How to Refinish Wood Furniture

Follow this tried and tested method and detailed step-by-step tutorial to learn how to refinish wood furniture, including intricate details, without sanding, from an expert.

As you are refinishing wood furniture, be sure to also read our tips for painting furniture with different paint types, how to prevent tannin (knot) bleedthrough, and how to stain wood any color

how to refinish ornate wood furniture by Beckwiths Treasures on Remodelaholic

 

How to Refinish Wood Furniture (Without A Lot of Sanding)

by Beck from Beckwith’s Treasures

This post contains affiliate links for your convenience. Learn more and read our full disclosure policy here

So you have a piece of furniture you love, but it’s needing some attention. Here’s my process, start to finish based off years of experience, to help you refinish it right!

This amazing antique dining table was literally caked with old, crackled varnish so it is the perfect piece to share!

At some point someone had stripped the top and the inserts, but not the base.

How To Refinish Carved Wooden Furniture, Before, By Beckwiths Treasures On Remodelaholic

Stripping the old finish off intricate pieces like this ornate base might seem like a daunting task…

How To Refinish Carved Wooden Furniture, Base Before, By Beckwiths Treasures On Remodelaholic

And the thick, bubbly old finish looks so permanent, but you can do this! I’ll show you how!

how to refinish carved wooden furniture - before1

Don’t miss these other inspiring refinished furniture projects: Kitchen table refinished for a new look  –  Refinished Drop Leaf Table  –  Coffee Table Refinished to Buffet Table

First, choose the final finish.

The first thing you have to decide when “rehabbing” any piece of furniture is: how can the piece be “enhanced?”

I am first and foremost a die hard “wood lover.” Older pieces that are constructed of wood we just don’t see much any more in new, affordable furniture…walnut, cherry, mahogany, teak, rosewood deserve to show off their wooden beauty.

However, I’ve also painted many, many pieces. Here’s how I decide to paint or refinish furniture:

I paint the piece if:

  • it has a lot of water damage
  • it has broken or “bubbled” veneer that needs repair
  • it is missing trim pieces that have to be replaced
  • it is just an “outdated” piece with little value and a POW of color is what you’re after
  • I want uniform-looking furniture
Want to paint? We’ve got you covered: How to Paint Furniture, 4 Part Series with Reviews

I refinish the piece if:

  • it is mostly free of damage, or has only damage that can be corrected
  • it is fully intact with no missing pieces
  • I like the look of wood grain and its inherent color variations

TIP: If you refinish a table with inserts, make sure you strip, stain and finish those at the same time so they will match!

Next, Strip Off the Finish

Even if you are going to paint, I suggest stripping off the current finish or paint on your piece of wood furniture.

In my experience, you will get a far superior result if you first strip the piece down to bare wood. My tried and true method doesn’t require much sanding either!

Bonus: you can pick up all the products you need at any home improvement store!

how to refinish carved wooden furniture - Beckwith's Treasures on @Remodelaholic - suppliesProducts you will need to strip and refinish wood furniture:

How to Refinish Wood Furniture, Die-Hard Rules

Regardless of “style” or “period” of the piece, I have a few “die hard” rules for stripping and refinishing ANY wood furniture. We all want your project to turn out amazing, so please remember:

#1: When stripping old finishes, there are NO shortcuts. 

Painted or stained or lacquered or multiple finishes, there are zero shortcuts! 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!

#2: Always WEAR GLOVES, EYE PROTECTION, LONG PANTS AND CLOSED TOED SHOES.

You are working with chemicals! 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!) Don’t mess around, be safe!

#3: Protect your work surface.

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!

#4: Always follow each product’s safety instructions for indoor/outdoor use, fresh air requirements, etc.

Now, let’s get to work!

 

How to Refinish Furniture, Step by Step

Step 1: Remove heavy finish with Citristrip

If the existing finish (whether varnish, shellac, poly or paint) is really “heavy” I first coat it with Citristrip.

(If the piece doesn’t have a real heavy existing finish or multiple layers of paint, you may not even want to use Citristrip…use your judgment! Skip to Step 2 and use just the acetone and lacquer thinner mixture.)

To apply the Citristrip, I use a cheap “chip” brush to apply it per the directions.

After letting that sit a bit, I scrape all the flat parts with a plastic scraper. ALWAYS scrape with the grain.

how to refinish carved wooden furniture - Beckwith's Treasures on @Remodelaholic

 

(For how to “scrape” all the turned legs and carvings…see step 2 below)

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.

how to refinish wooden furniture - Beckwith's Treasures on @Remodelaholic

Step 2: Scrub with steel wool, acetone and lacquer thinner mixture

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.

Using 0000 steel wool, scrub the piece with this mixture. This is the best way to get the old finish and gel stripper off turned legs and etchings.

