Man sanding a piece of wood

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I don’t claim to be a handyman (or a handywoman!). However, I sure do love a good DIY project (especially if it saves money). This past weekend, I redid some furniture for my fiancé’s new apartment. We didn’t want to buy brand new furniture since we’ll probably buy new furniture when we buy a house in a few years. So, we decided to furnish his apartment on the cheap.

One of the easiest ways to fill your space is by purchasing secondhand treasures from garage sales, estate sales, and thrift and antique stores. You could even pick up furniture pieces found on a neighbor’s curb. I have to admit, my fiancé’s side table that will be sitting next to his armchair was found on the curb. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, right?

Most of the time, secondhand wooden furniture might need a little refinishing, but there’s nothing like watching the old turn new like the way antique wooden furniture looks after receiving a little TLC.

That said, I thought I’d share with you a step-by-step guide to refinishing wooden furniture.

How to Refinish Furniture

It might seem simple, but refinishing wood requires the proper tools, time and patience to get the job done right. While it’s possible to turn the task into an easy weekend project, make sure you give yourself enough time and space to follow through on all the steps.

The process of refinishing wood includes these steps:

  • Removing the old finish
  • Filling the grain (optional)
  • Applying sanding sealer (optional)
  • Staining the wood
  • Appling a clear coat

Removing the Old Finish

The first step when refinishing wooden furniture – removing the old finish – is likely the most tiresome and messy. There are two ways to go about this task: chemical stripping and sanding.

Chemical Strippers

Chemical strippers, also known as paint and finish strippers, are the most efficient products for removing paint and varnish from wooden furniture.

Before you begin stripping the old paint and varnish, here are some recommended supplies:

Be sure you have adequate ventilation in whatever space you’re working in. Chemicals can be harmful when inhaled.

Also, note that for most purposes, you’ll want a thicker formula, like a gel or paste. Liquid paint strippers will run and can only be used on horizontal surfaces. For smaller projects, an aerosol spray stripper is a quicker and easier alternative.

Follow manufacturer instructions for using the paint stripper, but in general, apply a thick coat of the stripper and wait for the amount of time noted on the container. Remove as much paint and varnish as possible with a putty knife or scraper tool, wiping the blade of your tool between scrapes. Follow up with steel wool for tougher spots if you need to.

Then allow the wood to dry thoroughly before continuing on to the next step.

Sanding

Even after using the chemical stripper, you’ll still need to sand the wood.

While sanding doesn’t emit harmful chemical fumes, make sure you still have enough ventilation in whatever space you’re working in, as sanding does release dust and debris into the air.

Recommended supplies include:

Always make sure to sand in the same direction as the grain, rather than against the grain. The quality of your final work is really going to depend on how much care you take with this step. Taking enough time to sand the piece thoroughly will make a big difference.

  • Use a palm sander (80 – 150 grit) to remove most of the finish
  • Repeat step one until you see bare wood
  • Use the palm sander (150 – 200+ grit) to get rid of any remaining stain or paint until the whole piece is bare

For areas that are awkward or impossible to reach with the sander, you might need to use a sanding block or a small piece of sandpaper to finish the job.

Remove any sanding residue when finished.

Fill the Grain

This is an optional step, and whether you choose to do this step depends largely on the type of grain in your furniture. Woods with a tight grain will not require grain filler, but if your furniture has a more open grain, like oak or mahogany, you may want to apply filler.

Recommended supplies:

Be sure to choose the right pigment for the 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 paintbrush to apply the filler and work it into the grain
  • Remove excess filler with a plastic scraper or putty knife
  • Once the filler dries completely, lightly sand the furniture, making sure to sand with the grain

Apply Sanding Sealer

Applying a sanding sealer is another optional step when refinishing wood. It helps your wood absorb the stain more evenly.

Recommended supplies include:

It’s a pretty simple process that often produces worthwhile results:

  • Apply a heavy coat of sanding sealer and allow it to soak into the wood
  • Wipe off any excess sealer with a clean rag
  • Let the sealer dry
  • Lightly sand the surface for a more even application

Stain

There are several options when it comes to staining wood. You can choose from water-based stains, oil-based ones, gel stains and one-step stains/finishes.

Recommended supplies:

When applying stain, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the product. Stain is easiest to apply with a staining pad, but a paintbrush is also a good option. Just follow these steps:

  • Apply a generous coat of stain to the wood
  • Remove any excess stain with a clean cloth and wipe lightly with the grain to avoid streaking
  • Apply another coat of stain to the surface of the wood

You might need to apply multiple coats until the desired color is achieved. Be sure to let the stain dry between coats.

