Don’t throw out that old dresser just because it’s seen better days. Breathe new life into it with our tips on refinishing wood furniture.
If you want to extend the life of a dreary-looking piece of wooden furniture and you’re sure it needs more than just cleaning, your next step should be to refinish it. Stripping furniture isn’t complicated or expensive, but it is messy and time-consuming. Follow along with these steps to learn about refinishing wood furniture in your own home.
Instructions to Remove Finish from Wood Furniture
Stripping and refinishing wood furniture in a clean, well-ventilated place (perhaps a garage) is the best way to minimize the accumulation of dust and fumes. Cover the floor with drop cloths. Wearing protective gloves, brush on the furniture stripper and let the piece sit. After the stripper has softened the old finish, scrape the finish with a wooden scraper. (Don’t use metal, which might gouge the wood.) Use a soft brass brush on crevices. Then reapply the stripper and repeat the process until all the old finish is gone. Rinse the whole thing down with a mixture of TSP or another product containing trisodium phosphate and water, rubbing with extra-fine-grade steel wool. (You can get the protective gloves, furniture stripper, brass brush and TSP at a hardware store.)
Use Sawdust to Absorb Chemicals
Sprinkle sawdust on your furniture piece just after you’ve rinsed it down with TSP or another product containing trisodium phosphate. In fact, use as much as you need to soak up the water and chemicals. Then brush or wipe off the muck immediately so that the sawdust doesn’t dry and cake on the wood. Let your furniture dry, scrape with a cabinet scraper and then sand the wood (always sanding with the grain) until it is smooth. (This is when you will be able to remove any discolorations that have worked their way into the wood.)
Repair before Refinishing Wood Furniture
If your piece of furniture needs repairs as well as refinishing, make the repairs after stripping and before refinishing. Also after stripping and before refinishing, check to be sure the joints are tight. Stripping can melt glue and thus cause joints to loosen. If that happens, be sure to tighten the joints before proceeding with the refinishing.
Maintain Natural Finish
Once you strip your piece of furniture, you may decide that you prefer the beauty of bare wood rather than stain. If that’s the case, use a brush to apply eight or nine thin coats of tung oil (available at hardware stores) to build up a finish that is impervious to water and alcohol stains.
Apply Stain to Furniture in Thin Coats
If you are uncertain about what color stain to use, go light. You can always add stain to darken the color of your wood, but it’s almost impossible to lighten a dark color. When you apply the stain, you’ll have greater control over its hue if you wipe off the excess immediately and then continue to apply thin coats, wiping the excess off each time.
Stain Both Sides of Furniture
If you need to stain both sides of a piece of wood and want to save time by doing the second side before the first dries, just tip the piece gently against a wall or another support so that only the edge of the wood is touching. This will prevent blotches or smears from ruining one stained side while you do the other.
Varnish Furniture after Staining
After staining a piece of furniture, brush on a coat of varnish. Let the varnish dry, then sand the piece with fine-grit sandpaper. Repeat the process until you have three or four coats. Use thin coats of varnish, and sand progressively more with each coat to bring down “high” areas and fill in “low” areas. The sanding will even out the surface, making it smoother.
Get a Smooth Finish
For a smooth surface on your refinished piece, sand the last coat of varnish with wet 600-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper. Then make a muddy mixture of 3/4 cup of pumice, a squeeze of lampblack (it comes in a tube) and enough paraffin oil to make the mix soupy. (All these products are available at paint and hardware stores.) Brush the stuff on with an old toothbrush or, for wider areas like tabletops, a small floor brush. Use long, continuous strokes. Immediately clean up behind your strokes with rags. The lampblack will hide any white grit in the crevices. Switch to a clean rag for a final pass over the furniture to make sure you wipe off any residue. Then buff with the high-quality polish or wax of your choice.
Buff for a Glossy Finish
If you want a glassy “mirror” finish—say, for a tabletop—coat the surface with furniture wax or shoe wax and rub it in with a car buffer.
For more tips to help you with fixing and refinishing wood furniture, check out these related articles:
Remove White Rings from Wood Furniture | Repair Stains, Dents & Rings
Restore Wood Furniture with Wax | DIY Instructions
Get Scratches out of Wood | Practical DIY Advice