A Step by Step Guide to Refinishing Furniture or Finishing Furniture

Furniture refinishing and finishing isn’t hard if you understand the proper steps and techniques. This is a detailed outline to restoring furniture.

So you are ready to refurbish a nice piece of furniture but unsure the steps and procedures necessary to ending up with a great looking piece. In this article I will outline the steps and direct you in their procedures.

Be aware, I am a detail guy so I’ll try to be in-depth and thorough. If you’ve built your piece and it doesn’t require repair and removal of old finishes then you can skip to STEP THREE – Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper for Woodworking Project. If you’re refurbishing grandma’s old chest of drawers then continue reading.

FURNITURE REFINISHING STEP ONE – ASSESS

Before you jump into a refinishing project there are a few considerations to take into account. The big one is will the effort and cost be worth it in the end?

You should know the type of wood underneath all the old finish. Assess the condition of the piece for major damage. Will you need new hardware? Are there major un-repairable flaws like major splits or rotten wood?

Once you’ve made your assessment and decided to proceed. It’s time to disassemble the piece as much as practical. Remove drawers, table leaves, hardware, etc. It’s easier to work with smaller pieces and sections than a fully assembled project.

Taking a couple photos before starting might help you remember where everything goes when it’s time to put it all back together again. Place hardware and screws in a plastic baggie and label for later use.

FURNITURE REFINISHING STEP TWO – PAINT AND VARNISH REMOVAL

Removing old paint and varnish is best done with Methyl Chloride based chemical strippers. Heat guns can be slow and tedious especially if you have a lot of paint to remove. Organic citrus based strippers require hours to properly react with finishes. Plus organic strippers have to be wrapped in wax paper or newspaper overnight. If air gets between the paint and the stripper it fails and you have to start over. This again is slow, tedious and extremely messy. Plus they are not highly effective.

In my YouTube Video Chemical Strippers vs Heat Gun – Furniture Refinishing I not only demonstrate the how to of removing old finishes but I talk about the various methods including the types of commercial chemical strippers and the use of a heat gun. I also spend time reviewing all the necessary safety precautions associated with each.

I not only demonstrate the how to of removing old finishes but I talk about the various methods including the types of commercial chemical strippers and the use of a heat gun. I also spend time reviewing all the necessary safety precautions associated with each.

A viewer’s words about ECO-FRIENDLY STRIPPERS . . . Melissa W wrote me after starting to refinish an oak pedestal table: “So somewhere in the middle of this table refinishing I discovered your Youtube videos but it would have been a bigger find if I had found them before I started. It is not a hopeless situation but there have definitely been moments that I would like to forget…the eco friendly stripper being one of them.”

Knowing the proper steps, the best products and having a list of easy-to-follow techniques will make your DIY project look professional and a lot easier to accomplish.

I heard back from Melissa later that year. “A year later and I have emotionally recovered from this project. Thanks for getting me through it. I wanted to drop you line because I just spent a month up north with my daughter and her family. You know the table looks great, it looks different than it did when I hauled it home from North Dakota 25 years ago but it looks cared for. The family eats at it every day, my grandson spills stuff on it daily and I smiled when I walked into the dining room and ran my hand over the surface it was like running into an old friend. Its going to (be) around for many more memories. I am finally sending you a finished photo. Thanks again.

The winner here is good old fashioned methyl chloride based stripper. It is extremely powerful and has been used for safely for years. Used with proper ventilation, clothing and caution methyl chloride based strippers are fast and highly effective.

I encourage you to watch my YouTube Video
Chemical Strippers vs Heat Gun – Furniture Refinishing and download my companion Summary Sheet from this website for a list of materials needed and steps in the process. Here’s the Quick Link to my two page downloadable PDF Cheat Sheet Stripper Rules, Tips and Paraphrenalia.

FURNITURE REFINISHING STEP THREE – REPAIR

Now is the time to make any necessary repairs.

Scratches can be sanded out, hardware can be repaired or replaced, veneers can be re-glued and deep gouges repaired. This is the right time. Before you go onto the next step to make sure all necessary repairs are made.

For scratch repair and proper sanding techniques I suggest my beginners guide to sanding on YouTube: Sanding Efficiently – The Second Step In Furniture Refinishing. Most everyone hates sanding. People including a lot of regular woodworking hobbyists’ waste time and energy sanding. Here I review sanding basics with some valuable tips.

FURNITURE REFINISHING STEP FOUR – SURFACE PREPARATION

I learned this many years ago the hard way. Your project will only be a nice as the surface underneath your finishes. Finishes don’t fill gaps or hide scratches and other imperfections. In fact, finishes tend to accentuate mistakes.

