Refinishing Furniture – A Complete Do It Yourself Guide – Part 1

I am sure we have all thought about refinishing a piece of furniture around our house at some point or another. Maybe you even saw a neat piece at a garage sale or a thrift store and thought “I would love to refinish that but it would just take too much time”. Well, refinishing doesn’t have to take a ton of time and is something you can actually do in an easy weekend if you know a few tricks.

Disclaimer – What I am showing and describing in this article is not meant for antiques or furniture with significant value. The table done in this article was picked up for free from a family that was moving and did not want to bring the table with them.

The table I have here was picked up by a friend who installs cable. The homeowner wanted the table and chairs gone and said he could have it for free. If this was a true antique or family heirloom, I would approach it differently to keep the original finish in tact, but for what the new owner of the piece was looking for, our process was perfect.

Rather than give you a brief overview of the process, I am going to split this article up into 3-4 pieces and go as far in depth in each one as possible.

Step One: Asses The Piece

This is where you need to determine what exactly what type of piece you have. Does it have any value? Will this value be ruined if you refinish the piece? Is a restoration a better solution than a refinish? What will it be used for? What types of finish is currently on the piece and what types of stains and finishes will you be applying?

This is a common table with no value outside of it's use as a table.
This is a common table with no value outside of it’s use as a table.

Does It Have Any Value?

For this I keep on hand an American furniture encyclopedia. This allows me to look up the piece and determine if the piece has more value as an antique or a working piece of furniture. In reality most “antique” furniture is worth more as a working piece of furniture and very few pieces have significant value. Another common issue is that even fully restored, a piece may only be worth $300-$400 and it may not be worth your time or paying someone to do a full restoration.

For our table and chairs, I determined that the style is very common and would have more value if it was completely stripped, refinished and put to use as a nice looking and durable table and chairs.

If there was even a chance of this piece being a unique collectable piece of furniture, I would take it to a true furniture professional and get a real opinion of the piece.

Refinish or Restore

This is the next question you need to ask yourself. Refinishing a piece of furniture would involve stripping the old finish completely off, sanding any dings or scratches out (optional), re-staining the piece and applying a new finish. This is typically the best option only if the furniture has been thoroughly abused with deep scratches and the finish is pretty much ruined.

If the finish is in decent shape and the scratches are minimal, restoration could be a much cheaper and easier answer. A restoration may consist of fixing scratches with stain and apply a new finish to the piece. This can often bring a piece back to 80-90% of its original condition but only works if it is is decent shape to begin with.

What Type Of Finish Is Currently On The Piece

You need to know what type of finish is currently on the piece whether you are refinishing or restoring the piece. When you know what type of finish is currently on the piece, then you will know how to strip it or what type of finish you should use yourself.

Start with a couple drips of Denatured Alcohol. If the finish softens up and turns sticky, you are dealing with a shellac.

Next, try a few drips of Lacquer Thinner. If the finish softens up and turns sticky, you are dealing with a lacquer.

Last, try a few drips of Xylene, if the finish softens up and turns sticky, you are dealing with a water based finish

If you don’t any of these and plan on stripping the piece no matter what, you can skip this step and just start applying strippers. Some may work better than others due to the type of finish currently on the furniture though.

What Type Of Stain Will You Use

I will talk about each of these more later on but for now there are a few things to keep in mind.

Stains: There are two types of stains. The first is pigment based stain. This is what you would find in any hardware or paint store and is the most common type of stain because it is very easy to use. Pigment stains are easy to use and give a great looking color to woods. A downside is that pigment stains will show scratches, unevenness in the wood and make grain stand out.

Dye Stains are the second type of stains and also have pros and cons. The pros being that dye stains tend to stain wood more evenly and do not make grain and scratches stand out. The cons are that if you have never used a dye stain, they can be incredibly difficult to learn. You should definitely practice with a dye stain before applying it to any furniture.

Most people should use a pigment based stain and leave it at that. If you want to become an expert at staining and get the best possible results, then learning to use a dye stain is a must. Dye stains are typically not sold in hardware stores (or even paint stores), you will need to go to your local woodworking store to find quality dye stains.

Applying Dye Stains
Applying Dye Stains

What Type Of Finish Will You Use

You have lots of choices when deciding what type of finish to use. You can use a Shellac, Lacquer or Polyurethane for example. I will often tell people to go with whatever will be easiest for them, which is typically a brushed on water based polyurethane, just for ease of use. Poly is incredibly durable and looks nice along with it’s ease of use.

Shellacs and lacquers may be used if you want a true to the time finish, but are best suited for shop work and spray environments.


This wraps up part 1. Part 2 we will go over Stripping Your Furniture.



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