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Wood Furniture Refinishing
Wood Staining | Wood Sealer
Our wood furniture refinishing section contains detailed step by step
instructions on how refinish your home furniture. We also include
information on how to repair your wood furniture before refinishing, and
types of related wood finishes. Remember, if you can't find the answers in
our extensive content, visit our furniture refinishing forum, where a
do-it- yourself expert is waiting to help you do it yourself.
Chemically Stripping Wood
Introduction: Refinishing furniture doesn't have to be painful. With our
help, it can even be fun.
What You Will Need: Here we show you project requirements you'll want to
consider before you begin.
Preparing the Surface: Is the old finish salvageable? What was it? What to
do now? We've got answers.
Stripping the Wood: Learn all about painted furniture, unpainted
furniture, stripping, dipping, and more.
Making Repairs: Wood repair should be completed after stripping and before
sanding and staining.
Sanding the Wood: Obtain the desired finish without gouging the wood or
sanding through the veneer.
Staining Wood Surfaces: Staining is used to enrich the grain pattern of
wood or to darken its overall tone.
Sealing and Wood Finishing: Do you know the best way to preserve the new
look of your furniture?
Applying the Finish: Whether lacquer, varnish, or wax, we'll help smooth
the way to a great finish.
A Checklist: We've got the list of what you'll need to take your project
from start to...finish.
Related Wood Finish Info:
• Lacquer Info
• Polyurethane Info
• Repairing Chairs
• Steel Wool Refinishing
• Stripping Furniture
• Time to Strip?
• Tung Oil Info
• Varnish Info
• Wood Finishes
• When Should I Change My Sandpaper?
• Repair Furniture Surfaces: Finishes
• Stripping Wood Finishes
Furniture Refinishing - Bringing Out the Best of the Wood
What You Will Be Doing
Many who want to refinish a piece of their furniture are put off by the
amount of work involved. Others are often times too impatient to complete
the job and end up with something they either are dissatisfied with or no
longer like well enough to go back and do it right Still others are
fearful of ruining a cherished table or chair.
Refinishing furniture does not have to be painful. It can even be fun. But
you must first have the right attitude and realize that a thorough job
cannot be completed in one day.
New materials and products for refinishing wood are frequently introduced
on the market. It helps to consult your local home center or hardware
store personnel for suggestions concerning the particular item you will be
The suggestions in this chapter are meant to serve as an overview of basic
techniques. It covers two different procedures of stripping, one for items
having multiple layers of paint and/or old finish the other for stripping
A few tips on furniture repair will be covered, because, usually, every
piece requiring refinishing needs some repair as well. This step should
always be taken care of prior to the final staining and sealing of your
Finishing can be achieved in a variety of ways from antiquing and custom
painting to the use of a simple hand-rubbed oil on bare wood. This section
only covers the stripping, staining, and finishing processes but also
includes a variety of materials for you to choose from.
Before You Begin - Safety
Because of the caustic chemicals involved in refinishing furniture, great
care must be taken to follow safe-use practices.
1. Always use the proper tool for the job at hand.
2. When working with chemicals, remember that they are flammable. Do not
3. Wear durable rubber or neophrene gloves, safety goggles, and long
sleeves when stripping wood, to protect against splatters and chemical
burns, especially to eyes.
4. Chemical strippers produce vapors which are harmful if inhaled. Provide
for proper ventilation with a window fan, or do the work outside.
5. Seal all healing and air-conditioning ducts and electrical outlets when
sanding indoors. Wood dust can ignite. If your project involves a lot of
sanding the basement would be a poor choice. The ventilation is
inadequate, and wood dust can ruin a furnace or washing machine motor.
6. Take care in storing oily rags, which can spontaneously combust.
7. Wear ear protectors when using power tools, since some operate at noise
levels that can damage hearing.
8. Always unplug your sander when changing the sandpaper.
9. Individuals with pulmonary disorders or weakness should consult with a
physician before using chemical strippers.
10. Keep all chemical strippers and materials out of the reach of children
11. Most older paints contain lead, the particles of which are released by
any means of stripping. The proper respirator with a cartridge designed to
filter lead should be worn when stripping, sanding, or scraping. A dust
mask is inadequate. Keep pregnant women and children out of the area. Wash
work clothes separately from other laundry.
• Camphored - Refers to edges or corners that are worn and/or rounded with
use. This condition usually enhances the piece and adds value to it
• Lacquer - A clear finish.
• Mineral spirits - An inexpensive paint thinner which cleans brushes,
thins paint, cleans furniture, and removes wax.
