The Proper Approach To Refinishing Old Furniture

Removing finish from table top.

Refinishing a wonderful piece of furniture that has seen better days can be an extremely rewarding task, especially if the piece has been in your family for a long time or could not be easily replaced.

For a reasonable cost you can restore a dresser, table or other piece of furniture that can add charm and function to any room. Do be careful, however, to look for a few things that may limit the results you can achieve, such as:

    • Cracks in Wood: The biggest value is in the quality of the wood.
    • Loose Joints: If repairs were ever made to the piece, you should check to make sure they were done properly.
    • Uneven Legs: Make sure the piece needs only simple refinishing, not rebuilding.
  • Warped Surfaces: Moisture damage cannot be repaired.

Before You Begin Refinishing

The best possible results can be achieved when you know what you are working on. In order to know what kind of finish is currently on your furniture, do the “cotton ball test”:

    1. Dampen a cotton ball with some acetone nail polish remover.
    1. Choose an inconspicuous test spot and dab it with the cotton.
    1. If the cotton sticks or the finish softens, you have a varnish, lacquer or shellac finish. These finishes can be removed with a chemical stripper.
  1. If there’s no effect or if you have a painted finish, you need to use a paint/poly remover. Check the labels carefully.

Sanding table top when refinishing.

Refinishing Steps

    1. Apply finish remover

      Once you establish the current finish on the piece it’s time to set about removing it. Always carefully follow the directions on the appropriate product for your piece, and be sure to wear protective eyewear and gloves and have proper ventilation available. Brush on a coat of stripper and wait for the paint or finish to bubble up (time varies).

    2. Remove old finish

      Scrape off the old paint or finish using a scraper. Be careful not to gouge the wood when scraping. The best choice is a plastic scraper to prevent damaging the wood surface.

    3. Clean and Sand

      After you’ve stripped the piece you need to wash it off with a paint and polyurethane remover wash. This gets rid of the residue. Then let the piece dry.

      When sanding use 120-150 grit sandpaper. Be sure to sand in the direction of the grain. When finished, wipe off all sanding dust. If you are applying an oil-based stain you can wipe the piece with a cloth dampened with mineral spirits. Make sure the piece is dry and dust-free before applying the stain.

    4. Apply Stain

      Apply the stain following the directions on the can. Apply the oil-based stain using a natural bristle brush working the stain into the wood. Be sure to make the final brush stroke in the same direction as the wood grain. Allow the stain to penetrate according to the label directions. The more time the stain is allowed to penetrate the richer and darker the color will be. Remove excess stain with a rag, wiping in the direction of the grain. For a darker color, apply a second coat after 4-6 hours.

    5. Apply Protective Finish

      Now apply a protective clear finish. Stir the clear finish well, but do not shake the can as this may cause bubbles in the finish. Apply a thin coat of finish with a natural bristle brush if you are applying an oil-based finish.

      Allow the finish to dry thoroughly then sand the dry finish with fine sandpaper (220 grit) and remove all sanding dust. This will ensure strong adhesion between coats. Apply a second coat of protective clear finish. Make sure the piece dries thoroughly before using it.

Note: As some of the products you will use can be flammable, be sure to clean brushes and dispose of rags, etc. following the directions on the can.


  1. I am trying to get calculations on the amount of materials needed to refinish a major project. I am not concerned about man hours as this is a volunteer project. However the “client” is going to buy all the material, sand paper, stain, polyurthene etc. No site can has been able to provide this info. I know that paint will normally tell the number of square feet that it willcover why not refinshing materials?


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