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 Wood Furniture (Without A Lot of Sanding)
by Beck from Beckwith’s Treasures
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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.
Stripping the old finish off intricate pieces like this ornate base might seem like a daunting task…
And the thick, bubbly old finish looks so permanent, but you can do this! I’ll show you how!
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- it is just an “outdated” piece with little value and a POW of color is what you’re after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!
- Citristrip (1/2 gallon, $20)
- A cheap “chip” brush ($1.50)
- Flat, plastic scraper (less than $2)
- Acetone (Crown, 1 gallon, $17)
- Lacquer Thinner (Crown, 1 gallon, $18)
- 0000 Steel Wool ($4)
- Mineral Spirits ($8)
- An old toothbrush (never toss an old toothbrush)
- Protective Gloves ($5)
- Metal/glass bowl (For easy mixing, I buy the huge 8 cup measuring cups at thrift stores and garage sales!)
- Old towels/shop rags
- Anything disposable to protect your work surface (plastic drop cloth, old newspapers, flattened cardboard)
- New finish of your choice (Paint, stain and oil, clear coat, etc.) and the tools to apply it
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.
(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.
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!
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!)
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
- 20 DIY Furniture Makeover Projects
- Must-Know Tips to Prep and Refinish Furniture
- 5 Furniture Makeovers to Make you Flip
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Originally published 12.27.2014 // Updated 03.24.2021