How to Refinish Wood Furniture
Who hasn’t thought about picking up that dated piece of wood furniture and bringing it new life? Is it worth it? In this article I’ll show you how to refinish wood furniture and breathe new life into it. I’ll show you my process for how I go about refinishing wood furniture.
Step #1: SAND!
I know what you’re thinking, “I hate sanding!”. I know. Trust me, so do I. However, if you want to have a quality finish when it’s all said and done, you have to do a good job with your prep. Depending on the piece of furniture you’re working with and the finish you are planning to add on top of the current, this could either be fast or incredibly painstaking. If you’re going to be painting over the current finish, a light sand is probably enough. However, if you’re going to be re-staining, it’s best to get down to the raw wood and that takes time and effort.
I always start with 80-grit and remove as much of the old clear coat and stain as possible. Once I’ve got most of the material removed, then I’ll move on to 120-grit before doing another pass at 220-grit. 220-grit is sufficient for most finishes but I’ll occasionally go up to 400-grit on tabletops and desks.
Paint vs Stain
- Painting requires less sanding. Often times just scuffing up the existing finish is adequate to prep the surface.
- Always use a quality primer over the existing finish before adding your new paint finish.
- Requires more prep work and sanding. Often sanding all surfaces down to 220 grit and removing any existing stain.
- Occasionally you can stain a darker color over a lighter color without as much sanding.
STEP #2: Pre-Condition
With the majority of the sanding out of the way you’re ready for a new finish….almost! Don’t overlook a quality pre-conditioner if you’re going to be using a stain. ESPECIALLY if you’re refinishing a piece of furniture made out of a soft wood (pine, alder, etc). If you’re going to be staining a soft wood (and even some hardwoods), get in the habit of using a pre-conditioner. For this project, I used Minwax Water Based Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner. Pre-conditioning helps even out stains so you don’t end up with blotchy spots. Pre-conditioner can also help with spots you may not have been able to fully remove the old finish. It just helps even out the finish and is a great habit to get into using.
Step #3: Choosing a Stain
Choosing the right stain is essential for the success of your finished product. There are a bunch of variables to consider including the final color of the piece. One of the biggest things to consider is:
Oil-Based vs Water-Based:
- Pro: Oil based finishes are typically more durable
- Pro: Oil based finishes usually don’t raise grain require additional sanding
- Con: Oil based have longer drying time and heavy odors
- Con: Oil based are less eco-friendly and require solvents/thinners to clean up
- Pro: Water-based are easy to work with and clean up
- Pro: Water-based stains are UV resistant
- Pro: Water-based stains are more forgiving and easily fixed if a mistake is made
- Pro: Fast dry time and low odor
- Con: Water-based often raises grain in wood projects requiring sanding between coats
- Con: Water-based are not as durable as oil-based
Choosing the proper finish is largely a matter of preference and what is available. Typically water-based is more forgiving for the average DIY because it requires less patience between coats, and is typically easier to work with.
In this case I’m using the new color stains from Minwax, specifically Minwax Semi-Transparent Color Stain in the color Royal Pine. These stains come in both a solid color and semi-transparent color. The solid color is more like a paint in that it doesn’t show as much wood grain. The semi-transparent allows more wood grain to show through the finish color. What’s really unique about these stains is that you can tint them to over 240+ colors!
Step #4: Applying the Stain
Each stain and finish varies a little bit in its suggested application. Make sure you take the time to read the label on your stain or finish to make sure you are applying it correctly. Some stains suggest a foam brush or rag while others recommend a specific type of brush for best application. Check out this other article to dive into the differences between spraying, brushing, and wiping on. Other things to consider are making sure you are in a well ventilated space and making sure you are staining/finishing in the proper temperature window for your finish. Again, this should all be outlined on the packaging of your stain/finish
Step #5: Sealing or Top Coating
Typically when you’re finished staining a piece of furniture, you’ll want to apply a top coat/clear coat for protection and/or shine. Typical finishes for clear coats are Satin, Semi-Gloss, and Gloss. These are just a matter of personal preference for your project. There are a large variety of finishes for your top coat typically in the form of a “urethane”.
Make sure you choose one based on the location of the finished product (indoor/outdoor), and in the sheen you want for your project. Also, you CAN apply an oil-based polyurethane or similar over top of a water based stain. However, this requires that your water-based stain is COMPLETELY dry and cured. I DO NOT recommend applying a water based finish over an oil-based stain. I used Minwax One Coat Polyurethane.
Occasionally I may use a paste wax as the final finish instead of or in addition to a polyurethane finish. The wax also offers protection to the furniture/finish but it doesn’t harden to the consistency of a urethane top coat. You can apply a paste wax over a urethane finish pending you add it in thin layers and buff between each. Keep in mind that the wax may alter the sheen of your urethane finish.
Step #6: Be Patient
Refinishing a piece of furniture is a lot of work and not for the faint of heart. But if it was easy you wouldn’t be able to find these old wooden pieces for free or cheap. It takes time to get the finish you want. After all, they don’t make them like they used to!
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