Over time, wood furniture loses its luster. But you don’t have to discard or sell it when this happens. All it takes is a few simple steps to restore wood and have it looking elegant again. So, don’t buy all new furniture — strip your old-looking wood furniture and re-stain it.
Step 1: Choose a Work Area
Work in a well-ventilated area such as your open garage or on an outdoor deck or patio. Make sure your work area is dry and dust-free. Use masking tape to secure a large drop cloth or tarp to the ground or floor to prevent potential stains. Remove drawers, doors, mirrors and any hardware.
Step 2: Strip Away Old Finish
Wood begins to turn dark, dull and lifeless when it ages. This is especially true with older finishes that are generally weaker than the advanced finishes used today. If the piece you’re working on is old, it actually needs a greater amount of protection than a newer piece.
You can remove loose varnish by sanding and/or using chemical strippers. To remove finishes quickly from larger areas, use a belt sander. Take care not to damage the piece by sanding too deeply. Sand carefully by hand around decoratively curved areas such as turned table legs.
Using chemical strippers is an easier method. Most chemical strippers need to be mixed with water so check the manufacturer’s directions before applying. Using a medium-sized paintbrush, apply the solution evenly over the surface. Let it soak 20 to 30 minutes then remove the old finish using a plastic scraper or a smooth, round-edged putty knife. The surface may be soft so be careful not to damage it with the scraper. Allow the piece to dry completely.
Never strip furniture near an open flame as stripping chemicals can ignite.
Use chemical strippers clearly marked “no cleanup” or “will wash away with water.” However, the “no cleanup” type stripper may leave a residue, which must be sanded away. Residue from the “wash away” type can be removed by rinsing with water. Be aware that water may raise the grain of the wood. Lightly sand to reduce this effect.
Heat guns can be used as a supplement to other methods to remove particularly stubborn finishes.
Step 3: Sand It
The more thorough you are during the stripping process, the less you’ll need to sand. Start sanding with medium/low-grit sandpaper to clean off any finish that remains and smooth out any imperfections in the wood. Then smooth the whole piece down with medium-grit sandpaper. Be sure to sand along the grain of the wood. Do this carefully as any swirl marks caused by sanding will stand out when you stain.
Step 4: Apply Sanding Sealer
Applying sanding sealer is similar to priming the wood. The sealer reduces the tendency of some woods to absorb stains unevenly. Sealer can also be applied after staining to reduce the number of finish coats necessary. When applying sanding sealer, first use a small-sized paintbrush to brush the surface and wipe clean with a cloth. Shake the can of sealer thoroughly and apply two thin coats to the piece using a small- to medium-sized paintbrush. Avoid allowing the sealer to puddle or fill in decorative grooves. Wipe off excess with a rag and allow the sealer to dry completely before lightly sanding with medium-grit sandpaper in the direction of the grain. Wipe the area with a clean cloth.
Step 5: Stain It
The stain you use will determine the color of the wood once it’s finished. Staining helps reduce contrasts between different wood varieties that may be present in your furniture. Oil-based stains penetrate into the wood without raising the grain but carry a strong odor. Water-based stains are more environmentally friendly and offer easy cleanup using soap and water. Do not use deck stain on furniture.
Apply a thin, even coat of stain with a cloth or medium-sized paintbrush and allow it to penetrate into the wood. Coat once for a light stain or apply additional coats to create a darker color. Lightly sand between coats with fine-grit sandpaper. Wipe off excess stain with a clean cloth and allow the piece to dry completely.
Never refinish near an open flame as stains can ignite.
If you are using water-based stains, you can minimize raising the grain by moistening the wood with a damp cloth and sanding. Allow the wood to dry completely and sand lightly with fine-grit sandpaper. Repeat as necessary.
Step 6: Apply Sealant
Apply polyurethane to seal the new stain finish. Apply it using a cloth or with a small- to medium-sized paintbrush in smooth, even strokes along the direction of the grain. Hold the brush vertically while applying. Overlap brushstrokes when moving on to the next area. Start at a corner and work it in gradually in a consistent pattern so you don’t have bare spots. Let it dry completely (this usually takes a couple of hours). You may want to add a couple of coats. In between coats (once the last has dried), lightly sand the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper. Use a cloth to wipe the piece down or use a brush to remove any residue and debris from sanding. Apply the next coat and let it dry.
Great work! You’ve returned your wood furniture to its former glory. Enjoy!
Project Shopping List
Here’s what you’ll need to complete this project successfully.
- Masking tape
- Drop cloths
- Belt sander
- Chemical paint stripper
- Medium-sized paintbrushes
- Plastic paint scraper
- Putty knife
- Rubber gloves
- Protective goggles
- Heat gun (optional)
- Medium-low grit sandpaper
- Sanding sealer
- Small paintbrush
- Small or medium-sized paintbrush
- Stain finish
- Fine-grit sandpaper
- Polyurethane sealant