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Refinishing Wood Furniture: 6 Hints for Your Next Project

Refinishing can completely restore and transform beat-up furniture. Click away from the furniture catalogue—consider refinishing old pieces instead. The best part: refinishing wood furniture can be easy, if you follow instructions for the materials. And if you don’t like the outcome, you can always strip and reapply a new finish. Here are our tips and recommendations for how to refinish furniture:

1. Consider Staining it Lighter

Picture refinishing, and you might be picturing a deep, oaky shine. But refinishing wood furniture doesn’t have to mean dunking it in a cherry dark stain! Light, sand-colored stains can modernize old desks and dining room tables.

It can take a little longer to stain it lighter. When you stain wood darker, you don’t always have to strip it first. If you choose to stain it light, you definitely need to strip off the old finish before applying the new stuff. Follow the chemical stripping instructions carefully.

2. Reach for Paint

Refinishing doesn’t just mean restoring wood to its original color! Be bold. Strip or sand down your coffee table’s current finish then paint with a sharp color. White and lighter pastels often work great as a base coat for wooden furniture.

Paint is also a great way to improve the look of less expensive wood furniture. As you strip it, you may find that the wood beneath the finish is cheap and ugly. If so, consider painting! After you paint, you’ll still need to apply a finish coat.

3. Test for Wipe-On Finish

Sometimes refinishing wood furniture requires that you completely strip the old finish and apply a new one. Sometimes the finish just needs an update to look brand new.

If you’re wondering what level of refinishing your furniture needs, pour a bit of sparkling water over the top (plain mineral spirits). It’ll show you what your furniture will look like with a wipe-on finish, no stripping required. If you like how it looks, you just saved yourself a step—invest in a wipe on finish and clean up the furniture.

Whatever kind of stain you reach for, use a good pair of latex gloves to protect your hands.

4. Removing Blemishes

Rings of condensation that rest on top of the old finish can usually be removed with a simple product. Petroleum jelly is the safest for the finish, but products built for removing white spots are more effective. If you use jelly to remove the blemish, apply a thin layer and let it sit overnight before scraping it off and washing the spot.

5. Choosing Between Sanding and Chemical Stripping

There are two basic ways to strip finish off of wood: sanding and chemicals. Sanding is the more technical version. It gives you a lot of control over the final product, but of course, that’s only helpful if you’re going to use that control to do it perfectly.

For most DIYers, chemical stripping is the go-to. Chemicals target only the finish and leave the wood intact. Follow the instructions on an appropriate chemical stripper for our wood furniture project from your hardware store. Leave the chemical stripper on the wood for the amount of time recommended. Scrape the stripper and the finish off. Then use a lacquer thinner to remove any excess that was missed.

You always want to strip furniture (whether sanding or chemical) in a well-ventilated place, but you also need to wear appropriate protective gear for your eyes, mouth, hands, and clothes.

6. Remove Excess Finish with the Grain

The difference between professional finishing and the DIY variety are the motions involved in application. When you apply the finish, swirl your rag in circles. But to remove the excess, wipe with the grain to help the finish set in a more natural looking texture. This will help give your project a more professional look.

The tips above can help turn that dusty table in your basement into a piece you can brag on.