Here again we go into sanding but this time it’s where to start and stop sanding. Too coarse of a grit and you will be left with sanding scratches. Too fine a grit and your stain won’t absorb properly. Stain, polyurethane, lacquer and shellac are best applied after the final sanding at 180 grit. Oil finishes need sanding all the way up to 320-400 grit. Sanding after staining and between coats of polyurethane is best done very lightly with a 220 grit sandpaper.

In my YouTube video How To Prepare Wood for a Professional Looking Finish. I explain all this in detail. I also teach the proper grit sandpapers to dull down an overly shinny surface and to polish a dull surface. That’s right, the very high grit sandpapers are commonly used to polish dull finishes.

You can download my one page printable PDF chart Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper for Your Project. It’s a really handy reference to keep on hand for this and future projects.

FURNITURE REFINISHING STEP FIVE – DUST REMOVAL

I’ve actually given dust removal an entire step because it’s so important. Dust is a woodworker’s worst enemy. It clogs the woods natural pores, leaves a rough surface and dulls the finishes’ sheen.

I use an air compressor and thoroughly blow out the entire surface and its pores. I then follow with a very light wiping with a tack cloth.

Since most people don’t have access to an air compressor, a good vacuum cleaner is a respectable substitute. Vacuum thoroughly and then lightly tack cloth.

Tack cloth should done lightly so as not to rub its tacky material into the wood’s pores. This results in poor stain absorption and finish adhesion. Tack cloth is readily available at most home centers, paint stores and hardware stores.

FURNITURE REFINISHING STEP SIX – Blotch-Free Wood Staining

If you decide that you want to alter the woods coloration a wood stain does the trick.

There are basically three types of stain available to the average consumer. Oil-based, water-based and gel stains. Each have certain advantages and disadvantages.

Oils, my favorite, are better for the wood and in my opinion penetrate deeper. Since they are oil clean-up would be more difficult but we’ll be using old rags that we’ll throw away anyway, so unless you spill your stain or use a good brush to apply it there is no real clean-up.

Water-based stain is okay and if using a good “keeper” brush to apply it is in fact easier to clean up afterward. The big disadvantage is water is excessive grain raise. Applying any liquid to wood cause grain raise (kinda like split end in hair after shampooing). Water-based stains have much more grain raise issues than oil.

Gel Stains are good for vertical surfaces as they tend not to drip. I have never been a fan of gel stains as I feel they retard stain absorption and are limited in color selection.

KNOW YOUR WOOD

Certain woods BLOTCH. Blotching is an area darkened by excess stain.

Wood, once a living organism, is composed of cells. Wood’s cells are long and cylindrical. They contain water just like human cells. Once these cells are damaged or cut the water within the cell dries up. These dried out cells act like sponges when exposed to liquids. Cut cells, commonly seen on cut board ends, soak up stain like a camel soaks up water at an oasis. Where that excess liquid stain is absorbed it is referred to as BLOTCHING.

Knots in wood are areas where branches once grew. This area represents a directional change of the woods cells. Woods with multi-directional cells tend to blotch.

All woods can blotch but the common “blotchers” are pine, fir, soft maple, cherry, birch, spruce, alder, poplar and cedar. These woods and most board ends need to be sealed before staining. Sealing open cells retards stain absorption leaving a more even stain.

For detailed instruction you can view my YouTube video “Blotch-Free Wood Stain Application Technique – Furniture Refinishing or read more on this site at “Blotch-Free Wood Staining”.

GRAIN RAISE

Wetting wood with a any liquid (stain, polyurethane, oil) will cause grain raise the first and often times the second time you moisten it.

Grain raise is analogous to split ends in hair after shampooing. The wood fiber ends stand at attention. This is barely visible to the human eye but you can feel it once the wood has dried. The surface is rough almost fuzzy.

Be sure to very lightly sand with a 180-220 grit sand paper the day after staining to level grain raise.

Grain Raise After Apply Polyurethane

FURNITURE REFINISHING STEP SEVEN – FINISH COATING

Here you basically have two choices a surface coating (polyurethane, lacquer or shellac) or an oil finish (while there are numerous oil finish choices, tung oil and linseed oil are the most common).

SURFACE COATINGS

Surface coatings lay on top of the woods surface. They tend not to penetrate into the wood.

Most woodworking hobbyists prefer polyurethane. It can be brushed on, durable, water and heat resistant and when done properly looks really good. My very first YouTube video Bubble-Free Polyurethane Application Technique has over 1,000,000 views and a 94% approval rating! A little self promo, sorry. I recently updated it adding more detail and instruction with Ultimate Guide to Bubble Free Polyurethane Varnish – Doors, Furniture, Cabinets, Tables.

