Refinishing a piece of furniture is a great way to save money while update a piece you love. It’s really popular right now to paint classic pieces — every color from coral 😉 to white and everything in between. The popularity and ease of using chalk paint makes it stylish and fairly simple.
BUT — what do you do with a piece that has a damaged finish, that can’t be covered with paint? or if you want to restore the natural wood beauty of a piece?
Then, you put on your gloves and get to work refinishing. Beck has been refinishing furniture for years and she is here to share with us her tried and true methods for restoring wood furniture back to its natural beauty — even the intricate carved pieces! Here’s Beck!
How to Refinish Wood Furniture
by Beck from Beckwith’s Treasures
Hi! I’m Beck from Beckwith’s Treasures. What a thrill to be invited to share here today! When Cassity invited me to share my dining table tutorial I warned her I am not one of those bloggers who takes professional-like photographs of all my little projects after perfectly styling them! I think I cut my teeth on a block of wood and I literally learned to walk in a cabinet shop. I grew up in construction…remodeling, refinishing, repurposing! To this day, my favorite smell is sawdust…I would bottle it into a perfume if I thought it would sell!
So my knowledge comes from a lifetime of experience and my website is my way of sharing what I love to do. More doing…less froo-frooing…that’s the “Beckwith Way.”
I am old enough to remember a time when we didn’t have the internet to tell us how to do a project. I learned from my dad…he learned from his dad. Times have changed and products have improved!
Now there are soooo many DIY tutorials online and hundreds of products…at times it can be overwhelming. Who wouldn’t be confused? So one of the most important decisions (and hardest!) when DIYing is finding a process and products that work best for YOU!
This is the process I use to strip old finish and paint from furniture. I think I have tried almost every product and process out there and this is the one that works best for me. The final result is, in my opinion, exactly what you want when you strip furniture whether you are going to paint or stain! I hope it works for you!
You can pick up the products you need at any home improvement store! Here is a list of the products you will need and how much they cost!
- Citristrip (1/2 gallon, $20)
- A cheap “chip” brush ($1.50)
- Flat, plastic scrapper (less than $2)
- Acetone (Crown, 1 gallon, $17)
- Lacquer Thinner (Crown, 1 gallon, $18)
- 000/0000 Steel Wool ($4)
- An old toothbrush (never toss an old toothbrush)
- Metal/glass bowl (I buy the huge 8 cup measuring bowls at thrift stores and garage sales!)
- Old towels/shop rags
I am first and foremost a die hard “wood lover.” I believe in treating it with love and respect and doing what I can to enhance the beauty of a piece, especially older pieces that are constructed of wood we just don’t see much any more in new, affordable furniture…walnut, cherry, mahogany, teak, rosewood.
A great deal of mid century furniture was constructed of teak, walnut or rosewood and those pieces are my “first love.” I infuse as many as I can get my hands on into my decor. Many of those pieces have 50 and 60 year old finish on them…or worse, have been “refinished” by someone who didn’t quite know what they were doing.
I have refinished MANY MCM pieces over the years and feel like I have developed a pretty good “process.” Just do a “search” for “mid century” on my site…you will find many of the projects I have worked on over the years…my Lane Acclaim tables, television cabinet, barrel chairs,office chair, coffee table……and sooooo much more!
This amazing antique dining table was literally caked with old, crackled varnish so it is the perfect piece to share! You can really see the difference in the “before and after” pictures at the end!
At some point someone had stripped the top and the inserts, but not the base. Stripping the old finish off the ornate base might seem like a daunting task to most, but honestly, it is the same process whether the piece has a little or a lot of old finish…well, not exactly, but we will get to that! And knowing a few little tricks and tips can make stripping ornate pieces a little easier!
Regardless of “style” or “period” of the piece, I have a few “die hard” rules for stripping and refinishing ANY wood furniture.
It doesn’t matter in the end if I am going to paint or stain…if I am going to strip it first, this is the process that works best for me!
1)Refinish vs. Paint?
