Refinishing Furniture


Looking in antique shops or flea markets is half the fun of collecting. Sometimes a good bargain can be found just because it needs a little repair or the finish is badly damaged. If you enjoy refinishing a piece of furniture for your self in the evenings or on the weekend, then this is a good way to add to your collection. It means some work, but you’ll get satisfaction bringing a piece back to life.

Look and make sure it is worth the effort. If the piece is cherry, walnut, oak or some other hardwood, it will refinish nicely in a natural finish. Be careful when you find a piece from the 1920’s or 30’s that has been painted. Sometimes these pieces are painted because they have lost their veneer. What you find when you have removed the painted surface is the veneer core . This core or ground work was often made up of narrow pieces of popular or gum glued up at random with out any concern for grain or color matching. These are good pieces to try faux finishes on such as sponging, marbling, or wood graining.

If you have gotten a piece that has it’s original finish, either painted or natural, do not refinish it. This will devalue the furniture and erase part of history. These pieces should be cleaned and a good coat of hard paste wax applied. Use mineral spirits on a soft cloth to clean the dirt and wax build up off before waxing.

When you get a piece in your work area take a few minutes to look it over. Make sure to have good lighting so you can see all the details. If there are just light surface scratches, these can be rubbed out with 4/0 steel wool. Another method is to make a small cloth pad and use mineral oil and pumice powder followed by rotten stone to rub the scratches out.  If large areas of the finish are gone or damage, then it is best to refinish.

Take the hardware off and set it aside. This can be cleaned separately. After applying the new finish the hardware can be set back on. If you just need to clean the hardware take it off so the finish isn’t damaged.

Make any repairs before refinishing. If a piece is rickety, reglue or repair it first. Hide glue will dissolve with vinegar and hot water. White or yellow glue will dissolve with alcohol and or hot water. When the parts are clean of glue set them aside to dry over night. When regluing, cover all the joint surface with new glue. Clamp in place until the glue is dry. When clamping pad the surface of the wood so that the wood surface isn’t dented. Pads cut from 1/4 inch plywood are good for this.

All of the old finish must be removed. Commercial paint and varnish stripper are best. Avoid using lye and hot water. This will damage the wood, change the color, and destroy the patina. Also avoid strippers that need to be washed off with water. The water can damage veneered surfaces. Choose a paste stripper if there are large vertical surfaces.

Keep safety in mind when refinishing. Have the work area well ventilated and no open flames. It’s best to wear a respirator, rubber gloves, and eye protection. The fumes of these solvents cause long term accumulative brain damage. The solvents will burn the skin or eyes if splashes occur. If it does get on the skin, wash throughly with water

The tools you’ll need are simple. Rags, plenty of rags, can be bought at a local paint store. Also 3/0 and 4/0 steel wool, an old tooth brush, 1/4 inch hardwood dowel sharpened to a point on one end, and a disposable bristle brush will be needed.

Have the work area warm, about 70 degrees, when applying the stripper, glueing, or finishing. Apply the stripper with the brush and give the stripper time to dissolve the old finish. Most of the problems with strippers occur when the temperature is too cold or it wasn’t left on long enough. Paints need a longer time to dissolve than a varnish. Work a small area at a time, rather than trying to apply stripper to the whole piece. When the finish has dissolved, wipe the old finish off with a rag. If one spot is stubborn, dip the steel wool in the stripper and work on that area. Then wipe clean. For turnings or carvings, you can use the tooth brush or the pointed end of the dowel. After removing the old finish, dip 4/0 steel wool in alcohol and go over the whole piece wiping it clean again. Let the piece dry over night.

Shellac is a good finish to use and doesn’t require any costly equipment to apply. If you buy it at a hardware store, look for a date on the can. Premixed shellac will go bad after about 6 months. I prefer to mix my own using flake shellac and alcohol. Premixed shellac is made to what is known as a 3 pound cut. This means 3 pounds of shellac to 1 gallon of alcohol. A thinner mixture will leave fewer brush marks. I mix 3/4 of a pound of flake shellac to one gallon of alcohol in a glass jar. If you mix it in a metal container the shellac will go bad, as the shellac reacts with metal. If you aren’t sure about the shellac test, it on a piece of scrap first. It should dry hard in about 1 hour.

Use an all natural bristle brush to apply the shellac. I like a 3 inch Badger brush because it holds the finish and flows out well. Brush with the grain of the wood, working quickly. I start at the furthest edge away from me and work back towards the edge closest to me. This way any spills don’t show up in the final finish. Use 6 to 8 coats on a tight grained wood and 8 to 10 coats for an open grain wood.  Let each coat dry about one and a half hour. Use 4/0 steel wool to rub out the surface in between each coat. Blow or wipe the powder from the surface before applying the next coat.  On the next to the last coat allow it to dry over night. Then wool and apply the final coat. When this coat is dry,  rub it out and apply a coat of paste wax.

Now you can see the piece smile at you and feel pride and satisfaction in a job well done.

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