Learn how to refinish wood furniture the right way using this step-by-step guide. Apply these techniques for refinishing nearly any type of wood or wood furniture piece.
If you’ve been following along on our DIY home renovation journey, you’ve read plenty of my posts about tiling and painting, along with many other fixer-upper projects.
Lately, we’ve been focusing more on decorating a couple of rooms in our home. But I’ve also been doing more furniture makeovers lately, too. Since I need to do many of these projects outdoors, the summer and fall months are good for refinishing wood furniture.
At this point in time, I’ve refinished wood floors, doors, and some furniture in our home.
Which also means I’ve made mistakes I’ve learned from along the way. Believe me, there is a right and a wrong way to refinish wood.
Luckily, I’ve been able to learn from Papa, my 80-year-old grandpa who has been refinishing furniture for as long as I can remember. Anytime I have an issue, he is only a phone call away.
He used to refinish furniture on the side, as a second income, when he was younger and has refinished many antique pieces in his life. In fact, that is one of his many specialties.
However, he quit when he realized he was putting in so much work on these projects and not making any money from it. He never wanted to charge people too much despite putting in so many hours.
Although he doesn’t do it anymore, he has passed on a lot of his knowledge to me.
He taught me a couple of years ago how to refinish wood furniture, and he is there for me whenever I have a question or serious issue. I am forever grateful for this.
Today, now that I have a little experience under my belt, I will be discussing all about refinishing wood furniture in particular. (Not anything with fabric–I’ve never reupholstered or painted fabric or anything like that yet.) Today it is all about wood.
I am refinishing the top of a make-up table my grandparents gifted me when I was maybe 10 years old and have kept ever since. The goal is to get it looking brand new again.
I hope you’re as excited as I am to learn how to refinish wood furniture!
It’s All in the Wood
Believe me, wood can have a mind of its own sometimes. Each type of wood is different. You may think you understand how to refinish furniture until you acquire an antique, and you can’t figure out why a stain won’t take or why the color you’ve applied looks uneven once dried.
So many different factors come into play when refinishing wood furniture. This includes the age of the piece, what type of wood was used, and wear and tear over the years. This can all affect the quality and worth of the furniture.
However, if you can figure out the age of the furniture that will make the entire process go much more smoothly. Knowing the year it was created helps determine the type of wood that was used, how it was built, and the overall quality.
Additionally, the type of wood will determine how dark of a stain you’ll need for the desired color. Different woods take on different colors after the same stain is applied.
It all begins and ends with the condition of the wood used.
Tips on Refinishing Wood Furniture
Thoroughly inspect a piece of furniture to see whether it’s even worth refinishing before starting a project like this. You don’t want to waste time on a low-quality piece that won’t last long or flat out won’t look good. (For example: A factory-made piece that is a couple years old isn’t worth the time of day because the quality of wood is so poor and craftsmanship has seriously decreased in the last 50 years). HERE is a great article to help you decide if a piece of furniture is even worth refinishing and how to determine the age of it. An ideal piece is stained (not painted), built somewhere between 1860-1950, and feels sturdy when lightly shaken.
After cleaning, test the wood with mineral spirits to see if it just needs a good cleaning and a clear top coat. If it looks good like this, no need to go to all the trouble of using chemical stripping agents, sanding, and staining.
Even if you are just restoring a piece to its original look, you will still need to follow most of these steps. (Though you may be able to just sand instead of stripping and sanding.) Restoring is less intensive, since the color will be the same, but you still need to carefully follow these steps to ensure you do it correctly.
Know the difference between a solid and semi-transparent stain before starting a project. They will create very different effects. Better to know before adding the color to the wood. Furthermore, always test a small spot with stain first before applying it to the entire piece of furniture. This can save you time and money if you’re unsure how the stain will take on the wood.
Always wear protective eyewear and gloves when working with chemical strippers and sanding.
