Make Old Furniture Shine With These Simple Refinishing Tricks

by Camilla Cheung on 30 October 2013 0 comments

So you've scored an awesome piece of wood furniture at an estate sale, on Craigslist, or at your local dumpster, but it's looking a little worse for wear. How can you make that old wood furniture new again? The easiest thing to do is to give it a light sanding and then paint it in a fun new color. However, if you're into the look of wood grain, stripping it down and re-staining that wood furniture might be your best bet. (See also: How to Tell If You Should Refinish Wooden Furniture)

Is It Possible to Restore Without Stripping?

First things first: are stripping and re-staining really necessary? I'm not going to lie — stripping the original finish off a piece, sanding it down, and re-staining it can be a long and arduous process. If you're not up to the task, you may have a half-finished piece of wood furniture sitting in your garage for the next eight months. (See also: 10 Costly DIY Mistakes)

Refresh Instead for Short Term Shine

If the wear and tear on the piece is superficial, or if the finish is just looking a little dry and tired, refreshing your wood piece might be an easier (if somewhat temporary) solution. This helpful tutorial from Design*Sponge details how to lightly sand your piece, oil it with Teak Oil, and finish it off with a coat of furniture wax. This method will greatly improve the look of your piece but will require additional maintenance over time.

Stripping Off the Finish

If your piece does require full stripping of the previous finish, here's what to do.

The goal of using a chemical stripper is to remove the protective coating on the wood furniture, exposing the grain of the wood. I prefer a relatively "safer" gel stripper like CitriStrip, which gets the job done with fewer caustic chemicals. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for whichever stripping product you use, and do it in a well-ventilated area (preferably wearing a mask).

After cleaning your piece, apply the gel stripper using a brush, covering the entire surface of the wood. Wait the appropriate time detailed in the instructions. The stripper will cause the finish on the wood to crinkle up, allowing you to scrape it off with a paint scraper. Repeat if not all of the finish was removed.

When the protective finish has been removed to your satisfaction, wipe down the piece with mineral spirits (this will deactivate any remaining stripping product that may be in the grain). Be aware that if the piece was stained, the color may still remain after stripping because the stain has soaked into the wood itself. Leftover stain may prevent new stain from absorbing evenly. If you use a similar color stain, however, it may not be a problem. The only way to completely remove stain is to sand it out.

Sanding Down the Surface

After you've stripped off the protective coating, sand the wood furniture to smooth it out and to remove surface scratches and imperfections. You won't be able to do much about deep gouges unless you want to fill them with wood filler, but the filler will take future stain differently than the original wood (I say, stick with the gouges — they add "character").

Remember that if your wood furniture is made of veneer over plywood, you won't be able to sand too far without sanding through the veneer (a lesson I learned the hard way). If your furniture is made of solid wood, you can do a lot more sanding, and you should able to remove any old stain by sanding down to raw wood (in which case, invest in an electric sander). Start with an coarser grit sandpaper (60-100 grit) and finish with a finer grit sandpaper (220 grit) for a smooth finish.

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Staining the Wood

Now that your wood furniture is stripped and sanded, wipe the whole thing down with a damp cloth to remove dust and debris. You may wish to treat the piece with a pre-stain treatment or wood conditioner to help the stain go on more evenly (though I have never found this to be necessary).

Apply wood stain in the color of your choice. If you weren't able to sand out all of the old stain, you will need to choose a similar color for your new stain. I like to use oil-based stain for a longer drying time and therefore a more even application, although water-based stains have fewer harmful chemicals. Again, do this outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. I prefer to apply stain using an old lint free rag dipped in the stain (you can also use a brush). After a few minutes, wipe off any excess stain (do not allow excess stain to dry or it will stay tacky forever). Repeat until you have the color you want. (See also: Repaint Your Old Furniture for a Budget Update)

Protecting the Wood

After your stain is thoroughly dry, you'll need to add a protective finish. There are a range of water and oil-based polyurethanes available that are easy to brush on for a shiny, hard, and durable finish. In a well-ventilated area, apply the polyurethane in thin, even coats, allowing time to dry in between each coat. You should sand between coats with fine-grit sandpaper (wiping off any dust) to ensure a smooth finish and to improve the adherence of the polyurethane.

If you prefer a more hand-rubbed look, using paste wax (brown or clear) is another option for a protective finish. Apply the wax with a brush or rag, and then buff it out for a smooth finish. Wax will not offer the hardness of a polyurethane, but some people prefer the greater depth and color it gives the finish. Also, with wax, minor surface scratches can be buffed out. You will need to re-apply the paste wax periodically to maintain the finish. If you can't decide which to use, this comparison of paste wax vs. poly may help.

Let the protective coating on your wood furniture cure for a few days, and you'll be ready to use your newly restored piece of furniture!

Have you ever stripped and stained old furniture? How did it work out?

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