• Paraffin - A wax applied to the edges of drawers and other movable parts
to prevent sticking.
• Penetrating resin - A finish which darkens and penetrates the surface of
the wood. This type of finish is not easily removed.
• Polyurethane - A clear, acrylic finish.
• Tack cloth - A sticky cloth which picks up fine dust. It is used to wipe
over wood before a stain or finish is applied.
• Varnish - A resinous finish used to give a glossy surface to wood.
Furniture Refinishing - What You Will Need
Time: Time will depend on the size and complexity of your project Be sure
to allow plenty of time to complete the stripping in one day, and remember to allow for drying times for any
finishes you apply.
Tools: Tools required for refinishing furniture are not very specialized.
Most of them should be found in your home toolbox.
Natural bristle brushes (preferable to synthetic ones, which can melt when
they come in contact with harsh chemicals)
Steel wool (0000-3)
Old paint brushes
Brass bristle brushes
Durable rubber gloves
Canvas and plastic drop cloths
Syringe or putty knife
Lamb's wool pad for drill
Various clamps (appropriate to your project)
Very sharp razor blade
Materials: The materials are somewhat specialized, although many of these
you will have on hand, and all of them are readily available at home
centers and hardware stores.
Clean dry rags
Paper towels or rags
Sandpaper (100-120 grit)
Carpenter's wood glue
Paraffin or linseed oil
Latex wood filler
Permits and Codes
No permits are needed when refinishing furniture. Codes do not apply here.
The design aspect of furniture refinishing rests in your choice of pieces
to strip, repair and refinish. Choose carefully for value. planning the
selection to enhance the individual rooms of your home.
Most Common Mistakes
The most common mistake in furniture refinishing is failure to read and
follow manufacturers' instructions for chemicals being used. Other common
mistakes are listed with each specific step.
Furniture Refinishing - Preparing the Surface
Most Common Mistakes
Not cleaning the surface thoroughly before refinishing. Sometimes, if a
piece of furniture is not too badly damaged, or if it is just worn, it is
possible to patch up the original finish so that the authentic quality of
the furniture can be saved.
Thoroughly clean the surface of the piece with a commercial wood cleaner,
mineral spirits, or wax remover, to determine whether the present finish
is salvageable. Then carefully look over the item to determine if a total
refinishing job is necessary.
Determine which top finish was originally used. Begin by soaking a cotton
ball with denatured alcohol. Apply this to an out-of-view area and let
soak for ten minutes. If the finish dissolves, it is shellac. If not apply
a lacquer thinner with a brush to an out-of-view spot on the piece. If
this method dissolves the finish, you know you are working with lacquer.
If neither of the above tests brings results, your piece has either a
varnish or a synthetic top finish, both of which require a liquid stripper
Often surface blemishes, such as white spots and water rings, have not
penetrated deeply. Use a 2/0 or 3/0 steel wool pad and a little paraffin
or linseed oil to rub the spot. Rub with the grain of the wood. Once the
spot is removed, wipe the surface with a dry rag and add a paste wax.
If the finish is merely worn out you can sometimes overcoat with the same
finish. (Follow the procedure outlined above to determine which finish to
use.) Apply one coat and allow it to dry thoroughly. Then rub with a 2/0
or finer 0000-00 steel wool pad and wax with a paste wax. (Always test an
inconspicuous spot before applying the finish to the entire piece.)
If the finish on the piece is in good condition, with only slightly
damaged areas to be touched up, I recommend the reamalgamation technique.
Use the appropriate solution tested in the procedure outlined above to
dissolve the finish of the damaged area.
Dip a natural bristle brush or fine steel wool into the solvent; then
brush or gently rub it into the damaged area until the defect disappears.
Apply more solvent to the area with long, light strokes - with the grain -
to smooth the amalgamated finish. Once this is dry, remove any rough spots
with a 2/0 or 3/0 steel wool. Finish with a paste wax.
Furniture Refinishing - Stripping the Wood
Margin of Error. Remove Paint and Paint Haze
Most Common Mistakes
1. Attempting to refinish a piece that is fully assembled. Break it down
when you can for an easier, more thorough job.
2. Leaving the tops off of strippers while using. They evaporate quickly.
3. Failure to apply enough stripper to the surface of the work to keep it
wet As a result it evaporates and dries out the wood. Never apply stripper
in direct sunlight.
4. Not waiting the required amount of time for the stripper to work
thereby necessitating harsh scraping of the wood.