Supplies You May Need
Cotton towels or rags
Lacquer thinner or mineral spirits
Power sander I use this one HERE for basic projects
Sandpaper (in multiple grits: 120-220 grit)
Epoxy putty (if filling holes and chips)
Utility knife (if filling holes and chips)
Straightedge razor (if filling holes and chips)
Wood stain or paint
Finish (sealant, varnish, finishing wax, or polyurethane)
Lint-free rags (for applying stain)
Paint brush (for applying finish)
Disposable paint brushes (for applying stripper)
Wood glue and clamps (if repairing furniture)
How to Refinish Wood Furniture
Start by covering the ground below the furniture, whether in a workshop or an outdoor area. Add a teaspoon or so of dish soap into a bucket of water. Dip a sponge into the soapy water and wring it out before beginning. Gently scrub the entire surface of the furniture, using a small paint brush for cleaning any carvings or hard-to-reach crevices. Then use a wrung out sponge with plain water to remove the remnants of the soapy water. Dry it afterward with a clean towel.
In a well-ventilated space with natural lighting, preferably outdoors, begin applying paint stripper using a brush. Evenly and thoroughly coat the surface of the furniture. Let it sit for the recommended time listed on the can (usually at least 10 minutes, until it starts to bubble up). Once it starts to bubble, begin scraping it away from you with the grain. Continue until the entire piece has been cleaned.
You may need to use small tools and steel wool to get stubborn areas clean, in carvings or moldings. Use a small bowl of clean water to clean these small tools and steel wool in between use in these areas.
Apply epoxy, if needed
If you have chips and holes in your piece of furniture, you’ll need to start by filling these. Epoxy putty sticks are easy to use and harden after applying in about 12 hours. They are easy to sand and stain, too. This malleable hardening agent can be shaped with your hands after using a utility knife to slice off a chunk. After applying it, smooth it over with a straightedge razor until it is almost level. Let it dry, according to instructions on the package, before moving on to the next step.
Using a 120-150-grit sandpaper on a power sander, begin sanding away any remaining paint/stain/finish. Move up to a 200-220-grit sandpaper to smooth the surface over once any remaining layers are removed. Continue until everything is as smooth as desired. Be sure to get all sides of the piece of furniture smoothed over. Make sure it is wiped down with a tack cloth before moving on. Ensure all dust and debris is free from it before staining/painting.
Now begin applying your stain or paint. For stain, immediately wipe away after applying it, as it does not take long to soak into wood. (And no, thicker does not mean better absorption, so forget that.) When staining, I always recommend using a lint-free towel instead of a brush. Brush hairs can easily get stuck in the stain and are hard to remove if unnoticed. Additionally, using rags ensures a stroke-free, even finish. It enables more control over the amount of stain applied and removes stain much better than a brush ever could.
After applying stain/paint to one side, you’ll need to let it cure for the recommended time listed on the can. This can vary, but it’s usually in about 24 hours. Although it may feel dry to the touch sooner, it’s best to let it fully cure before turning a piece of furniture over. After this, you can apply stain/paint to the remaining side(s).
If desired, add a second coat of stain/paint once the first one has cured for a deeper color.
Last, apply a finish that is appropriate for the type of wood and particular piece you’re refinishing. This will help seal the color in and protect the wood from wear and tear.
This post HERE has a lot of great information about different finishes. They also give pointers on which finish to use for your specific refinishing project.
Using a brush, apply the finish in long, even strokes. Be sure to go with the grain for a natural, professional look. Do not apply it too thick. If you need to add a second layer later, that can always be done after the first one has cured. It is best to use 2-3 layers of finish on coffee tables, kitchen tables, and other heavy-use pieces that need long-lasting durability.
After it has cured for 24 hours, flip it to add the finish to the other side of the table for an even sheen and protection all over.
More DIY Inspiration
DIY Dresser Makeover – Marble Top with Tiles
How to Lay Hexagonal Floor Tiles
Everything You Need to Know About Renovating a Home
How to Make an Old Door Look New
My Best Painting Tips for Beginners