Must-Know Tips to Prep and Refinish Furniture

Wondering where to start with refinishing furniture from the thrift store or the dumpster? Get our tips for prepping furniture to refinish, repaint, and reupholster!

Read more in How to Refinish Wood Furniture, How to Choose the Right Furniture Paint, and How To Reupholster Chairs

Fun Remodelaholic fact for you: Back when we started the site, it was all about turning something old into something new, repurposing, reusing, re-doing.

We’ve evolved a little bit since then and added a lot more topics, but we still love updating something that’s old/broken, dated, or not your style into something that you love, that can reflect both its original character AND the added character that you want in your home.

Plus, buying secondhand, reusing an inherited piece, or picking up a curbside find (score!) is a great way to save money on decorating your home.

Once you’ve found a great piece, it’s time to prep it so you can make it AMAZING!

We’ve teamed up with the folks from the Hot Shot® brand to share all the tips and tricks that you need to know to make your refinishing project a success.

How to Prep and Refinish Furniture

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Hot Shot® Insecticides. All opinions are mine. This post also contains affiliate links. Learn more about how partnerships like these help keep our site running at no cost to you here

Before you buy: be sure to inspect the piece to make sure there are no obvious red flags that will make it more work than it’s worth to salvage. Issues such as mold or rotting can sometimes be an easy fix, but even if you decide to take on a bigger problem, it’s always good to have an idea of what you’re dealing with before you haul something home.

How to prep a used chair for refinishing @remodelaholic-1

1: Get rid of the bugs

I’ve mentioned before that this is my first step when we move into a new-to-us home, and the same goes for new-to-us furniture — NO BUGS ALLOWED!

The last thing that you want is to put the effort into refinishing a piece of furniture only to discover halfway through the project that you’ve got creepy crawly company. ICK!

Bugs are an easy fix though — before bringing the piece into your home, spray the piece with Hot Shot® Bed Bug & Flea Home Insect Killer2 (Ready to Use) and wait the recommended amount of time before bringing it into your home.

(As with any product, be sure to read the full product label prior to use, so you know you’re giving it time to work properly.)

Then your furniture is ready for a redo, and you can have the peace of mind of knowing that you won’t be bringing any unwanted bed bugs or other pests guests into your home with your fabulous new project.

P&G and Home Depot Cleaning with kids for Spring (19 of 19)

2. Get rid of the smell

Pre-owned furniture usually comes with a few smells of its own, especially if you’ve rescued a roadside find or gone dumpster diving (guilty!).

Time on its own *might* do the trick, but who has the patience for that, especially with fun new project?! Luckily, there are lots of ways to refresh and remove odor from a used piece of furniture.

For upholstered projects or pre-loved rugs, a fabric refresher/deodorizing spray (you can make your own), and a good cleaning (with steam, if the material allows) and vacuuming is a good place to start.

For stronger smells and stains, I’ve had pet enzyme cleaner recommended (even if the smells and stains aren’t from pets) but I haven’t personally tried it yet.

Cigarette smoke is a common but more stubborn problem with pre-owned furniture. While it’s nearly impossible to get the smoke smell out of upholstery without starting from scratch, there are many different ways to get smoke and other odors out of wood furniture.

I like to start by wiping the entire piece down with a solution of diluted vinegar to neutralize the odors, and then, for any remaining musty smells or other odors, put an open container of baking soda inside the piece or sprinkle it around the piece liberally and let it do its work absorbing any odor.

Once the smell is gone, just vacuum or sweep the baking soda out. If baking soda doesn’t do the trick or you don’t have any on hand, you can also use other materials such as:

  • cedar strips
  • charcoal briquettes
  • coffee grounds
  • crumpled up newspaper
  • kitty litter
  • dryer sheets
  • or grandma’s standby: scented satchets!

With satchets and vinegar, I like to add a drop or two of essential oils as well to help freshen as it removes the odor — lemon is my favorite!

how to remove odors from old furniture

Sunshine is also a great natural freshener, just be careful that the piece doesn’t sustain any damage, such as cracking or fading, while its soaking up the rays.

Also, if you’re dealing with a piece built from cedar, like a cedar chest, lightly sanding (and vacuuming) the unfinished cedar will release fresh cedar scent.

If it’s a piece you’re planning to sand and seal, a shellac or varnish may also help cover up any remaining odor.

Tips for sanding furniture to paint or refinish @Remodelaholic

3. Prep for paint

There are lots of different methods for repainting furniture, but I personally always sand a piece, at least lightly, before painting — no matter what type of paint I’m using.

Remember, any imperfections (dents, splinters, etc.) will only be amplified by a coat of paint! Some wood filler and caulk, lovingly applied, can work wonders in making an old piece shine like new.

Once you’re ready to sand, you’ll need a variety of sanding materials (depending on the piece’s shape and style). Remember to suit up with proper eye protection and a respiratory mask before you start kicking up the dust, too!

For larger pieces, a larger electric sander like an orbital sander will save your arms a lot of work (and don’t forget some extra sanding pads!).

A handheld belt sander can be great for sanding larger curves (like on our Swedish mora clock) and a smaller mouse sander is also helpful for those tricky corners or smaller surfaces.

You can also use a sanding attachment for a drill (like our drill attachment we used on our built-in closet) or a sanding attachment for a rotary tool.