5. Spreading the stripping process over two or more days. Plan your time
to complete the stripping in one day so you won't have to come back to
paint that has had time to re-harden.
6. Leaving some of the paint on the wood with the intention of sanding it
off usually does more harm than good. Let the stripper do the work!
Unpainted furniture coated with only a stain, sealer, or varnish does not
require a preliminary application of semi-paste
stripper. Simply begin with the thin liquid stripper and follow the
procedure outlined below under Painted Furniture. Use an old
natural bristle brush and keep the surfaces wet with the stripper while
Painted Furniture that has been painted can be stripped by hand. While it's more
expensive than tankstripping (sometimes called "dipping"), the investment
is a sound one. There is less chance of serious damage to the wood, and
the wood is left a brighter color. This makes it easier to refinish it in
a light or natural tone.
Most strippers have either a semi-paste or a thin liquid consistency, the
premium agent of which is methylene chloride. When working with built-up
layers of paint or varnish, begin with the semi-paste to remove 95 percent
of the paint. Follow with a liquid stripper to complete the stripping. The
optimum temperature for working with wood stripper is between 60 and 70
You'll want to wear old clothes for this step. Also, durable rubber
stripper gloves. Use goggles to protect your eyes from splatters. Set up a
table in a place where you can work comfortably. If working indoors,
protect your floors and any other furniture in the area.
Cover the floor with a thick (at least 4 mi.) layer of plastic and add a
canvas drop cloth on top of that. Open all the windows and provide further
for adequate ventilation by installing a window fan exhausting outdoors.
Have a respirator on hand and wear it if the fumes from the stripper are
strong. These fumes are harmful if inhaled.
To make the job more manageable, strip parts separately when you can.
Remove mirrors from their frames prior to stripping, to avoid damaging the
silvering, which would be costly to replace. By separating the drawers,
doors, and other pieces, you can elevate them to a more comfortable
working height Remove all hardware, hinges, and door handles and place
them in a bucket of liquid stripper to soak.
Cover the bucket to reduce
evaporation of the stripper.
Pour a semi-paste stripper into another bucket to work from. I do not
recommend working directly from the container, as stripper easily
evaporates. The container should be kept sealed to avoid drying. Apply the
paste to the surface of the wood, using an old natural bristle paint
brush. (Natural bristles do not have the tendency to melt away in these
harsh chemicals, as do synthetic bristles.)
Work from the top to the bottom, one section at a time. Spread the
stripper liberally in one direction with the brush. Apply it thickly into
the carved areas. Because stripper has a fairly fast evaporation rate,
take care to keep the surface wet while the stripper is working.
Depending on the kind of stripper and the number of paint layers you need
to remove, you can expect to wait from five to twenty minutes before
scraping. (Read the manufacturer's instructions for application time.) The
semi-paste is thick enough to cling to vertical and upside-down surfaces.
It softens and lifts the paint up from the surface of the wood but does
not discolor, raise the grain, or destroy the wood's natural patina.
It may take several applications to lift off all of the old finish.
Practice and patience go a long way here. Always let the stripper do the
work. If you laboriously try to scrape or chisel the paint off, the direct
pressure to the scraper could cause it to gouge and damage the very wood
you are trying to preserve.
When the stripper has done its work use your scraper to lift and remove
the residue. Consolidate the residue in an old cardboard box for easier
clean-up. Scrapers are available with various curves and picks to make
working with carvings and rounded legs less frustrating. Pipe cleaners and
toothpicks are also useful. (A set of old dental tools is perfect for
stripping intricate woodwork.)
Thin Liquid Stripper. Once 95 percent of the old finish is removed with
the semi-paste, use another old natural bristle paint brush to apply the
thin liquid stripper from another bucket. Again, keep the surfaces moist
while you are working, to avoid drying out the wood. And wear your goggles
for this step, since the liquid splatters much easier than does the paste.
When the liquid has had a few minutes to work (read the manufacturer's
instructions for proper time frame), use a brass-bristled brush to work
the solvent into the carvings and corners.
Steel wool can be used for this step as well, but the brass brush is
superior. The bristles don't break down and get caught in the grain like
Keep two separate buckets of the liquid on hand - one to use over and over
again while scrubbing and the other to use for a final rinse. Once the
brass bristles have broken up the remaining paint the old paint brush
makes a great agitation tool to rinse the paint away.