The first thing you have to decide when “rehabbing” any piece of furniture is how can the piece be “enhanced?” Sometimes you really can enhance a piece by painting it, especially if it has a lot of water damage, broken or “bubbled” veneer that needs repair, or missing trim pieces that have to be replaced. Or it is just an “outdated” piece with little value so it needs a POW of color!!! Those pieces may be better off painted. I have a number of projects I have painted and shared on my site.
You may think you do not need to strip old paint or finish if you are going to paint. That is not always the case. I have stripped many pieces before I painted them for a number of reasons! Usually because it has a heavy finish on it or layers of “unstable” paint. Removing old paint or finish is NOT as daunting as it sounds if you have a good process and the right products!
In my opinion, regardless of whether you are going to paint or stain, you will get a superior result if you first strip the piece down to bare wood!
If stripping, staining and applying a new finish will ENHANCE or preserve the piece, it is not a hard process.
2) THERE ARE NO SHORT CUTS WHEN STRIPPING OLD FINISHES…
whether it is painted or stained! None…and if you don’t do it right, your new finish will look like crud and you will have wasted your time. Settle in and do it right!
Word of warning…you are working with chemicals! Always WEAR GLOVES, EYE PROTECTION, LONG PANTS AND CLOSED TOED SHOES. Trust me…splash this stuff on your skin and it will leave a mark! (I wear glasses so I bought an inexpensive pair of glasses to wear while I work!)
Also, do not do this on any grass you are fond of and always put something disposable (paper, cardboard, plastic, whatever) under the piece to catch all the drips and gunk!
If the existing finish (whether varnish, shellack, poly or paint) is really “heavy” I first coat it with Citristrip. I use a cheap “chip” brush to apply it per the directions. After letting that sit a bit, I scrape it with a flat, plastic scraper.
ALWAYS scrape with the grain.
You are probably wondering how you “scrape” all the turned legs and carvings…patience, I’ll get there 😉
Sometimes the finish melts right off, other times it is pretty stubborn…just coat it again with the stripper, let it sit a bit, and then scrape it again! It may take 2-3 applications to get all the “heavy” finish off.
If the piece doesn’t have a real heavy existing finish or multiple layers of paint, you may not even want to use the Citristrip…use your judgment!
After removing the really heavy old finish or the majority of the paint, mix 1/2 acetone and 1/2 lacquer thinner in a glass or metal bowl and use a piece of steel wool to scrub the piece with this mixture. This is the best way to get the old finish and gel stripper off turned legs and etchings.
I use 0000 steel. I can scrub the piece without worrying too much about damaging the wood! This will remove the stripper you couldn’t scrape off and melt the varnish right off the turns and carvings. Work from the top down and don’t be afraid to use this mixture liberally!
THIS is the real process for removing ALL the old finish!
One exceptional tool for removing old finish….toothbrushes. Seriously, use an old toothbrush to get into all the corners, grooves and crannies…just dip it in the acetone/thinner mixture and scrub away! They are tough enough to scrub out the crud but won’t hurt the wood! Have you ever seen a piece of furniture that has been refinished and all the corners and joints are dark? That’s because they didn’t get all the old finish off…use a toothbrush and you won’t have that problem!
This process may take some time and elbow grease. I usually mix several batches of the acetone/thinner and go through several pieces of steel wool.
I probably went around this table 4-5 times just scrubbing with the mixture! (This is where one of those low shop stools on wheels is a back saver!)
If you don’t take this process seriously and remove of ALL the old finish, you are wasting your time because you WILL be disappointed. While this stripping process may seem labor intensive, it is much easier than sanding the old finish off and you are much less likely to damage the piece.
Which brings me to rule #3…..
3) SAND AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE.
You should almost always use chemical strippers if your goal is to remove all the old finish or paint and only sand a tad (with the grain…if needed…220 grit) AFTER you have stripped all the old finish.
Many old pieces (unlike this table) may have veneer. Veneer can be thin and if you sand too vigorously you can do a lot of damage! Also, you will NEVER get all the old finish out of decorative carvings or turned legs (like this table) with sandpaper…not happening!
Also, palm sanders tend to leave little “swirly” marks. As faint as they may seem, they are going to be glaring if you apply stain. Save yourself the grief…hand sand with 220 grit paper on the flat surfaces and steel wool on the ornate areas. SAND WITH THE GRAIN!! Cross grain marks WILL show up if you stain the piece!
