish on your wood furniture, apply a wood grain filler. With a plastic spreader tool, spread the grain filler to the wood, much like skim coating a wall. After the filler has dried, gently sand it down with #320 grit sandpaper until it is smooth.

  6. Stain Furniture

    Wearing personal protection, apply stain to the wood furniture with a rag or brush. Apply multiple thin layers rather than one or two heavy layers, as this helps you control the coloration.

    It also helps to begin with a pre-stain conditioner. This clear penetrating liquid prevents the stain from being blotchy in some areas and thin in other areas.

  7. Coat and Protect Furniture

    Protect your wood furniture with coats of water- or oil-based polyurethane coating. Brush or wipe the coating on. Alternatively, you may choose to apply penetrating oil such as tung oil or Danish oil. Oils are best for low-impact wood furniture where surface protection is not as important.

Tips For Refinishing Furniture

The most common mistakes when refinishing wood furniture are surprisingly easy to prevent, so why do people make so many? Many mistakes happen as a result of jumping into the refinishing project too hastily without getting a good idea of what is needed regarding materials, time, and the proper steps to be taken.

Spend some time visualizing the finished project, researching, and paying attention to the process. You are going to need time to get there. Impatience to get going and racing to the finish can set you back.

Not Cleaning the Surface

Before refinishing, you need to clean the surface thoroughly. That in itself could save you hours of work, as sometimes after cleaning you might find that all a piece needs is retouching. Thoroughly clean the surface with a wood cleaner or wax remover to see if you can salvage the present finish.

Failing to Strip Completely

When you have determined that you do need to strip a piece, always remove all the old finish or paint thoroughly. Leaving spots will yield an uneven surface when you finally start finishing it. Apply enough stripper to keep the surface wet, and never work in direct sunlight as you can dry the wood. Remove the finish completely before sanding to get the surface ready for the new finish.

Not Waiting Long Enough

When you don’t wait long enough for the stripper to work, you will have to scrape the wood to get the old finish off. Check to see if it comes off easily before removing it. Leave the stripper on longer if the old finish doesn't come off easily.

Waiting Too Long

If you spread the stripper and let it sit for longer than required, the paint can become hard again. Plan to complete the stripping in the time required, so you can remove the paint while it is still soft.

Failing to Make Necessary Repairs

Before you begin refinishing and right after stripping, check for any repairs that need to be made to the surface. Do this before sanding and staining. This will assure a better finish.

Not Sanding Properly

Before you apply your stain, the surface should be smooth. Otherwise, it may not accept the finish properly. Proper sanding assures a smooth finish. Use the right grit of sandpaper for the job.

Applying Too Thick a Coat

When you are applying a stain or paint, resist the tendency to put a lot of it on all at once. Too thick a coat will only create an uneven and unattractive finish, and not get the work done sooner. Apply the product, and wait for the first coat to dry before continuing with the next one. You will be able to find the instructions for the proper waiting time on your container.

Warning

Following safety precautions is essential. Always remember to protect your skin and eyes, even when using substances that have low volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Wear proper gloves when handling paint strippers and refinishing products. Make sure there are no open flames. Work in a room with plenty of ventilation. The failure to read and follow manufacturers' instructions for paints, waxes, varnishes, or strippers is one of the most common mistakes. As these substances can vary tremendously in their chemical makeup, it can be hazardous to your health if they are used improperly.