The Idiot's Guide to Refinishing Wood Furniture - Quicken Loans Zing BlogI love to save money on EVERYTHING, and because I’m such a tightwad, I love getting stuff for free. So last night when I was driving through my neighborhood and saw an old white desk on the side of the road, I did what any sane, rational person would do; I got out of my car, and put it in my trunk.

The desk is really nice. It’s painted white, made of wood, and all the drawers are in working order. One neighbor’s trash is another neighbor’s treasure. All I have to do to perfect it is refinish the surface and put some fancier hardware on the drawers. Piece of cake, or so it seems…

Now I don’t have a ton of experience with these handy-man type jobs, but I’m all for doing the necessary research to make sure my desk will be lovely. Since I’m going to spend next weekend refinishing my neighbor’s garbage new desk, I thought I’d share with you my step-by-step guide to refreshing your wooden furniture.

1. Remove the old finish. The first step to refinishing your furniture is unfortunately the most tiresome, annoying and messy. Here are your two options for finish removal techniques:

Chemical Strippers

–          Always take great care when using chemicals by having adequate ventilation, rubber gloves, and eye protection.

–          To make your life as easy as possible, look for ones with labels like “wash away” or “no cleanup.” Also, note that for most purposes you’ll want a thicker formulation, like a gel or a paste. Liquid paint strippers will run, and can only be used on horizontal surfaces.

–          What’s the best way to apply chemical strippers? Following manufacturer instructions, apply a thick coat and BE PATIENT. Let the stripper do what it was meant to do, leaving it on for the manufacturer’s recommended time, until your putty knife is able to cut through to the wood. Remove as much paint/varnish as possible with a putty knife, and follow up with steel wool for tougher spots. Next, follow manufacturer’s directions for cleaning the wood of stripper, and allow your furniture to dry thoroughly before continuing on to the next step.


Use an orbital sander with 80 or 100 grit sandpaper to remove most of the finish. Once that’s done, switch to a higher grit to get rid of any remaining stain or paint. For areas that are awkward or impossible to reach with the sander, you will need to use sanding block, or a small piece of sandpaper.

2. Prepare the wood. If you use chemical strippers, once your furniture is free of the old finish, you’ll still need to sand. Start with 120 grit paper to clean off any remaining finish and smooth out any rough places in the wood. When you finish that, sand down the whole piece with 220 grit paper. Always make sure to sand with the grain. The quality of your final work is really going to depend on how much care you take with this step. If you take enough time to really sand smoothly, it’ll make a big difference.

3. Fill the grain. This is an optional step and depends on the kind of grain in your furniture. Woods with a tight grain will not require grain filler, but if your furniture has more open grain, like oak or mahogany, you may need to apply filler. According to the manufacturer’s instructions, you’ll either do this step before or after staining. Here are some tips for picking the right pigment of filler:

–          To emphasize the grain of the wood, select a color that contrasts with the natural color of the wood, or the color you intend to stain it.

–          To de-emphasize the wood grain, select a color that closely matches the anticipated finished color of the wood.

Use a rag or stiff paint brush to apply filler, and work into the grain. Remove excess filler with a plastic scraper or putty knife, being careful not to damage the wood. Once the filler dries completely, lightly sand the furniture with the grain.

4. Apply sanding sealer. The last step in preparing the wood for staining is to apply sanding sealer, which will help your wood stain more evenly. Apply a heavy coat and allow it to soak in, wiping off any excess with a clean rag. You’ll want to lightly sand after the sealer dries.

5. Stain. There are several options when it comes to staining wood. You can choose between water-based, oil-based, gel stains, and one-step stain/finishes. I, myself, plan on using flat white paint to paint my new desk. When applying stain, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the product.

6. Finish. You should consider many factors when determining the type of finish you should use. Consider what look you are going for, your skill level, how durable you need the finish to be, and how the item will be used. To find more in-depth information about selecting a wood finish, you can check out Fine Woodworking, which gives a lot of good information to help you choose the right products for your job.

Hopefully this has given you a basic idea of the steps you can expect to take if you are going to attempt a wood refinishing job. Applying new stain or paint can really give furniture new life, so if you’re looking to update your home, or do a major turn-around on your garbage-picking treasures, this can be just the trick.


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I water sanded a Lacquer finish, wiped it off with a dry rag. I spayed it again with lacquer and the finish dried gray, and it seems to be under the finish. what can I do?

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