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Six Tips on How to Refinish Furniture

Wooden furniture often holds a significant amount of financial or sentimental value for people. This means that no matter if the piece is an antique that you purchased or something that your father made, knowing how to refinish furniture is an important skill to have for when wooden pieces start looking rough.

However, in addition to knowing how to refinish furniture, it is also good to know when to embark on such a project.

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Today, we will cover both of these topics and more to help give you a better understanding of how to breathe new life into your run-down furniture.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

Is It Worth It to Refinish a Piece of Furniture?

Before getting into the details of how to refinish furniture, it is important to determine if the piece needs to be stripped, repaired and refinished, or if just a clear coat of wipe-on finish will get the job done.

old dresser

However, do be aware that there is an extensive debate surrounding if it is okay to restore and refinish antique furniture. Some claim that doing so will reduce the monetary value of the piece while others argue that refinishing will extend the longevity of the item. If you are thinking about refinishing an antique piece of furniture, it is up to you to decide on which side of the fence you land.

That said, if the piece is not an antique and monetary gain is not a consideration, then refinishing will indeed allow you to get more use out of the item and make it look better overall.

That aside, when considering refinishing a piece, it is best to begin by assessing the item to determine if it is worthy to refinish at all. Therefore, you should ask yourself questions such as:

  • Is the furniture painted? If so, this could have been done to cover over damage and imperfections to the piece. Stripping the paint could reveal a kettle of worms for which you were not prepared.
  • Was the item built-to-last? Furniture produced pre-1960s was typically crafted from solid wood and built-to-last. Pieces created after that period are often made of particleboard and laminates. The latter usually isn’t worth refinishing and is often better to just replace.
  • Is the item sturdy? Over time, furniture can begin coming apart and become rather rickety. If this is the case for your piece, it will likely need to be disassembled and reglued. You may even need to purchase new furniture legs or other pieces to restore the item. You need to establish if this is a task you are willing to complete.
  • How will the refinished item look? Refinished furniture can often turn out darker than the original wood. Determine if you will be okay with a darker shade than the item currently displays.

How you answer these questions will determine if the project is worth undertaking or if you should just part with the item and purchase something new.

Signs It’s Time to Refinish

Signs It Is Time to Refinish Furniture

Assuming that a piece is worth refinishing, there are a variety of signs that it is time to refinish an item.

Some key indicators that it is time to refinish a piece of furniture include:

  • The finish is chipping and flaking
  • The finish has cracked all the way to the wood
  • A tacky and sticky surface
  • Watermarks and rings that can be seen under the finish
  • The clear coat has darkened
  • Blemishes and worn-out patches

These are just some of the signs that it is time to refinish your furniture. However, if these signs are not present and you still think that the current state of the piece looks shabby  or otherwise dilapidated, then feel free to go ahead and refinish the piece and breathe new life into your furniture.

6 steps to Refinish Furniture

How to Refinish Furniture: Six Steps to Success

If you have decided that you want to keep a piece of furniture and refinish it, then there are several steps you will need to follow to restore the piece to its former glory. Those steps include:

1. Clean the Item

The first step in refinishing a piece of furniture is to clean it thoroughly. This is particularly true if you just purchased the item and aren’t exactly sure where it came from, as it is likely to be covered in dust, dirt and other forms of buildup.

While some folks believe that using a specialty cleaning agent is the best route to go, most would agree that the most convenient, simple and effective way to clean a piece of furniture is to utilize a mixture of dish soap and warm water. There are a variety of excellent dish soaps to choose from that will do just fine for this job.

With your mixture prepared, gently scrub the surface of the furniture with a sponge. If the piece has carvings and molding, you might want to use a soaped-up paint brush to get into the crevices.

Once the scrubbing is complete, wipe the item down with a wrung-out sponge to clear away the suds. Finally, pat the furniture dry with a clean towel.

2. Analyze the State of the Piece

After the furniture has been cleaned and is completely dry, it is time to take stock of the item’s condition so that you can get a better idea of the project’s demands.

Before you start working

During this process, examine the piece for nicks, dents, scratches, cracks, white rings, paint stains, chips, gashes and other forms of damage. Additionally, be sure to properly inspect the hardware as well, as you may need to purchase replacement furniture hardware pieces for any that are broken, overly worn or just plain ugly.

After thoroughly analyzing the piece, make a list of supplies that you will need to complete the project, such as wax filling compounds, epoxy putty, the kind of stripper you would like to use and similar items.