Keep in mind too that once you strip all the old finish, you are REALLY going to see the “character” (grain) of the wood. A lot of old finishes were applied with a “multi-layer” process or were sprayed on with the stain mixed in with the finish. This process was used to give the piece a more “uniform” look and hide the “variations” in the wood grain.
If you like a uniform look, paint it because you are going to reveal the “character” of the wood when you strip it down to bare wood!
Also, there is a chance you could dissolve adhesives (glue) that was used on joints. That’s not a huge issue…it is best to go ahead and strip and stain the piece BEFORE you do any major repairs. Stain will not penetrate glue…so if you get any glue on the wood, it won’t absorb a stain! (If you are going to paint a piece repair it BEFORE paint…if you are going to stain, repair it AFTER stain)
It took me four hours to completely strip all the old finish off this table!
After you have stripped all the old finish, wash the entire piece with clean rags and mineral spirits. I have a tenant who works for a commercial laundry service and she brings me old towels! If you are going to refinish furniture, buy towels and rags at garage sales and thrift stores and cut them up into washcloth size pieces.
Which reminds me…WORD OF WARNING!!!! DO NOT THROW RAGS OR STEEL WOOL IN A TRASH CAN IF THEY HAVE ANY CHEMICALS ON THEM. LAY THEM OUT TO DRY IN THE SUN. BAG THEM UP AFTER THEY ARE COMPLETELY DRY AND HAVE AIRED OUT FOR A FEW DAYS. THEY CAN SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUST AND BURN YOUR HOUSE DOWN!!!! (Do not bag them with paper or cardboard and keep them separate from household trash!)
While washing your piece down with the mineral spirits you may find a few spots that need a little more “scrubbing” to remove any old finish…not a problem…just scrub it again with steel wool or a toothbrush and the acetone/thinner mixture and then wash it down with the mineral spirits!
(The mineral spirit wash is also a great way to see what the wood would look like with just a clear finish applied…if you love the color of the wood when it is wet with mineral spirits, just apply your clear coat finish!)
Let the piece dry and then give it a light sanding if needed. (again, ALWAYS with the grain!)
I stained the top of this table with a walnut colored stain. If you refinish a table with inserts, make sure you strip, stain and finish those at the same time so they will match!
STAIN: I never use stain that has a “finish” or “sealer” in it. If you don’t like the color, you are pretty much stuck. Use a stain that has to have a finish applied. If you aren’t real keen on the color you can immediately wipe it off with mineral spirits or even layer another stain color on top of it. In other words, you can make adjustments to the color after it is applied.
I stained the top of this table with a brown walnut stain.
Different woods will stain differently. Your best bet is to stain a small “test” patch on the piece and have mineral spirits and a clean rag handy to wipe it off if you don’t like the color.
After the stain dries, I personally prefer a tung oil finish. Super easy to wipe on…pretty much “idiot proof.” I apply 3-4 coats and sand with 0000 steel wool and wipe with tack cloth between coats!
The awesome thing about a tung oil finish is it is super easy to “fix” scratches and wear…just lightly “sand” it with 0000 steel wool, wipe with a tack cloth and apply another coat of the finish! Here I discuss the (lack of) difference between oils.
I usually “re-oil” the tops of my tables once a year…or as needed.
I NEVER apply poly to stained finishes! I have an old walnut dresser I sealed with poly and I regret it! Someday it will get refinished properly!
I finally decided to use a glaze tinted with black paint on the base. I like the fact that the glaze allows the wood grain to show through! After the glaze dried I sealed it with 3 coats of tung oil finish. My original plan was to paint the base white and I can still do that at some point if I choose.
For now I am going to leave it as it and just enjoy the beauty of the wood. This is one of those pieces that begs for “less is more!”
Beck, thank you so much for sharing your know-how with us!
Remodelaholics, head over to Beckwith’s Treasures with all your questions about refinishing furniture — and be sure to check out her other projects, too, like this upcycled grandfather clock and how to beef up your door trim.
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