How to Refinish Furniture

Refinishing furniture can be a daunting and intimidating task. I know a lot of people look at an antique piece of furniture and think “there’s no way I can fix this finish…I’ll just paint it”. I know because I was once like you! I passed by many a beauty in antique malls and thrift stores because there was no way I’d be able to fix the finish and I didn’t want to “ruin” the piece by painting it. When it comes to refinishing vintage/antique furniture, I’m a purist in that way – I don’t want to cover the beauty of the wood with paint. That’s not to say that I don’t paint furniture – sometimes there’s no way around it and paint is the only option (this dresser is a prime example of that). But if I can refinish a piece and bring the wood back to life, that’s what I’ll do.

If you have the time and patience, its totally worth refinishing a piece and bringing the wood back to life. You’ll be surprised just how much of the wood grain and beauty is hiding behind the old, dingy varnish! Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

Here’s how this piece looked before I started – the varnish was so old, dingy, dinged and scratched up, it didn’t look great and looked really dated.

It is very important to make sure you have fresh air constantly circulating around you.

Acetone and lacquer thinner are very strong chemicals. You want to make sure that you have your door/garage door/windows open. Outside would be the most ideal, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate so most of the time I strip the finish inside my shop. I always try to have my door and windows open when I do it. I usually have a box fan on one window facing out to blow the inside air out and a box fan on another window facing in to bring fresh air into the shop. I’ve made the mistake of not properly ventilating the shop before and it’s not fun…it’s super dangerous! You think that you’ll be able to smell the chemicals when they become too much, but you can’t. You get used to it and before you know it, you’re treading on dangerous ground. The one time I made that mistake, I ended up with one of the worst migraines I’ve ever had in my life and it lasted for over a day. Luckily, that’s all that happened…I mean, I’m sure I ended up killing A LOT of brain cells, but it could have been much worse. I also don’t wear a respirator…I’m a dummy that way, but that’s why ventilation is very important to me. What I’m saying is – don’t do what I do! Be smarter! LOL

So make sure ya gots that ventilation!! Its very, very important!

Once your “fresh air” system is setup, you can get started. I always lay down a piece of cardboard under my pieces – refinishing is very messy so you’ll want something down to protect your floor. You can put a plastic drop cloth under your cardboard, just to make sure the acetone and lacquer thinner don’t go through to the floor. My shop floor is already a mess so I don’t worry too much about that. Cardboard is great to use because when you’re done with the project, you can fold that piece of cardboard up with all of the mess inside and throw it in the trash. (Just make sure anything with chemicals on it has had time to dry out…you don’t want them to build up in your trash can and ignite…a trash can fire is never fun!)

Now for the fun stuff! You’ve got everything set up and ready to go.

Step 1: Put your stripper on the big panels

Now, put on your Dexter’s Lab gloves and grab your stripper and chip brush. I put the stripper on all of the big panels that don’t have a lot of detail on them. I let it sit for at least 15 mins before I try to scrape it off. Here’s where your scraper with plastic blades comes in handy. I’ve tried a handful of other plastic scrapers (some that are specifically for stripping wood) and this is what I’ve found that works the best for me. Its smaller than most scrapers so its easier to get into the corners and smaller areas, and (to me) the plastic blades are “sharper”. They’re really good at scraping, but they won’t mess up or nick your wood like metal blades would. Using stripper doesn’t always get all of the finish off, but that’s ok, because you’ll go over that section with an acetone/lacquer thinner solution – and that will get the rest of the finish off and clean up the wood (and completely finish removing all of the stripper).

Step 2: Acetone/lacquer thinner (ALT) solution

I mix this as I go in an old glass bowl, but you can use anything that’s glass or metal. Mix a 50/50 solution of lacquer thinner and acetone – I’m not sure why this combo works, but its amazing. It melts the finish right off and dries quickly so you don’t have to worry about it soaking in and damaging the wood (like water would). Now, mix your solution, grab your rags, steel wool, nylon brush and toothbrush. The nylon brush and toothbrush work the best for the detail work. Just dip your brush in your solution and gently scrub the wood, starting at the top and working your way down to the bottom. Wipe with the shop rags as you go, I use the rags to wipe off all of the gunk and varnish the solution has melted off. When the rag is saturated with old varnish, throw it on your cardboard and grab a fresh one. I usually keep a stack near by so I can grab as I go. Make sure to constantly dip your brushes as you go – its messy, but you don’t want your brush to get dry. This will make the old varnish start to harden and you’ll get nowhere with removing it.

