How to Refinish Wood Furniture – 6 Steps to Restoring Charm

a welsh dresser painted dark blue and white in a kitchen
How to refinish furniture – like this beautiful blue welsh dresser

There’s something truly special about breathing new life into an old piece of wood furniture. The hours of sanding and painting might be tedious, but the final result is always worth it.

Based on my own experiences, this guide on how to refinish furniture should get you off to a good start. So, grab your safety goggles, put on some old clothes you don’t mind staining, and let’s get started!

How to Refinish Wood Furniture

Refinishing furniture is an art that brings out the hidden beauty of wood furniture, extending its life and adding your own personal touch to it. While it may seem daunting at first, this guide will simplify the process into six easy-to-follow steps, making it perfect for beginners and experienced DIY enthusiasts alike.

Read on to find out how to refinish furniture:

Step 1: Assess the Wood Furniture

a broken table

In my experience, evaluating the condition of your furniture is a crucial first step in any refinishing furniture project.

Look for signs of structural damage, such as broken legs, loose joints, or damaged hardware.  Flip it over, check out its legs, examine its corners, and open any drawers or doors.

You’re looking for signs of damage such as loose screws, wobbly legs, stuck drawers, or deep scratches. Also check for water damage or wood rot, which can weaken the furniture.

If the wood furniture is structurally compromised, it may require repairs or it might not be worth refinishing. The great thing about spotting and fixing these issues now is that it’s so much easier to tighten a screw or repair a crack before the piece is sanded and stained.

You’ll thank yourself later when you’re not trying to navigate around a newly-stained area to fix a loose screw. Plus, fixing structural issues early ensures your piece is sturdy and ready for the rigors of the refinishing process.

vanish peeling from a table

You also need to check the current state of the finish. If it’s peeling, flaking, or cracked, it’s a clear sign that refinishing is necessary. If the finish is just dull or lightly scratched, you might be able to restore it with less intensive methods, like cleaning and re-polishing.

Finally, the type of wood and finish can greatly affect the refinishing furniture process. Some woods, like oak or walnut, can handle harsher stripping chemicals, while softer woods, like pine, may need a gentler approach.

Certain finishes, like paint or varnish, can be removed relatively easily, while others, like lacquer or shellac, might require special techniques.

Step 2: Strip Away the Old Finish

gloves, paintbrush, sandpaper and cloth

After your piece is structurally sound, it’s time to strip away the old finish. This is a messy job, but in a weird way, it’s also incredibly satisfying to see years of old paint or varnish peel away.

Materials needed: 

  • Paint stripper (chemical or eco-friendly, depending on your preference)
  • Protective gloves and eyewear
  • A well-ventilated workspace
  • Plastic scraper or putty knife
  • Wire brush or toothbrush for detailed areas
  • Steel wool
  • After-wash or mineral spirits

First things first, safety is paramount. Always do this in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling potentially harmful fumes. Wearing gloves and eye protection is also a must to protect your skin and eyes when refinishing furniture.

Begin by removing any hardware (like knobs or handles), cushions, or other removable parts. This step will protect these items from damage and also make the rest of the process easier.

Next, clean the wood furniture using mild soap or detergent mixed with warm water. Using a soft cloth or sponge, gently clean the surfaces to remove any dust, dirt, or grime. Be careful not to soak the wood, as this can cause damage. For stubborn spots, you can use a soft-bristled toothbrush.

After cleaning, wipe down the wood furniture with a dry cloth and let it dry completely. This is important, as any leftover moisture can interfere with the stripping and sanding process.

Now, you’re ready to apply a good-quality paint stripper. I’ve had great results with eco-friendly strippers, they’re less harsh but still effective. Apply it as directed on the label and give it time to work its magic.

an electrical paint stripper

Once you see the old finish starting to bubble up, gently scrape it off with a plastic scraper. It’s important to use plastic to avoid damaging the wood underneath. Remember, be patient and gentle, and the finish will come off.

Once you’ve scraped off as much of the old finish as you can, use a piece of fine steel wool soaked in mineral spirits or after-wash to remove any remaining residue. This also helps neutralize the stripper. If your piece had a thick or stubborn old finish, you might need to repeat the stripping process a second time.

Allow the wood furniture to dry completely before moving on to the next step. This might take anywhere from a few hours to overnight, depending on your environment.

Step 3: Sanding Time

sanding down wood

Materials needed: 

  • Sandpaper in various grits (coarse to fine, such as 80, 120, 220)
  • Sanding block or electric sander (optional)
  • Dust mask
  • Safety glasses
  • Drop cloth or tarp to protect your workspace

With the old finish removed, it’s time to sand. Grab your sandpaper and prepare to put some elbow grease into it.

Start with a rough 100-grit paper to remove any remaining bits of the old finish and to smooth out any imperfections and always sand in the direction of the grain. Make sure you wear a dust mask and safety glasses to protect yourself from dust particles. 

