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Furniture Refinishing: How To Restore Oldies But Goodies

Morgan McBride6-Minute Read
February 12, 2021

Well-built furniture can stand the test of time. While the design and structure of older furniture is often timeless, the finish often is not. This could mean that the paint or stain color is out of style or simply that it has worn down from use over time. Refinishing old furniture is the easiest way to give it new life.

While you can definitely hire out this process, it’s actually quite simple to do it yourself. Whether you want to save money or simply start a new hobby, refinishing furniture is a great way to create the custom pieces of your dreams.

Why Refinishing Old Furniture Is Worth It

Refinishing old furniture has several benefits. First of all, giving an old piece a new purpose is more environmentally sustainable than buying new furniture each time you change your home’s design. By refinishing old furniture, you’re keeping that old piece out of the landfill and opting not to use something newly produced.

Another benefit of refinishing older furniture is that it’s often higher quality than mass produced modern furniture. There has been a major rise in the use of particle board in furniture since the 1960s. Solid wood furniture tends to be much more stable and durable, and can be refinished time and time again. That’s why it’s still around in your home today.

There’s also a big potential ROI in learning how to refinish kitchen cabinets, outdoor decks and even hardwood floors. You’ll be able to save yourself a lot of money compared to hiring these tasks out, and if you enjoy doing it, might even be able to start up a lucrative side hustle.

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What To Know Before You Start Sanding

It is, of course, always easiest if a piece of furniture is in excellent shape and just needs the surface re-coated. However, there are some warning signs that the piece in question might need more than a fresh coat of stain.

Old furniture can become infested with pests such as bed bugs. If this is the case, you’re most likely better off getting rid of the entire piece than trying to get rid of the insects. Be sure to familiarize yourself with how to check for pests before buying used furniture to avoid this problem in the first place.

Another thing to check, on wooden furniture especially, is the joints. Spots such as where legs attach to the seat or body can become loose. This obviously affects the structural integrity of the piece. Wood glue can be used to reinforce joints and add that stability back.

If the furniture that you want to make over is painted and you plan to strip the paint to reveal the wood underneath, make sure you’re ready for anything you might find. Painted furniture may be concealing burns, water stains, or something else that requires further research. Stripping furniture is a lot of work, so be prepared to handle whatever you might uncover.

Finally, assess the quality of the furniture to determine if it's worth your efforts. Refinishing furniture can take a lot of effort and time. Be sure that this is a piece that you love before you invest too much into it.

What You Need To Get Started

You can start refinishing furniture with just a sander or sanding block, paint brush, and paint or stain. However, if you decide that you want to take on more projects, it might be worth it for you to invest in a few more tools.

Here are some tools to consider getting:

  • Orbital sander
  • Paint scraper
  • Paint sprayer
  • Spray painting tent
  • Tarps or cloth drop cloths
  • Lazy Susan or rotating platform

Always use proper safety practices when refinishing furniture. This means wearing a face mask and eye protection. Also consider ear protection if you’re working with a loud tool. Always work in a well-ventilated space or outdoors.

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How To Refinish Your Furniture In 6 Easy Steps

Refinishing furniture isn’t hard, but it does involve a lot of steps. When you’re first getting started it’s especially important to not skip any steps. Take your time and work carefully for results you can be most proud of. Use your best judgment on when each step is completed before moving on.

Step 1: Get It Clean

Thoroughly clean your furniture. Generally, a damp soapy rag will work wonders. You can also use a magic eraser to remove scuffs or stains. Having a clean starting surface is imperative for getting a new finish to take evenly across the wood. Having different parts of the surface at different levels of clean or smooth can result in different looks after painting or staining.

Step 2: Inspect For Repairs

Inspecting your furniture for damage is a really important part of the process. Examine the surfaces for any major dings or scratches you might want to repair. Check the joints for looseness that might need to be glued. Check each knob, drawer slide, or any other hardware for functionality. Determine if any of the hardware needs to be replaced or if you want to swap it out for aesthetic purposes. It might help to take notes of any defects so you don’t forget to repair them all.

Step 3: Remove Any Layers

If your piece has fabric, such as a seat, remove it. If there are knobs or hardware, unscrew them. Examine any moving pieces – drawers, doors, or anything else – and separate it as much as possible. You want to get your piece down to the bare bones to make it as easy as possible to update. Taking off hardware, for example, makes it much easier to paint than taping these pieces off.

Step 4: Sand It Down

Bust out your sander and get to work! In general, you want to start with a low-grit sandpaper (100 – 150 grit). Low-grit sandpapers are rougher and better for taking off existing finishes such as paint, sealant or stain. Then, follow up with a higher-grit sandpaper (200 – 300). These are designed to smooth surfaces. The softer and smoother you want it, the higher grit you should use! Also, the smoother surface will make for the most even coverage of paint and stain.

Step 5: Patch It Up

Now is the time to patch and repair any holes, dings or scratches. Usually, wood filler is a good option for this. Apply the filler with a plastic spreader knife, allow to dry, and sand for a smooth, continuous surface. Smaller scratches might be hidden just with paint or stain. If you need to fuse a thicker crack for structural purposes, using two-part epoxy will provide the best long-term fix.

Step 6: Stain, Paint, Play!

Once your piece is fully prepped, you’re ready to paint or stain. Always follow the instructions on your can of paint or stain. But, for the most part, you want to apply many thin coats as opposed to one or two thick coats. Thick coats often lead to drips, which are really disappointing and can mess up a finish.

If you plan to paint, you might benefit from applying a primer first. Applying primer can help to cut down on the number of coats of paint needed, especially if you’re painting a light color over dark. If you’re painting over wood with knots in it, primer can definitely help to disguise those knots.

Paint can be applied with a high-quality brush or with a paint sprayer. Paint sprayers require more prep work and clean up but can give you a flawless finish in just a few minutes. If using a paint sprayer, make sure you start and end your spray off the piece and then work the spray over the furniture. Starting or ending the spray while pointed at the furniture will cause uneven coverage on those spots.

Stain should be applied with a lint-free cloth or foam brush. Apply, let sit, and then wipe away excess for best results. Usually only one coat is needed, depending on the look you want. The sooner you wipe dry, the less the stain will take, so you might want to try on some scrap pieces of wood to get the look you want before trying it on your piece.

Step 7: Seal it

Once you have finished staining or painting your furniture, you’ll want to apply a sealant. Pay close attention to the finish – there can be a big difference between a matte, semi-gloss, or glossy topcoat. Apply 2 – 3 thin coats, sanding lightly in between each coat. Never apply sealant in a dirty space – dust and debris can land on your piece and dry into the finish, stuck there forever. Always allow your furniture to cure completely according to the directions on the can of sealant to avoid dings or dents in the finish.

Refinishing your furniture is a great way to get hands-, save money and create the furniture piece of your dreams. These easy steps will help you make beautiful, sustainable, and long-lasting furniture to transform your home and perfectly match your personal style.

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Morgan McBride

Morgan McBride is a DIY-lover and home decor enthusiast living in Charleston, South Carolina. She has been blogging at alongside her husband since 2012, where they empower their readers to craft their current home into their dream home through the power of DIY.