Apply a Clear Coat

You should consider many factors when determining the type of finish to use. Consider what look you’re going for, your skill level, how durable you need the finish to be and how the item will be used.

Recommended supplies:

For easy application, use a clear coat and apply evenly, following the natural lines of the wood.

  • Apply a layer of clear coat directly to the wood
  • Lightly sand the surface
  • Apply the final layer

After applying the final layer, you’ll need to allow the wood to fully cure for 24 hours before use.

Whether you’re an experienced handyman or a rookie like me, following these easy steps will reap a professional-looking refinishing job, giving your furniture new life.

So if you’re looking to buy a fixer-upper or just refreshing your garage-sale-picking treasures in your current home, follow this guide for a seamless and successful project.

Do you have your own tips and tricks for refinishing wooden furniture? Let us know in the comments!

This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. I am working on a dry sink piece of furniture. Each side is comprised of three boards. There is some space between the three boards on each side . How do I take care of this problem. I tried glue but there is still a space. I can slip a piece of writing paper between the boards. Frankly the boards are somewhat out of alignment. I used a rubber mallet and tried to get them aligned. That did not work. There could be some warping going on here.

  2. I am refinishing a dresser for friend. The top i stained with Gel stain & looked awesome. Then roof leaked & dripped water onto it after i put poly on it. Sooo had to start over. Then i sanded too much in one spot & after reading online for 3days i think the spot is burnished. Super soft & smooth and wont hold stain. HELP. The top is a dark stain & then a yellow spot the size of a grapefruit. I did scuff it up with sandpaper 120 and it soaked up abit of gel stain but most wipes off. Now what??? Did i ruin it? Should I do it again with 80 sandpaper in that spot? I need advice, I cannot find anything on internet.

  3. I am refinishing an old library cabinet, to discover a bottom corner corner 8″×1″ is missing. What do I use to replace the gap? Is there a puddy of some sort I can mold into the area?

  4. Hi Guys, Horrible story, was cleaning my bed comforter that got a stain of nail Polish. While i placed the acetone on my dresser, i didnt realize it had a leak on the bottom/base like of a Glass filled with water. The acetone sat there and peeled off the protective coating and the stain on the dresser , showing a crescent moon looking damage shwoing the Orignal wood underneath. Not big in size but I dont know the best way to approach this. PLEASE HELP!!!

    1. If the acetone already damaged the coating and stain of your furniture, then the best and recommended way is to strip the entire surface and reapply stain and polyurethane. Otherwise, you may just use some sort of color marker to match the color and cover up the damage if you don’t want to go through the trouble to strip and stain. You can also use a table runner or some type of furniture cover to hide the damage.

  5. I have an old bedroom set that was my Mothers, it’s in good shape except for the tops of dresser, nightstand, and desktop. It’s wormwood.
    So far I have sanded down the top’s but not all the way to wood as I didn’t want to remove the worm holes. My problem is the holes are now filled with residue from sanding! I tried a wet rag, a sponge, paper towels, so far nothing has worked! Do you have any idea’s?

    1. Try some silly putty, slime, or those glue dots you see on the back of coupons affixed to flyers, or even chewed gum then push it into the worm hole crevices and pull back. It’s just sticky enough to pull the sawdust out yet not too much to get caught up in the holes.

      1. Thought of trying a vacuum?
        iv no idea just throwing it out there.
        Maybe a very small hose or tube of some kind taped to the end of
        Vacuum hose

  6. I am refinishing my first piece of furniture so please bare with me. It is an old library table it had old torn mahogany veneer that was so damaged I had to take it of oh what a job.I have been sanding and the place that had holes was filled with white filler i guess. I want to stain it back to mahogany but the wood is light.would you recommend using a mahogany wood filler. thank for your patients.

    1. I always use a bit of wood glue mixed with an extremely fine dust of whatever type of wood it is that you’re trying to recreate because it always looks better than that store-bought wood filler which looks like plastic and lets face face it hardly ever matches

  7. I have a gun cabinet that was given to me . It comes from a home with inside pets. I want to re-finish and the base has animal scratches in it. It is made of birch wood and I’m curious if a wood filler will stay on the corners or should I maybe try wood putty instead?

  8. 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?

  9. Nice post. It may take time to refinish old furniture but it’s really rewarding to see that piece stand out like a new one. Thanks for sharing.

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