3. Strip Off the Existing Finish

If you have never looked into how to refinish furniture before, it is important to know that there are two primary ways to strip the finish off wood:

  • Sanding: This method utilizes coarse sandpaper, a sanding block or a power sander to remove the finish by force. To strip furniture finish in this way, simply use a coarse grit to sand the furniture smooth and remove the majority of the existing finish. Then, switch to a medium grit to continue eliminating any existing shine. Finally, move to a fine grit to strip off any remaining finish.
  • Chemical stripping: Chemical stripping agents are a more hassle-free method to remove a finish. However, in some cases, they can be harmful to breathe, so it is vital to research which paint strippers are best before purchasing one. Using this method, you will spread the stripper evenly over the surface of the wood, wait for the stripper’s recommended period of time and then begin scraping off the finish. Then, apply a lacquer thinner and wipe the piece down to remove any remaining residue.

If you have never used a chemical stripper before, there are some safety tips which you should abide by to ensure that you and your furniture remain free from harm. Some of those tips include

  • Always wear protective equipment such as eye goggles, a respirator, and chemical-resistant gloves
  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Lay cardboard or drop cloths beneath the furniture before getting started
  • Read the directions on the product before using it to ensure that you only let the stripper sit for the appropriate amount of time
  • Use a disposable brush with natural bristles to get into the furniture’s crevices and grooves
  • Apply the chemical agent using fast and even brush strokes
  • After 30 minutes, if the stripper has yet to take, apply another coat
  • Let your furniture air dry for 24 hours before proceeding to the next step

4. Apply Sealant

After the furniture has been stripped and left to fully dry, you can proceed with coating the item. If you opted to use a chemical stripper, then you will possibly need to still sand the furniture using 120-grit sandpaper to remove any remaining residue. However, this is comparatively little work when stacked up with sanding the entire item.

paint brush applying sealant

From here, if you so desire, you can fill in the grain of your wood. However, this is purely optional. If you do decide to take this step, understand that you will need to select the right grain filler for your wood based on if you would like to accentuate or divert attention from the grain. Additionally, you will also need to choose an appropriate grain filler for the furniture’s desired color.

If you do choose to use a grain filler, allow it at least 48 hours to cure before moving on to the next step.

After deciding if you will use grain filler or not (and possibly applying it to the furniture and allowing it to cure), it is time to seal the wood to prep it for staining. For those who are unfamiliar, a sealant protects the wood and provides a base for the stain to spread more evenly.

When applying sealant, lay down a thick, even coat and allow it to soak into the wood. Then, use a clean rag to wipe off any excess and allow the sealant to dry. Once it is completely dry, sand the surface once more using a fine grit sandpaper.

5. Stain or Paint

At this point, you are ready to either paint or stain your furniture.

Which way you go is completely up to you. However, when debating between painting and staining, there are some things you should take into consideration, such as:

  •  If the item is an antique, it is best to stain to retain its aesthetic and authenticity
  • If placed in a high-traffic area, a stain and sealant will likely be more resistant to damage
  • If the furniture is not made of quality materials, painting may be a better solution
  • If you are not happy with the color of the wood, you might opt to paint it a different color

Assuming you choose to stain the piece, there are a handful of different types of wood stain that you can utilize, including water-based, oil-based and various other varieties. Additionally, there are a panoply of different stain colors from which you can choose. Therefore, it is best to test the stain on another piece of wood before applying it to your furniture to ensure it is to your liking.

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Whenever you use wood stains, be sure to follow the instructions on the label, as different kinds of stains have different demands.

By the same token, there are a world of different paint types and colors that you can use on your furniture, so be sure to conduct the proper research before settling on any one product.

6. Apply a Coat of Finish

After the furniture has been stained or painted, it is time to apply a coat of finish. Much like paints and stains, there are many different finishes that you can use. The one you select will depend on things like:

  • The look you are aiming to achieve
  • The level of durability required
  • Type of wood from which the furniture is made
  • How the item will be used
  • Your familiarity with using finishes

How to Refinish Furniture and Breathe New Life into a Piece

Learning how to refinish furniture doesn’t require a ton of knowledge and skill. However, it does demand the time and dedication to choosing the right materials and putting in the work to transform a piece of furniture from weathered and worn to new again.

Follow the steps listed above and you can breathe new life into that piece of furniture that you love so dearly.

Image Credits



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Lifestyle Travel Photo/ 


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