With the 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!

tips for refinishingcarved wooden furniture - Beckwith's Treasures on @Remodelaholic

One exceptional tool for removing old finish….toothbrushes. 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 will probably 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!)

how to refinish vintage wooden furniture - Beckwith's Treasures on @Remodelaholic
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 Step 3…..

Step 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!

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!

how to refinish carved wooden furniture - Beckwith's Treasures on @Remodelaholic - stripped 1

Step 4: Inspect your wood furniture piece

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 more uniform look than your furniture piece now shows or if you found some surprises as you were working, there is no shame in deciding to paint it!

Also, if you find that your piece now needs some repairs, such as the stripping process dissolve adhesives (glue) that was used on joints, that’s not a huge issue.

It is best to 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 and will be visible forever!

So, rule of thumb: If you are going to paint a piece, repair it BEFORE paint…if you are going to stain, repair it AFTER stain

 

how to refinish carved wooden furniture - Beckwith's Treasures on @Remodelaholic - stripped

It took me four hours to completely strip all the old finish off this table!

Step 5: Clean up with mineral spirits

After you have stripped all the old finish, wash the entire piece with clean rags and mineral spirits.

Garage sales and thrift stores are great places to find old towels. 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. THEY TRULY CAN SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUST AND BURN YOUR HOUSE DOWN!!!!

  • Lay them out to dry in the sun.
  • Bag them up after they are completely dry and have aired out for a few days!!
  • 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.

Let the piece dry and then give it a light sanding, if needed. (Again, ALWAYS with the grain!) Thoroughly clear off any dust from sanding.

how to strip and restore a dining table - Beckwith's Treaures featured on @Remodelaholic

 

Step 6:  Apply your new finish

As mentioned earlier, there are many options here! If you love the color of the wood when it is wet with mineral spirits, apply a clear coat finish.

If you are going to paint, follow the manufacturer’s directions. My favorite finish is stain.

Find the paint you need: 5 Different Types of Paint for Refinishing Furniture

Tips for using stain to refinish wood furniture:

Don’t 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 requires a separate finish. That way, 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. Make adjustments to the color until you are happy with it.

Keep in mind, 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.

My favorite furniture finish…

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 (re)refinished properly!

My Refinished Antique Table

I stained the top of this table with a brown walnut stain.

how to refinish carved wooden furniture - after

 

And I 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.

 

 

how to refinish carved wooden furniture - after1

 

 

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!”

Enjoy a comparison of before and after photos:

How To Refinish Wood Furniture, Before, By Beckwiths Treasures On Remodelaholic

How To Refinish Wood Furniture, After, By Beckwiths Treasures On Remodelaholic

How To Refinish Wood Furniture, Base Before, From Beckwiths Treasures On Remodelaholic

How To Refinish Wood Furniture, Base After, From Beckwiths Treasures On Remodelaholic

 

How To Refinish Wood Furniture, Leg Before, By Beckwiths Treasures On Remodelaholic

How To Refinish Wood Furniture, Leg After, By Beckwiths Treasures On Remodelaholic

 

——————————–

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.

More Furniture Refinishing Ideas from Remodelaholic:

 

You can also follow along on social media: Facebook | Instagram | Pinterest | Youtube

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A Careful, No Damage Way To Strip And Restore Wooden Furniture On Remodelaholic

Originally published 12.27.2014 // Updated 03.24.2021

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27 Comments

  1. Again, a true honor to be featured…thank you!!! I hope the readers will feel free to share their experiences or ask any questions they might have on this process. I love sharing the knowledge I have gained over the years (so often the “hard” way) and I love learning from others as well!

    1. I am brand spanking new at this, Beck. Just found an old walnut table in a dumpster with no obvious defects but a tired finish.I will e following your instructions as I plan on giving it to my son as a bit of a house warming gift for his new home. Pray for me!!!

  2. WOW!!!! This is superior information, thank you! Question: Do you wear a respirator when working with these chemicals?

    1. I do not wear a respirator…but if you are very sensitive to chemical smells, it would be wise. I always use these chemicals outside where there is plenty of fresh air. But a respirator or mask might not be a bad idea…especially if you are not use to it!

  3. Can you expand on why you never use poly (I’m assuming acrylic sealer) on stained wood. What would be the pros and cons?
    Thanks

    1. It really is personal preference…but I think oil finishes provide the same durability as poly without the headaches…like chipping. And it is super easy to “fix” scratches or wear in the future. I literally just rub my tops down with steel wool, tack cloth, and then wipe on another coat of oil finish. It is what I call “idiot” proof. As Mary Jane pointed out in her comments, her poly is chipping off…that is impossible to “fix” without stripping and reapplying…you don’t have to do that with oil finishes. Eventually, 30-40 years from now, you may have to strip the oil/varnish finish only because it will “muddy” over time…but even poly will yellow with age.
      For me, oil finishes are SUPER easy to apply, super durable and super simple to “fix” when you get scratches or wear!
      Also, for me personally, I like the “texture” of wood grain…poly tends to have a “plastic” look rather than allowing the texture of the wood to really shine!
      Keep in mind, I am using oil FINISHES…true tung oil is a whole nuther story and not something a “novice” DIYer wants to tackle. I use Formby’s brand tung oil, just because it is the brand I am comfortable with and has preformed beautifully over many years!

