A Beginner’s Guide to Refinishing Solid Wood Furniture

It’s no secret that giving your dining and living areas a facelift can get pricey very quickly if you’re not careful. Between new paint, construction costs, and updating furniture, you might feel too overwhelmed even to start a project, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re thrifty and willing to sacrifice some elbow grease, you can completely change up your existing furniture or furniture that you might buy at a secondhand or antique store for relatively little money.

Beginner’s Guide to Refinishing Solid Wood Furniture

(Pixabay / newhouse)

It’s worth noting that if your furniture is high-end or antique, you may need to think about your end goal before you attempt a refinishing project. People who do restorations on these types of furniture do so at the risk of decreasing the furniture’s value for the sake of increasing longevity. If you’re looking to preserve value, you might consider talking to a professional before attempting any DIY restorations.

That said, with the right tools and a degree of patience, refinishing your solid wood furniture can breathe new life into what you have without requiring you to buy additional pieces.

Before You Begin, You Should Ask Yourself:

What is my final goal?

How you want your furniture to look in the end should be a major factor for how you choose to refinish. If your piece is already painted, chances are pretty good that there is some kind of flaw in the wood underneath that the original painter wanted to hide. Dinged or scratched wood will stain darker than the wood around it, so if you don’t like the character those kinds of marks bring with them, you’re better off repainting instead of stripping and staining.

If, on the other hand, your current piece is painted and you want to strip and stain anyway or if the piece is stained, but you’d like it to be a different color, refinishing with a stain is the way to go.

Is it solid wood to begin with?

The phrase, “They just don’t make things like they used to,” rings especially true with furniture. For the last 50 years or so, the majority of furniture has been made using particle board or plywood instead of solid wood. This allows manufacturers to make more pieces for significantly cheaper, and it gets the end product to the consumer for a much lower price. The trade-off for buying inexpensive furniture, however, is that it isn’t as durable and long-lasting. If the piece you are considering is made from particleboard or its equivalent, it’s not worth your time refinishing – except maybe to give it a fresh coat of paint.

Is it in good condition, or do I need to fix it first?

This question is good for self-reflection. If your furniture needs a lot of work to make it useable, but you’re willing to take the time, go for it. If it needs to be dismantled, fixed, refinished, and then put back together, you might not be willing to put in the time and energy. Before you start the process, take a moment to ask yourself if it’s really worth it to you to refinish this piece at all.

Once You’re Ready to Start

Once you’ve given the piece a good once-over, you’re ready to start the process of refinishing.

  1. Clean it really well. You can use a commercial cleaner, but it’s not recommended because you never know how the wood underneath is going to react. Instead, just use a little bit of mild dish soap and give your piece a good rub down with a clean cloth. Let the wood dry completely before starting the next step.
  2. Remove the old finish. Before you start, make sure that you have the right equipment. You should have gloves, goggles, brushes, a scraper, a chemical stripper, and a very well ventilated space. Follow the directions on the packaging, and be sure to let the piece dry completely before moving on to the next step.
  3. Sand and repair. Even after you’ve used a chemical stripper, you should go over your piece with both coarse and fine grain sandpaper. It’s important to note that you should always sand with the grain, otherwise you can create tiny cuts in the wood that will take the stain differently than the rest of the piece. If you have any splits in the wood or problems with the grain, this is the stage when you should fill them with wood filler. Make sure to let it dry completely and then sand it down again so that it’s smooth.
  4. Seal then stain. It may seem a little silly to apply a sanding sealant before you stain, but doing so will help you get even results. Staining is a bit of an art form, so doing whatever you can before you start will only add to your success. Once the sealant is completely dry, brush on a coat of stain and then wipe it off with a rag. This works the stain down into the grain while helping you prevent streaking.
  5. Finish your piece. If you want to keep your piece looking beautiful for years to come, it’s important to finish it well. You can choose from lacquer, traditional or water-based polyurethane, or a penetrating oil finish. They each have different pros and cons, so you need to research what kind of durability you are going for, as well as how much time and patience you have left to create the result you want.

Refinishing a piece of furniture requires a level of skill and patience to get a worthwhile final project. If you rush, you could end up with drips, wrinkles, sags, and uneven coloring, so make sure that you have enough time to do the job well before you even start. That said, if you are willing and able to put in the time, you can update your current furniture for a fraction of the price of purchasing all new.