Lacquer is commonly used when spraying finishes. It offers the same beauty and durability as polyurethane but its big advantage is second, third and subsequent coats can be applied within minutes without sanding between coats. The disadvantage is you have to have expensive spray equipment and proficiency in its use.

Shellac is the only “natural” finish out the three. Shellac comes from India and Thailand and is produced by a bug called the lac bug. It is not a durable finish and will leave water rings when a wet glass or heated element is placed on it. It is seldom used these days.

PENETRATING FINISHES

These are the oil finishes. Any oil will tend to protect wood. Technically you could use motor oil. The problem here is certain oils don’t dry so the surface remains oily and is truly not suitable for practical usage.

Oils fall into two classes vegetable based oils and petroleum based oils. Classically the only petroleum-based oil used for wood protection is mineral oil.

Oils that come from plant based sources are called vegetable oils. There are two drawbacks to using vegetable oils as a finish. Over time vegetable oils turn rancid and most require periodic reapplication as their durability is poor.

The advantage to these oils is ease of repair. Just dampen a rag a reapply.

My favorite oil is tung oil. There isn’t a more grain and wood beautifying oil than tung oil. It is a gorgeous finish, it is durable, it is water resistant and it is not subject to rancidity. The disadvantage is it takes weeks of coating and re-coating to apply properly. There is a proper procedure fully outlined on this website at this link How to Apply Tung Oil Properly -Tips & Techniques.

One of the most commonly used oils is Boiled Linseed Oil. This is oil made from flax seed that has chemical additives to resist rancidity, hasten drying time and it is thinned for ease of application. It is an inexpensive, readily available and easy oil to use.  Boiled linseed oil is not considered food safe nor is ranked as completely water-resistant. For more detailed instructions How to Apply Boiled Linseed Oil Properly -Tips & Techniques.

Lastly mineral oil is commonly used in food prep areas. It is inexpensive, easy applied and nice in appearance. The drawback is durability. It will wash off with repeated dampening. It use is more for cutting boards, wood bowls, etc. Mineral oil is petroleum-based so it won’t turn rancid. This oil has been refined to such a high degree that it is classified as a “food safe” choice.

All the other oils:

There are dozens.  I’m not going to get into a great debate because there are huge fans for a variety of oils. I will simply say that durability and rancidity are my concerns so I pretty much avoid them.

WIPE-ON POLYURETHANE

Wipe on polyurethane is not my first choice but it has its place in the finishing process. If you project has thin spindles, difficult to brush areas, areas where brushing might certainly result in runs using a rag to apply polyurethane makes sense. Wipe on polyurethane is regular polyurethane thinned to very watery consistency.

If you decide to wipe on polyurethane make it yourself! Wipe on polyurethane is 4-5 times the cost of regular polyurethane and tends not to reproduce the same sheen when using both a brushing and wiping technique on the same project.

The other disadvantage is it requires almost double the number of coats to achieve the same thickness and durability.

For a thorough explanation on how and when to Wipe On Polyurethane watch my video “When and How to Wipe on Polyurethane” or read on this site at “When and How to Wipe on Polyurethane”.

WAXES ARE NOT FINISHES

Let me clear this up real quickly. Waxes are not finished. They offer no real protection and are used to enhance sheen only.

FIXING FINISHING MISTAKES

I’m sad to say that a video I produced entitled Fixing Polyurethane Bubbles, Puddles, Runs and Brush Marks is currently getting over 13,000 views a month. This is almost as many views as my first video Bubble-Free Polyurethane Application Technique. If only they started applying it the right way?

Finishing is not difficult and with proper guidance virtually anyone can achieve a quality, durable, lasting, professional looking finish.

I hope this all makes sense and helps with your project.

Well that’s it.
Hopefully this is NOT THE END but A GREAT FINISH!! (Bad pun sorry)

best  . . . paul

Please leave feedback on this site. SPECIAL NOTE: I am happy to answer all questions and address your concerns. If you have questions please ask on YouTube and not here. I use this site more as a support for my YouTube subscribers and viewers and seldom check for questions.

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My YouTube Library:

Chemical Strippers vs Heat Gun 
Sanding Efficiently 
Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper for Your Woodworking Project 
Blotch-Free Wood Stain Application Technique
Bubble Free Polyurethane Application Technique
Fixing Polyurethane Bubble, Puddles, Runs and Brush Marks 
The Ultimate Guide to Bubble Free Polyurethane Varnish – Detailed
Proper Brush Cleaning – Paint, Polyurethane, Varnish, Shellac

PDF Summary Sheets Available for Download and Printing:

Polyurethane Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF
Stripper Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF
Sanding Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF
Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper (Chart) PDF
Staining Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF

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