DIY: How To Refurnish Old Furniture

by Editor on April 30, 2013


Whether you have a piece of prized heirloom furniture that has been in the family for generations, or you’ve found someone else’s treasure in an estate sale—well-loved furniture sometimes needs refinishing. Is stripping and refinishing furniture as daunting a task as you’ve been told? It can be. In the video tutorials below, however, you can get the guidance that will make refinishing furniture on your own a ‘doable’ and enjoyable task. Let’s go!

Step 1: Prepare the Furniture
Before you begin the actual project, you want to prepare the furniture. Take off any parts that can easily be removed. If possible, remove handles, mirrors and any hardware that might be damaged by varnish remover or might make it difficult to remove the varnish. Use a damp cloth and wipe down the piece; this will enable you to start with a clean surface.

Step 2: Assemble Materials
It is always a good idea to gather all of the materials you will need before you get started. This will help avoid any frustration caused by trying to either make do without the proper tools or the need to take an unplanned trip to the store. Here is a list of suggested supplies.

  • Varnish Stripper – There are many different products on the market that make stripping old varnish an easy task. Sprays and gels are some of the easiest to apply. Read the label to see how much time is required between application and removal, and note if any special supplies are needed.
  • Brush – If you are using a gel stripper, you will want a brush to spread it and ensure it is applied in all crevices. Also, find a high quality brush for applying the stain and varnish.
  • Scraper – Either a plastic or metal scraper is fine.
  • Steel wool – This can help to remove the last traces of old varnish, especially in hard to reach areas.
  • Paint Thinner – This product is useful both for cleaning off the last traces of varnish on the furniture and for cleaning brushes.
  • Lint-free cloth – This will be needed to clean the surface before re-staining.
  • Sandpaper – If there are rough surfaces on the furniture, you may wish to purchase a semi-coarse piece of sandpaper, such as 80 grit. Make sure to also choose a fine paper, such as 150 grit.
  • Stain – There are 4 main kinds of stains – oil-based, water-based, gel and one step/finish stains. 1) Oil based stains are permanent and soak into the wood without raising the grain. To achieve a darker look, you can apply multiple coats and allow each coat to soak into the wood longer. Note that oil based stains require mineral spirits for cleanup. 2) Water based stain can also be applied in multiple coats for a darker look, but cleanup is much simpler with just soap and water. Water based stains raise the grain of the wood, but to minimize this you can dampen the wood with a moist rag before applying the stain, allow the wood to dry, sand with fine sand paper and then repeat. This conditions the wood to accept the stain without raising the grain of the wood as much. 3) Gel stains are normally thick, thus allowing excellent color control unlike a water or oil based stain. Gel stains don’t run as they aren’t technically liquid, nor do they raise the grain of the wood. The major drawback here is that gel stains are more expensive. 4) One step/finish stains are exactly that – it’s one coat for both the finish and color, allowing you to complete the job quickly. One step stains hide the grain of the wood while highlighting brush strokes a bit more as the stain doesn’t penetrate the wood – it lies on the surface creating a transparent coating.
  • Varnish – Varnish is a top coat to repel moisture and protect your furniture. The night before you apply varnish to your furniture, clean your craft room. Varnish is slow drying and is a magnet to dust. Just before you begin applying varnish, dampen the floors to encourage air particles to settle on the wet floor, not your furniture! Check out this video for tips on applying your varnish, including how to reduce bubbles on your furniture.

Step 3: Remove Old Varnish
This is usually the most daunting part of the process, but with today’s products it really is quite easy. Follow the instructions on the product you have purchased. If it is a spray, make sure to completely cover all surfaces. Gels are usually brushed on, and the brush can be used to make sure gel reaches into all the crevices. Let the product sit for the prescribed length of time and then make strong, even strokes with the scraper to lift the old finish from the wood. Steel wool can be used to scrub off any stubborn areas. Check out this video for tips when working with furniture that has lots of varying surfaces.

Step 4: Clean the Surfaces
Apply a small amount of paint thinner to a lint-free cloth and carefully rub down all surfaces, checking for any spots of remaining finish as you go. Check the label of the stripper you used to see how long you should allow the wood to dry before beginning the next step.

Step 5: Sand
Sanding requirements will vary depending upon the condition of the wood. If necessary use coarse sandpaper to remove rougher areas and then finish with fine grit sand paper. For large, flat areas, using an electric sander will help to make the process go faster and make for a smoother surface.

Step 6: Re-clean the Surfaces
Use a fresh, lint-free cloth to wipe any dust from the surfaces.

Step 7: Apply New Finish
The finishing process will depend on the product you purchased. Some finishes apply stain and varnish in one step. Others will require a stain application followed by a varnish application. Follow instructions carefully and allow sufficient time for drying between coats. Touching the piece or adding another coat too soon can spoil the finish and require starting over again.


Step 8: Reinstall Hardware
After the new finish has dried sufficiently, carefully reinstall any hardware you removed or install new hardware.

Enjoy your “new” furniture!

About the Author

Chris Turberville-Tully works with the Painted Furniture Company, who sells painted furniture for your bedroom, living room, dining room and a special collection for children’s rooms.

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