Got a favorite old table? Here’s how to refinish wood furniture
Sand it, fill it, make it shine
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Most of us have a piece of old, dinged up furniture that we can’t let go of but want to freshen up. For my wife and I, it’s a pair of kids’ dressers that belonged to her great-grandmother. They still work, but they’re scratched and dinged and some of the slides don’t work well. There’s no question that they could use some sprucing up.
Fortunately, this job is relatively simple to do, though it can be time consuming and is not always easy. If you’re careful and follow a few simple steps, though, you can take that old, beat up furniture and make it good as new.
Step 1: Clean the wood and assess the damage
Your first step is to thoroughly clean your piece. While cleaning, examine every surface. Determine if you are dealing with superficial scratches or deep gouges or holes. Is there damage to the piece that needs to be repaired? What about the mechanical elements? Do the drawers pull out easily and the hinges all function?
If your furniture is painted and old (made before 1978), then you also want to test the paint for the presence of lead. Lead paint requires special precautions, products, and disposal. You can get a lead paint test kit at most hardware stores.
By assessing the damage of your piece of wood furniture, you can more easily pick out the right products at the hardware store. It may allow you to skip some of the steps below.
Step 2: Stripping the finish
The first thing to do is strip the finish off of the furniture. If you’re planning to re-paint the final piece, then you may be able to just paint right over it with proper preparation.
Chemical finish strippers are a must for large projects or intricate designs
The easiest method for stripping finish is to use a chemical stripper. There are many products available depending on the type of finish. Some paint-stripping products are good for a wide variety of applications. Others are going to be more specific and limited. Just make sure that whatever stripping product you use will work for your specific project.
While all paint strippers have their own instructions, they’re fairly similar. First, make sure that you have the proper safety equipment. In most cases, you need eye protection like safety goggles, and a respirator mask, as well as a well-ventilated space. You also want to work on top of a drop cloth to make cleanup easier.
Once you’re set up, apply the paint stripper to your surface. This can usually be done with a stripper brush or a rag. You have to let the chemicals sit for some amount of time, and then can come back with a paint scraper and rags to remove the loose finish from the wood.
Once you’ve removed everything, let the surface dry and sand it down to remove any remaining residue and clean up the surface.
Scraping and sanding is usually fine for small projects or flat surfaces
In some cases, using a chemical stripper isn’t necessary—a powered sander and some elbow grease are all you need. If the wood is just stained with no lacquer, varnish, or polyurethane coating, you can likely just sand it down. If there is only one coat of paint on a piece and you know it’s not lead paint, you can probably sand it away. If you’re not comfortable using the harsh chemicals in many paint strippers, then sanding may be the right choice for you.
If you do decide to sand, start with a paint scraper. Scape as much of the finish away as you can without damaging the wood. The more finish you remove with the scraper, the easier the sanding will be.
Getting into the nooks and crannies of more intricate furniture can be a challenge, but folded sandpaper can get into tight spaces. Using a square piece of wood can help get into corners. For odder shapes, it may be worth picking up contoured sanding grips. You can also use sanding pads on a rotary tool to get into small areas.
Step 3: Repair any damage
With the finish stripped away, it’s time to repair the defects.
Reglue or replace structural wood and mechanical components
The very first step is to fix any mechanical or structural problems. If the existing drawer slides aren’t working, sand them if they’re made of wood, oil them if they’re metal, or replace them if they can’t be repaired. Sticky or loose hinges should likewise be repaired or replaced.
Also, look at all of the structural and support elements of your piece. Now is a great time to reglue that wobbly cross brace or replace the leg that’s cracked. If you have the tools and knowhow, you can recreate decorative structural pieces (like feet), or you may be able to find replacement parts.
Sand out the smaller, superficial scratches with 60 or 80 grit paper
Chances are good that there are some scratches in your furniture, particularly if it's old. Shallow scratches are easy enough to simply sand out of the wood. Sand the wood evenly and slowly with 60 or 80 grit paper.
Don’t linger over the scratches or try to apply uneven pressure to remove them or you will get dips and divots in the surface. Remove a consistent amount to leave behind a flat, level surface.
Leave alone scratches that are more than superficial. You’ll have to take too much material to remove them, so it’s better to fill them in instead.
Choose the right product to fill in the gap, cracks, or holes
There are many filler products that you can use to repair your furniture, all with pros and cons. Check that the filler you choose is compatible with your desired finish. Not all fillers are stainable, for example.
There are two primary categories of wood filler on the market—water-based and solvent-based. Water-based wood fillers are typically less expensive and don’t have the harsh chemical smell and fumes that solvent-based wood fillers do. Solvent-based wood fillers are more temperature, water, and rot resistant, and they are better suited to outdoor projects.
Within those two categories are a huge variety of options, all formulated for different purposes. Some are well-suited to invisibly filling small cracks, others have strong adhesive properties, and still others allow you to rebuild missing sections of wood. Some will be better for painting, some better for staining, and some can be used as an aesthetic accent all on their own.
