How To Refinish Wood Furniture

Some essential tools for refinishing your wood furniture

If you're thinking that your wood furniture is worn, beat, sun-faded and potentially scratched up by the cat, then you might consider refinishing the wood. Such items in your household might be a dresser, nightstand, family room table, dining room table, chairs, etc. There are basic essential tools you'll need to perform this job properly.

Step 1 - Round up your tools

  • Wipe-on stains and finishes
  • Good cloths
  • Fine steel wool and paste wax
  • Some random odds & ends
  • Stripper for paint removal
  • Stripper for finish removal
  • Power sander
  • Good sandpaper
Fox Chapel Publishing

Fox Chapel Publishing

  1. A thick stripper for paint removal. There are all kinds of strippers available on the market, but for these types of projects, you'll want to get thick coats of paint off an old piece of furniture. You'll need a thick product that clings to it in order to get the job done. As your local hardware guy for his advice. 
  2. A thin stripper for finish removal. For old finishes, you won't need something as "powerful" as the above recommendations. Look for a watery stripper that you can use to wash down the piece by soaking it over and over again with a brush (earmark this brush for this function). The stripper dissolves everything and it should fall right off. Obviously, you'll want to do over a drop cloth, pan or something to protect the work area. 
  3. A power sander. Once you've stripped the surface of the wood furniture piece you are working to restore, you'll need to smooth the surface out by sanding it. You can sand by hand, if you want..., at about 150 strokes per minute. If you're like us though, you'll want to cut this tedious activity down and save your arm by using a power sander. This will increase your productivity to around 7,000 strokes per minute. You'll probably want sander discs on hand in grit sizes from 80 - 200.
  4. Sandpaper. In addition to power sanding discs, get some 320- and 400-grit sheets of sandpaper plus a couple of blocks for hand sanding. Again, there is sandpaper galore when you explore the hardware store, but some do actually stay sharp and last throughout your project; as your guy. There are also a lot of blocks on the market, but to keep it simple, use a felt block or a wood block with some cork glued to it to save your sandpaper in use.
  5. Wipe-on stains and finishes. If you're a novice in this area and getting into your first or second project, you may want to use wipe-on polyurethane and gel stains (or gel topcoat) products. They take a bit longer to use, but they are easy to use and they turn out looking really nice. Brush on products are also an option, but they are thicker and stay wet longer so drips, sags, brushstrokes etc are more of a common challenge you'll have to deal with. If you're a pro, well... then you're probably on to spray guns.
  6. Good cloths. That's right, your cloths must be "good", and by this we mean spun cotton products that stand up to the test of time. There's no need to buy new shop rags: just wash some old cotton T-shirts. One thing to be careful about is to make sure they are lint-free. You'll leave little visitors all over your product otherwise.  After using your rags or cloths, put them outside to dry right away. Dry rags won't combust like a wet rag has the potential to do.
  7. Fine steel wool and paste wax. The curing of your wipe-on finish may take some time - a couple of weeks to be exact. At this stage, you'll want to do a soft rub-out with fine steel wool and paste wax. By gently rubbing the surface along the grain and buffing it out with a soft rag, you'll end up with a beautiful soft finish.

  8. Odds and ends. Plan ahead. Like any project, it’s a good idea to have a few things on hand before you start a refinishing project. These items could be painter’s tape, pencils and markers, disposable plastic cups, finishing nails, stirring sticks, household ammonia for brush cleaning, clean canning jars, old tablespoons and yellow wood glue. You'll be looking for all of this stuff throughout your project.

Fox Chapel Publishing

Fox Chapel Publishing

How to refinish wood furniture

Apply stripper

Depending on the size of your project, you will have chosen the appropriate stipper. Use your thick stripper for above for large projects and wood furniture with layers of paint on it. For small projects, you can now use aerosol spray paint stripper. It’s easy to control and it won’t spill, so it's convenient for a lot of people that are doing projects at home. Once you've applied your stripper, let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes. You’ll see the old finish start to lift up off the wood.

Remove any old finish

Use your scraper tool to remove the old finish. Keep a disposable shop cloth or paper towel roll around to wipe the blade between scrapes. You may have to apply stripper and scrape more than once in order to remove the majority of the old finish.

Image DIY Network

Image DIY Network

Clean it with mineral spirits

You'll want to clean the area at this point. It's kind of like a medical procedure... everything must be in order and as clean as possible. So once you’re done stripping and the surface and it has dried, wipe the wood with mineral spirits using a clean cloth. This will remove any residual stripper from your project. Allow it to dry for a few hours at least.

Sand it smooth

You've heard the phrase "smooth like a baby's butt" - this is your time. Use your power sander with medium-grit sandpaper (about 150-grit) until you can see the bare wood. Then switch to a finer sandpaper (such as 200+ grit) until the entire piece is uniform and "smooth like a baby's butt". Afterward, wipe down the entire surface with a clean tack cloth to remove any sanding residue.

You may need to apply multiple coats until you achieve the color you’re looking for.


Apply the stain

We talked about wipe-on stains above and we're assuming you are in that novice category. Staining is easiest to do with a staining pad. Just dip the pad in the wipe-on stain and wipe it on using long, even strokes. Just like painting a surface, you'll want to apply even pressure and length to your work.

When you're done, you'll want to use a clean wiping cloth to remove excess stain. Wipe lightly along the grain - this will prevent streaking. Just like trimming your filet mignon, if you go against the grain, you'll get funky results that fight with you along the way.  You may need to apply multiple coats until you achieve the color you're looking for. Follow this process until you like the end result, but it is key to let it dry between coats otherwise you won't see the true color of the stain. 

Apply your paste wax

This the stage where your steel wool and paste wax come in handy. Do a soft rub-out with fine steel wool and paste wax. By gently rubbing the surface along the grain and buffing it out with a soft rag, you'll end up with a beautiful soft finish.

Or you may want to apply an oil-based clear coat for a final layer of protection. Keep in mind, this will also give it a whole new sheen and luster, so if that's not the vintage look you're going for you can skip this (knowing that you may damage your newly refinished wood faster). You can sand with fine paper.

Let it dry

After you steel wool-rub or clear coat it, let your finished piece fully cure in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area. We recommend doing this for at least 24 hours before you put your wood furniture piece back to use. 

That's it! With a little time investment and some good products, you can turn your old, worn wood furniture piece into a striking new accessory for your home. Here's a video below from the DIY Network showing you one process on wood trim.

Nicole shows how to restore painted wood trim to its original beauty.

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