The final rinse with the clean stripper is important. It will remove any
film or "paint haze" caused by a little of the paint left in the previous
bath of solvent. Never use a water rinse. It tends to raise the grain of
Furniture Refinishing - Making Repairs
Margin of Error - Remove Paint and Paint Haze
Most Common Mistakes
1. Failing to make all necessary repairs before refinishing. Although most
of us look over our furniture carefully before beginning the stripping
process to detect any repairs that may be needed, it is even more
important to check again after
stripping for conditions that may have been hidden under layers of old
paint and varnish. Any repair that must be done on wood should be
completed after stripping but before sanding and staining.
If you know that you will be working with veneer (thin, finished layers of
wood), you don't want to allow the stripper toremain on the surface too
long. It can seep into the cracks and lift the veneer by dissolving the
Detect loose veneer edges by tapping your fingernail on it and listening
for a change in sound. Before gluing, clean and scrape away the old glue
and dirt at the contact points, being careful not to split the veneer more
than it already is. Fill in the crack of the veneer with a small bit of
carpenter's glue slipped in on the end of a putty knife. Or purchase
aninexpensive 20 gauge needle syringe, which slides under the veneer
neatly and gently to apply a small amount of glue. Press down on the repair and wipe up any excess glue that oozes out of the
crack. Cover the area with waxed paper and law a weight on it so that the
surfaces are firmly pressed together while the glue is setting up.
When there are bubbles, cut into the veneer with a sharp razor blade using
a steel rule for guidance. Make an "X" cut neither cut should be with the
grain of the wood. Then clean, fill, and weight down the surfaces, as
outlined above. Use a seam roller to press the veneer in place. Always
allow ample time for the adhesive to set and dry before continuing the
Here's a tip on checking the condition of wooden chairs. Kneel on the seat
while holding on to the back of the chair. Then rock gently back and forth
to detect any loose joints. Old and brittle glue is common with old chairs.
Dismantle any loose joints prior to stripping. Always use your hands or a
rubber mallet to prevent denting and marring when dismantling furniture.
After stripping, sand the joint.
Reassemble the leg and stretcher, adding carpenter's wood glue before
inserting the stretcher into the hole. Clamp the legs together with a bar
clamp. Place small scraps of wood between the jaws of the clamp and the
legs to prevent damage to the wood. Allow the glue to dry thoroughly
before the final sanding and finishing phase.
Furniture Refinishing - Sanding the Wood
Margin of Error: Sand enough to obtain desired finish yet not enough to
gouge the wood or sand through the veneer
Most Common Mistakes
1. Sanding with an orbital sander that oscillates at less than 8,400
orbits per minute. This leaves swirl marks and scratches.
2. Refinishing requires time and patience. Plan enough time between steps
to allow the glue to set and dry, the sanding to be thorough, and the
finishes to dry properly. High humidity can more than double recommended
3. Gouging the wood with a belt sand in an electric drill.
Stripping closes the grain of the wood to the penetration of stain and
finish. Sanding reopens the grain, evens out any discoloration that may
have been left by a previous stain, and erases any scratches or blemishes
in the surface.
Most of your furniture refinishing will require a sandpaper of 100 to 120
grits. Change the paper frequently. Once it begins to wear out it is no
longer sanding, but polishing, which will close the grain again. To make
your sandpaper last longer, use an old toothbrush to clean out the clogged
For all-purpose refinishing, the ideal tool is an orbital sander that
oscillates at around 8,400 orbits per minute. This speed assures
elimination of swirl marks and scratches in the wood.
(I do not recommend a belt sander or sanding discs attached to a drill.
These gouge the wood and leave obvious sanding marks.)
You need not press down on the sander - its own weight will do the work.
Just keep the pressure equal and guide the sander in even sweeps, always
sanding with the grain. When sanding veneers, remember that most are very
thin (1/32"), so be careful.
Use a sanding block with 100 to 120 grit sandpaper for smaller areas. A
rubber or padded sanding block has a little more give for odd areas. It
also helps to have some different wood shapes (round, curved, etc.)
available while you work You can wrap the sandpaper around these when
sanding curves or recessed molding. Remember to apply even pressure and
sand with the grain whenever possible. Change the sandpaper frequently.
And be sure to remove any glue that might have remained on the wood where
you made repairs. Where wood dough has been applied, take care to sand the
surface flush so as not to leave a halo when you stain.
Once the sanding process is complete you will want to clean the piece and
the surrounding area thoroughly. Vacuum up all the dust and go over the
piece's) you are refinishing with a tack cloth to pick up any remaining
Tip: To check on the condition of wooden chairs, kneel on the seat while
holding on to the back of the chair, then rock gently back and forth to
detect any loose joints.
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