Step 3: Using the ALT solution on big sections

On the big sections, the #0000 steel wool comes into play. I usually tear a full piece in half or thirds and use these pieces as I go on a project. Even though you’re constantly dipping your steel wool into your ALT solution, some varnish will stay in the steel wool and you’ll get a buildup so you need to change it out for a fresh piece. Its kinda like using a wet paper towel to clean up a spill – that spill ain’t moving! Use you’re best judgment on when to change it out – if it seems like you’re not taking off as much varnish as you did when it was a new piece, its time to change.

Step 4: Clean up

Once everything is stripped with the stripper and ALT solution, I usually make a fresh batch of ALT solution, grab a fresh piece of steel wool and rags, and go over the entire piece one more time to make sure there aren’t any varnish stragglers, drips, gunky spots and to make sure everything is clean and ready to go for sealer.

Now you’re piece is down to bare wood!

You can stain it or leave it natural and just seal it. I usually leave the wood natural unless a client wants it stained. Every once in a while, I’ll have to stain panels or certain areas to even out the color of the wood, but that’s not very often. With this china cabinet, my client and I decided to leave the outside natural and paint/wallpaper the inside. The china cabinet is a family heirloom so she wanted to bring the beauty back to all of the detail work (and that fretwork on the door!!!<drooling>). We decided to paint the inside white because it was so dark, anything she’d put in there would get lost in that darkness. For a little pop, we picked out this very beautiful, delicately designed wallpaper that would compliment all of the detail work and fretwork, and give the piece a little something extra.

I absolutely love the way everything turned out! I even surprised her and lined the drawer to match the back!

Making the inside pretty:

To do the inside, I sanded everything down and used a BIN shellac primer. This is my new favorite primer to use – to see all of the pros and cons of this primer, check out my last blog post. Its great for hiding knots and you don’t have to worry about bleed through when you’re painting. I painted 2 coats of primer and 3 coats of Sherwin Williams white paint (this is my go-to white paint to use on furniture). Once the inside and shelves were painted, I sealed the entire piece with satin polyurethane.

When the poly had cured, I wallpapered the back of the cabinet with this wallpaper….soooo pretty! I measured in the width of the wallpaper and marked on the back of the cabinet. Once I had that measured, I took my level and marked a straight line down the back. This is the best way to get your pattern straight because, just like with walls, no corners are ever perfectly straight or at 90 degrees. When you put your wallpaper up, you’ll use your level line to line up the side of the wallpaper and start at the top of the wallpaper piece and work your way down – making sure to smooth out the paper and get out all of the air bubbles as you go. Make sure when cutting your wallpaper, you add 2 inches of extra for overhang on the top and 2 extra inches for overhang on the bottom.

Before you hang your first piece of wallpaper, take your roll and line up the design for your next piece of wallpaper. Its a lot easier to do because the paper is laying flat and you’re not having to fight with corners or small spaces to line it up. Once the design is lined up, measure how wide the next piece needs to be to fit on the back and cut accordingly. When you’re installing your second piece of wallpaper, make sure to overlap your first piece by 1/16″ – this is so if the wallpaper shrinks, you don’t have a gap between each piece.

And BAM! this piece is done! So what I’m saying is its not as hard as you think it is. Yes, its messy. Yes, it takes time, and maybe a little blood, sweat and tears. But I promise it’ll all be worth it in the end because you’ll have a beautiful piece and a nice sense of accomplishment! If you need any inspiration, check out some of my past refinishing projects. If you decide to refinish a piece, make sure to tag me because I wanna see!!!

Don’t forget to follow along on the social medias! And if you wanna see the finish melt off in time lapse, check out my Insta highlight “China cabinet refinish”…its deeply satisfying, I promise!