  4. i have a dining room table and chairs that I refinished about 40 years ago and used poly on the tabletop which is now chipping off. I have heard that you need to use a paint stripper to get it off. Is the Citristrip the product to use?

    1. Mary Jane…you can try the Citristrip…it is a very “mild” stripper compared to other products. Depending on the durability of the poly finish, you may have to go with a “harsher” stripper. But you can use the acetone/lacquer mixture to really remove all the residual poly and stripper and then wipe it down with mineral spirits to clean it well!

    1. I have never have trouble disposing of these products because I usually pour what I need into a small glass bowl and if a tiny bit is left, it usually evaporates pretty quickly when left out in the open. However, if you need to dispose of any old paint or chemicals, the best thing to do is put them in a well-sealed disposable container (their original containers will do) and call your trash service and find out where you can take them. Many cities will have a specific place to take this type of thing and ours even has several days a year when you can dispose of them without cost!
      PLEASE do not pour chemicals onto the ground or put chemicals or old paint in your regular trash…first, it can be combustable and second it is hazardous to the environment. I am the world’s worst at mindlessly tossing empty spray paint cans in the regular trash…A NO-NO!!!
      And PLEASE pay attention to where you put chemical soaked rags and paper…again, I can not stress how important it is to let that stuff air dry completely before bagging it up and keep it away from household trash!

  5. My home is 50 years old and has some unpainted doors and window trim. I suspect nothing has ever been put on them since the original stain. Except for a few nail holes, they’re in pretty good shape. Is it possible to clean and shine them up without having to strip and re-stain them? I’m wondering if your “idiot-proof” method of steel wool, tack cloth and oil finish after a good cleaning is appropriate. If so, what would be a good cleaner and oil finish product to use since they aren’t stripped first? Thanks!!

  6. You are a kindred spirit! I grew up refinishing furniture with my dad, mostly antique pianos and organs. I love the beauty of the rich woods. It breaks my heart to see so many quality pieces of wood furniture be covered with paint. When this trend is over and the owners want to return the pieces to their original beauty, it is difficult to fully get the light paint out of the grain. Thank you for publishing this tutorial.

  7. I have my grandmothers dining room set that needs to be refinished. It does have a lot of veneer on it and I have always been afraid the chemicals would damage the veneer. Do you use the same chemicals and process on veneer pieces??

  8. Love this information. I plan to restore a very old (1800’s) table…what brand of stain without a top coat did you use?

  9. Great post. Can you please tell me how you stained the ornate part to get such an even look? Also say I have a piece with L joint, how should I stain that? I’m having trouble with uniformity. Thanks

  10. I am curious, what do you use to get real dark, grey like stains still left after stripping down. I have used acetone painter thinners etc, some was actually made worse with the use of steel wool. Wood bleaches, one part, two part, no go either. I’m going to go my last resort. Going to pull some lemons off the neighbors tree (in Southern California) and rub some on the spots and grain that are still to dark and drag out into the sun in middle of patio. Actually push this weighs about 300 lbs., but if have a better way would love to hear. Working with very very old reclaimed pine.

  11. spent hours sanding and applying a teak oil to teak dining room set, however, now it is sticky and tackey…do I still follow the same technique as listed above? Is Citristrip and Formbys Tung oil available in canada? HELP!!! Want to restore to natural beauty, legs on chair are chipped up to, what do you suggest???

  12. Love your method for stripping wood. I used it today and it did great. One question for you… how will a tung oil finish hold up on a dining room table?

    Also… you mentioned how helpful a low shop chair would be for working on projects. I bought a cheap, old office chair at a yard sale. The back was broken so I took it off. I now have a seat with wheels and use it all of the time! It saves my back and I can wheel all over my shop! I also have a large lazy Susan that I put on my work table. I can put a work piece on it and spin it around to access all sides….easy peasy!

  13. I have many windows that I stained, sealed and varnished about 30 yrs. ago. They are sun damaged on the sills, and the stain has been scratched and faded on them and the surrounding frame. The windows are all inside the house. I tried some stripper which didn’t work and a three in one product which was a disaster. What procedure can I safely use inside to make these once beautiful window sills and frame windows beautiful again. Some of the windows are bowed or bay. The windows have a nutmeg or black walnut stain now Thank you

  14. Can you tell me the ratio for mixing acetone/thinner for taking down stain on a cabinet that had only stain and rung oil applied years ago? And, thanks for a WONDERFUL post!

  15. I love this post. I have direction now! One question, what if you need to repair in area not with glue but wood putty? Does it stain? Is there a good brand to use?

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