When in doubt, my personal go-to is Minwax Stainable Wood Filler.
Follow the instructions on your product, but generally speaking, apply wood filler in thin layers, allowing it to dry before adding the next layer. Wood filler shrinks as it dries, so you may need a second or third coat to fill in the gaps.
After the wood filler has fully dried, it’s ready for sanding.
Step 4: Sand it smooth to make your finish pop
Sanding is probably the biggest factor in the final quality of your finish, so take your time.
Pro tip: The majority of finishing products highlight sanding mistakes, not hide them.
Sand to at least 120 grit
Sandpaper comes in multiple grits. The lower the number, the rougher the paper. Rough sandpaper removes more material—smoother sandpaper creates a smooth finish. Sandpaper is also progressive, meaning that you should increase the grit you’re using gradually. Don’t jump from 80 grit paper to 150 grit paper. Take the time to do the 100 and 120 grits in between.
How high a grit to go to depends on a few things. First is the finish you’re planning to use. If you’re using a finish that sits on top of the wood like paint or polyurethane, then sanding to 120 grit is fine; it is also probably good for areas that won’t be touched, like the bottom.
However, if you’re planning to use a finish that soaks into the wood, like oil or stain, and don’t plan to add a final top coat, then go up to 220 grit or higher. For instance, 120 is nice and smooth; 220 feels like glass.
Tips to sand in tricky places
An orbital sander is great for large, flat areas, but it isn’t necessarily the best tool for decorative or rounded features. There are a few tricks you can use to sand in and around those hard to reach or contoured areas.
To sand a groove, wrap a dowel that’s the same diameter as the groove in sandpaper and run it through the groove.
Rotary tools have a lot of sanding attachments available. These can help you to get into small nooks and crannies.
Contour grips for sandpaper come in all shapes and sizes, and fit well into various decorative elements.
Don’t underestimate the value of hand-sanding with a piece of sandpaper that’s folded in half. This is my preferred method for getting into right angle corners and for smoothing out round elements.
Step 5: Choose and apply your finish
There are two things to think about when choosing a finish. The first and most obvious is aesthetics. A second important consideration is durability. Different furniture needs to be protected against different things, and your choice of finish should reflect that.
Painting is straightforward and hides a lot of mistakes
Painting furniture is probably the easiest, most straightforward choice. You can choose any color paint to match the decor in the rest of your house. What’s more, if you had to fill in a lot of holes, sand out scratches, or replace missing pieces, paint is the easiest way to cover up those repairs. Paint also adds a small amount of protection to your furniture.
Staining keeps the natural wood look
When most people think of a wood finish, they think of staining. Staining is a fantastic option if you want to keep the wood grain look, but the plain wood color isn’t your style. You can stain the wood as light or as dark as you want, matching most of the common wood tones.
Keep in mind that stains look different when applied to different types of wood, so test your stain on a scrap piece before committing. Stain can also cover up some of minor repairs that you made, as long as you used a stainable wood-filler.
One thing to keep in mind about stain is that it doesn’t actually protect your furniture. The surface is still bare wood. In most cases, you should also use a protective top coat, which I’ll talk about, below.
Oil brings out the natural look of your wood
One finish that non-woodworkers often overlook is to simply oil the wood. Danish oil, tung oil, linseed oil, and mineral oil are all common finishes. These won’t change the color of your wood really, they just deepen and darken the natural look of the existing wood. If your furniture is made of a nice maple, oak, or mahogany that you don’t want to change with stain, then oil is a good choice.
That said, oil won’t cover up any defects. Every place you added wood filler will pop when the oil is applied. So, this will only work on projects where surface repairs were minimal.
Like stain, oil also doesn’t really protect the surface of the wood, so you should consider adding a top coat.
Step 6: Protect it with a top coat
There are a few common top coats that you can use to protect your furniture. While these can be found in different tints and colors, for the most part, they are applied clear. All of them can be applied directly onto the wood with no finish below—doing so simply highlights the natural color and grain of your wood, while protecting it.
Polyurethane is a very common protective top coat to use on wood furniture projects, and is my go-to choice. It’s easy to apply, easy to clean up, and results in a smooth, clear finish. It’s available in water-based and oil-based products. Polyurethane can be discolored by heat, so isn’t a great option on furniture you’re planning to put hot cups on.
Varnish is another durable top coat. In addition to providing some physical protection, varnish can protect the wood against UV light, and is a great choice for outdoor projects in particular.
Lacquer is a glossy top-coat finish that is very durable and damage resistant. It’s a bit more challenging to apply because it is sprayed on, and so requires a lot of ventilation and spray equipment. Lacquers in a spray can are available.
Shellac is a natural product that hardens well and is typically food safe. It comes in a variety of tints and hues to darken or deepen the color of your wood. It does not respond well to direct heat.
Epoxy is one of the most durable finishes available, and one of the more expensive choices. It dries very hard, can be applied as thick as needed, and many epoxies are heat and moisture resistant. It can also be a challenge to work with, and may require you to build a form in order to apply it.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.