Once you’ve given the entire piece a good going over with the 100-grit, it’s time to switch to a finer 120-grit paper. This will further smooth the surface and prepare it for staining. Using a sanding block can help provide stability and help maintain a flat surface. 

Finally, give it a once-over with super-fine 220-grit sandpaper. This last pass ensures your wood furniture is as smooth as possible, and trust me, the end result is worth the extra effort!

Want to speed up these processes? Check out some of these amazing power sanders for furniture!

Step 4: Clean Up the Dust

After sanding, it’s important to clean up all the dust, as it can interfere with your new finish. I start with a vacuum with a brush attached to get the majority of the sawdust off. 

But vacuuming alone won’t catch everything. To pick up the remaining dust, I like to use a microfiber cloth lightly dampened with mineral spirits. It picks up and traps those stubborn particles that refuse to budge.

Step 5: Apply the Stain

applying stain on a chair

Now we’ve arrived at the step where you’ll really start to see the transformation – staining (or painting). This is where you get to pick a color that suits your style and decor.

Stain

Staining is a popular choice when you want to enhance and highlight the natural beauty of the wood grain. They come in various shades and can be transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque.

To apply the stain, use a good quality brush or roller and always apply in the direction of the grain. This helps the stain penetrate the wood evenly and reduces the appearance of brush strokes.

Work in manageable sections, such as one side or one section at a time, to maintain control over the process and avoid overworking the finish to prevent brush or roller marks.

Once applied, let the stain sit for about 15 minutes, then wipe off the excess with a clean cloth. The longer you let the stain sit before wiping, the darker the finish. For a darker color, simply wait for the first coat to dry, then apply a second coat.

Paint

Painting wood furniture provides a wide range of color options and can completely transform the look of the piece. It covers the natural grain of the wood and can be used to achieve a smooth, opaque finish.

Paint provides good durability and can be an excellent choice for furniture with extensive damage or if you want a bold, solid color.

The same applies to paint as it does to stain – use a good quality brush or roller and apply in the direction of the grain. You may need to lightly sand between coats to achieve a smoother and more professional result.

Step 6: Seal the Deal

polyurethane finish

With your stain applied and dried, it’s time to seal and protect your piece. For this, I use a clear polyurethane finish. It offers robust protection against scratches and spills, and it doesn’t hide the beautiful color of the stain you just applied.

When applying polyurethane, use a high-quality brush and, as with the stain, follow the direction of the wood grain. Once the first coat has dried completely, lightly sand the piece with 220-grit sandpaper to help the second coat adhere better. Clean up the dust, then apply your second coat of polyurethane.

Tips for Refinishing Furniture

Tip 1: Know Your Wood

a walnut coffee table in a contemporary living room
Walnut wood furniture

Before you start refinishing, it’s important to know what kind of wood you’re dealing with. Hardwoods like oak, mahogany, and walnut have tightly packed grains and stand up well to refinishing. Softer woods like pine and cedar, though, are more prone to dents and scratches, so be extra gentle when sanding and working on these surfaces.

Understanding your wood type will also guide your decision when choosing a stain, as different woods respond differently to various stains.

Tip 2: Invest in Quality Tools

Trust me on this one; quality tools make all the difference. Invest in a good set of brushes, high-quality sandpaper, and durable plastic scrapers.

These will not only make your job easier but also ensure a more professional-looking finish. When it comes to applying finishes and stains, a good brush will provide a more even coating and prevent annoying bristle drop-offs.

Tip 3: Test Your Stain

Before you slather your entire piece in stain, find an inconspicuous spot to do a test run. The underside of the piece or the back of a leg are usually good spots.

This gives you a chance to see how the wood takes the stain and if you’re happy with the color. Remember, you can’t undo staining, so test first to avoid any unhappy surprises.

Tip 4: Be Patient

Refinishing furniture isn’t a race. In fact, rushing through the process can result in mistakes that are hard to fix, so take your time at each stage.

Allow the paint stripper to fully work before scraping, give the piece plenty of time to dry after cleaning, and let each coat of stain or finish dry completely before applying the next one. Patience truly is a virtue when refinishing furniture!

Tip 5: Safety First

Always remember that safety comes first. Work in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling fumes from strippers and finishes. Wear gloves to protect your skin, and don’t forget eye protection. It’s all fun and games until you get a splinter in your eye or a chemical burn on your hands. 

Refinishing furniture can seem daunting, but with patience, care, and the right tools, it’s a rewarding task that breathes new life into old pieces. Remember, it’s not just about the end result; the process itself is a creative journey. So dive in and discover the satisfaction of furniture restoration!


Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning that at no additional cost to you, I will receive a very small commission if you click through and make a purchase. These links help to pay the editorial costs of writing a blog. For more information, read my full affiliate disclosure here.

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