Hello, friends! Since everyone loved the top of the
antique desk that got refinished and painted, I thought it would be helpful to do a tutorial on how to refinish
furniture. It’s definitely not one of the most fun DIY projects, but it’s
good to know how to do this for any piece of wood furniture that has a beat up
finish over a nice wood grain. The first piece of furniture I refinished was
more than 20 years ago and I’ve done quite a few pieces since then.
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If the piece has a clear finish on it, this is the tutorial for you. If
it has a painted finish, the process is basically the same, but the products
are slightly different.
I realize that everyone’s time is precious and that painting over a beat up
finish is the quickest and easiest fix, but there are times that it’s worth the
extra time and effort of refinishing a nice piece of furniture. It’s not
difficult to do, but does take a few hours.
Here’s an example of why you really should take the time to refinish a nice
piece of furniture, or at least part of it, whenever possible:
Now that you’ve seen the “why“, I’ll teach you the “how“:
How to Refinish Wood Furniture
These are the products I used in the
desk makeover that has the refinished top, which is what you see in the photos throughout this post. #1
through 4 were used on the top, and the other products were used on the
drawers, hardware, and body of the desk.
For removing a finish on a better piece of solid wood furniture (not
veneer or laminate), these are the supplies you will need:
- Electric Sander*
- 80 grit and 220 grit sandpaper
- Finish Remover* (#1 above)
- Small brass wire brush
- Fine Steel wool (#2 above)
– these must be chemical-resistant
- Cheap brush for applying the remover
- Good quality mask
- Safety glasses
*Depending on the piece, you might only need either a
but not both. I prefer to sand flat areas whenever possible, but
sometimes there are carved and detailed areas where a sander can’t get to
and a stripper or
needs to be used.
And for finishing the piece once you’ve removed the old finish, here’s
what you’ll need:
- 220 grit (or finer) Sandpaper
- Tack cloth
(optional) and clean rags or a brush to apply it with (#3 above)
Final finish –
tung oil, hemp oil, etc. (#4 above)
- Good quality brush to apply the finish
Now for the how-to:
1. Sand the flat areas
Using your electric sander and the 80 grit sandpaper, go over all flat areas,
in the direction of the grain if possible, until the finish is gone. You
will likely have to change out the sandpaper on the sander a few times because
it will fill up with the old finish. Depending on the type of finish and
the size of the piece of furniture, the sanding process could take an hour or
so. You might want to wear work gloves to reduce the effects of the
sander on your hands. And be sure to wear a
while you’re sanding. The dust can get in your lungs and make you sick.
Trust me on this one.
My mom using my vintage Ryobi Sander on the desk top. She was the one
who found this desk and helped with the finish removal. She’s the best
mom ever. 🙂
Before we started, this is what it looked like. Not very pretty at all.
After quite a bit of sanding there’s still a little of the finish left on
the top in this photo. The edges still have all of the old finish on
2. Apply liquid stripper where needed
Apply the stripper to the furniture, using a cheap brush that you can throw away
when you’re finished with it.
On any detailed areas, a finish remover will probably be needed. If it’s a clear finish that needs to be
removed, I recommend Formby’s Conditioning Wood Refinisher. It’s not as harsh as some of the paint removers on the market
and is ideal for older pieces and antiques.
For removing paint, you will need something stronger. I
recommend Dad’s Easy Spray Paint and Varnish Remover for that job.
Since the remover usually comes in a metal can like the one in the photo
above, you’ll need to pour a small amount of it into a metal can that you
can work from. You can use a cleaned out food can or old coffee can,
or you can usually purchase unused empty paint cans from a paint store.
We sell them in various sizes with lids at the paint store I work at.
3. Remove the furniture stripper
After waiting the amount of time recommended on the manufacturer’s label,
usually just a few minutes at the most, use a
wire brass brush
(pictured above) to remove the old finish. It gets down into the grooves but
the bristles are softer than most wire brushes and therefore it doesn’t damage
the wood. It looks kinda like a toothbrush. And although I’m sure it
would remove lots of plaque, I really wouldn’t recommend using it on your
The edges after the finish was removed.
4. Clean off the residue
After the finish is removed, go over the piece with a clean with a rag and
mineral spirits (paint thinner) to remove any finish residue.
5. Sand the wood
After the mineral spirits dry/evaporate, sand the wood with 220 grit (or finer) sandpaper so the wood is nice and smooth.
Then use a tack cloth to remove all of the dust so you’ll have a nice
smooth final finish.
On this piece, I wanted a rich stain color to really bring out the wood grain,
so I chose to stain it. You can see how the stain adds a richness to the
already beautiful wood grain. I used ZAR oil-based wood stain in Mocha. If you’ve never tried ZAR stain, I highly recommend it. The colors
are gorgeous and it goes on smoothly and evenly.
6. Apply stain if desired
Now that you’ve removed the finish, cleaned off any residue, sanded and
removed any dust, it’s time to stain the piece. Note: staining is optional. At this point, you could just put on a clear finish and skip the
staining step. It’s totally up to you. Even a clear finish will
bring out the natural color of the wood and darken it slightly from what the
unfinished wood looks like. The way the piece looks when you wipe it
with mineral spirits is the color it would be if you only added a clear
finish and no stain. See the 2nd photo back for this.
Another note: if you’re staining softer woods like pine, I would strongly
suggest using a pre-stain wood conditioner first. This will prevent splotchiness and help your stain go
Apply the stain with a clean cotton rag, working in a circular motion so it will
really go down into the wood grain. I applied a fairly generous amount,
let it set for 5 or 10 minutes, and then wiped off any excess that wasn’t
soaking in. NOTE: different woods absorb stain at a different rate. Softer
woods will soak it right up, while harder woods take longer to absorb
The whole desk after staining, but before applying the clear finish.
7. Apply Finish Coat
After the stain dries completely (see label for manufacturer’s recommended
drying time), it’s time to coat it with a finish coat. I finished this
piece with polyurethane, applying it with a good quality natural bristle brush, putting it on in the direction of the wood grain.
Depending on the piece and how much wear and abuse it will get, you can use a
variety of finishes. For this piece I used this finish. I chose polyurethane because it is extremely durable and doesn’t show water
spots if a glass is set down on it. And it lasts for many years without
having to redo it. I chose the antique flat finish because I just don’t
like glossy finishes, but that’s my personal taste. Antique flat isn’t
completely flat, but is very low gloss.
8. Sand and apply 2nd coat
Here’s the view of the whole desk. Yes, I could have refinished the
entire piece. But I thought that the details would actually show up
better if painted, and they do. I’ll have another post soon and go
through the painting process that I did here and the colors that I used.
Also, this is a piece that’s for sale (it’s now sold), and the time it would
have taken to completely refinish it would have caused the selling price of it
the be more than anyone in my market is willing to pay. It only has one
coat of paint, so if someone decided to strip the paint at some point in the
future, it wouldn’t be that difficult.
I hope this tutorial has given you the information you need to refinish your
furniture. Let me know if you decide to try it and how your project
Thanks for stopping by!
The opinions in this post are mine, based on my own personal experience
using the specific products mentioned here. I have not been paid by
any of the brands mentioned to recommend their products. I am,
however, an Amazon associate which means that if you purchase something from
them after clicking a product link listed here, I might make a few cents
from the sale. Please follow the manufacturers instructions for any
product you use and wear the necessary safety equipment (mask, gloves,
glasses) when doing a project.