When it comes to areas that are more delicate or have more curves than an electric sanding can handle, put your hand-sanding finesse to work with a sanding block for flat areas, or a sanding sponge for a bit of a curve.

For more detailed or smaller sections, super fine (#0000) steel wool can do the job, or for really tricky intricate curves and carved pieces, try Beck’s low-to-no sanding method.

After you sand, be sure to remove all the sanding dust with a vacuum and a tack cloth to ensure your paint job will turn out perfect!

Not painting? This time-tested method for refinishing quality wood furniture will help restore a piece to its former glory! These steps will also help if the existing finish on the piece is damaged and needs to be removed before restaining or painting. 

Once you’ve prepped your piece and killed the bugs, de-odorized, and prepped it for paint — you’re ready to refinish!

How to Refinish Furniture and Chairs


Slipcover a Chair

If you’ll be slipcovering the piece, grab an old sheet and follow this tutorial.

Sheets are inexpensive material for making a test or pattern without the risk of ruining the more expensive and painstakingly chosen upholstery fabric. Tips for making your own custom slipcover for furniture @Remodelaholic


Reupholster a Chair

If you’re completely reupholstering, you’ll start by very carefully removing each piece of fabric and taking very good notes (learn more in this post).

And don’t toss any of the hardware or metal strips as you take apart the chair — often you’ll be able to reuse them!

See more tips for reupholstering different types of chairs here. 

Tips for a successful DIY reupholstery job @Remodelaholic


Restore Leather

If you’ve got leather chair that needs some love, this method for refreshing leather upholstery is super simple!

Restore a Leather Chair - Before and After, The Project Addict featured on Remodelaholic


Fix Cushions

If your project chair or sofa needs some cushion help, try one of these methods to give it back some shape and form.DIY Couch Cushion Fixes at


Fix Rusty Chrome

If the chrome on your piece has seen better days, all you need to polish away the rust is a bit of tin foil and some water. Yup, it’s that easy! More details hereHow to repair and refinish a rusty chrome 02 by The Heathered Nest featured on @Remodelaholic

Painting Furniture

If you’ll be painting the piece, follow this guide to choose the right type of paint for refinishing.

Painting Furniture Tis For Using 5 Different Types Of Paint, Photo Of 5 Chairs All Different Colors With The Type Of Paint Shown On Each

Happy refinishing! What’s your best tip for refinishing furniture?

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Hot Shot® Insecticides.

Buying secondhand furniture instead of new can save you a bundle of money while giving you a unique and custom piece. Preparation is the key to a great finished product, so follow these must-know tips to refinish furniture, for both wood furniture and reupholstering, for a successful furniture rehab. @Remodelaholic

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Lorene has been behind the scenes here at Remodelaholic for more than a decade! She believes that planning projects and actually completing them are two different hobbies, but that doesn't stop her from planning at least a dozen projects at any given time. She spends her free time creating memories with her husband and 5 kids, traveling as far as she can afford, and partaking of books in any form available.

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  1. Brilliant! Older furniture was built to last. It’s so sturdy. You can get the same quality today but it’s so expensive.
    I have done slipcovers and am about to try my hand at actual reupholstery.
    I also gave dying a first try. It turned out great! Some outdoor cushions had faded with the sun. I dyed them three at a time in my washer with a kit from the supermarket. They are like new!

  2. Wonderful post!! This should be included in a flyer for every thrift store. ;D

    I’d like to add, though – baking soda absorbs smell, so if you leave your opened box of it in there and then try to use it for baking later… well… gross. :’D Just putting some in a small dish and setting it in the problem area and leaving it for a few days is often good!

    1. Thanks, Mariele — and yes, thank you for the note about the baking soda! Definitely don’t re-use the stinky baking soda for baking, ick! My mom would always have a box in the fridge to absorb smells and once she swapped it out, she’d use it for cleaning (but not baking!) — but it’s pretty inexpensive, too 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  3. Oh Cass, thank you for cluing me in about Hot Shot bed bug and flea! I had no idea that stuff existed! The other tips are wonderful as well. I also appreciate the link back to restoring a leather chair.
    SO many places I can use these tips! 🙂

  4. A better solution for stripping paint and varnishe’s is to use a gel version of methaline chloride in concjunction with a brass wire brush, nylon stripping brush, and or various plastic scrapers/putty knifes. While the stripping gel can be caustic to bare skin that can be easily mitigated by using rubber gloves. The sander option is laborious to say the least, plus in the off chance the piece was painted with lead paint at some point you will be turning the paint into breathe able dust. Nother to mention, anyone who has sanded paint knows that it very quickly clogs the sand paper and renders it almost useless. Also someone with little to no sanding experience will more than likely damage the piece in some fashion or another with a power sander of any variety especially a belt sander which can remove material extremely fast. As someone who has professionally restored furniture methalyne chloride gel is my first option and I rarely use a sander before the majority of the paint or varnish is off. More often than not I only have to use sand paper by hand at the very end to detail any profiles in whatever piece I am working on.

  5. I must admit I’m always put off second hand sofas and the like, purely because you just don’t know where they’ve been, or what’s been on them! Maybe if I give some of these odour neutralising methods a try it’ll put my mind to rest. Thanks!