Old-Fashioned Furniture Refinishing Old-Fashioned Furniture Refinishing

Refinishing a piece of furniture is a great pastime since the project usually requires a good deal of patience; and refinishing is also a great way to develop valuable furniture-working skills. What we mean by ‘old-fashioned’ in the title is that we are going to explain how to refinish a piece of furniture without using paint strippers or varnish removers of any kind.

Project Preparations:

The first step obviously is to find a piece of furniture that you would like to refinish. Maybe you have an old chair, table, or chest-of-drawers in your basement or garage. If not, go to a thrift store or a rummage sale where you will surely find an inexpensive piece of furniture to refinish.

Make sure the piece is made from real wood and not something constructed out of cardboard or plastic that has been made to resemble wood. Also it is best to select furniture with an old finish. The older, the better. Oil paint or varnish is much easier to remove when it has been there for awhile, rather than the newer types of chemical or plastic finishes. Some acrylic paints are virtually impossible to remove without using paint stripper. But remember, one of the most important things to have when refinishing furniture is patience.

Here are the tools you will need to get started refinishing your furniture:


The knife should be about the size of a paring knife or a larger pocketknife. A knife made from carbon steel is best, but stainless steel will work. Use a whetstone to make sure your knife is sharp. Since we will be doing things rather unconventionally, scraping with a knife is another skill you will need. You can practice by placing the knife edge on an extra piece of wood and holding it so the top of the blade opposite the edge is tilted in the direction you are scraping. Practice holding the knife at different angles so you can see when the shavings and wood particles appear. That’s when you have found the correct technique, which will come in handy around corners and hard-to-reach areas.

Before refinishing, check your piece to see if any repairs need to be made. Loose rungs on a chair, a drawer that is coming apart, excessive cracks, these are some of the more common problems. Most repairs can be made simply by replacing screws or gluing and clamping.

Step 1: Removing the Fininsh

After repairs, you are ready to start removing the old finish. Some people use paint stripper or varnish remover, but I have tried those methods and found them to be a toxic and hazardous mess. Why waste money on these chemicals? If you have enough patience, most of the old finish can be removed by sanding with medium grit sandpaper. Tear the sandpaper into proper sized pieces, then wrap them around the sanding block and use it on large flat surfaces. Always sand by moving with the grain of the wood. Wood grain is the fine lines in the composition of the wood that run lengthwise in a board or log. Sanding against the grain will tear the wood fibers. When refinishing, you will probably find a few stubborn areas where the varnish resists the sandpaper. Use the sandpaper without the block on these areas, applying pressure with your thumbs and fingers on the harder portions. Stop sanding if any blisters form on your hands and put your project away for another day. Always be patient. For tight corners, use smaller sanding blocks with smaller pieces of paper. For rounded areas you can tear the sandpaper into strips and sand in a shoe-shine motion, or use your sanding cord. (Sanding against the grain will be necessary in these areas.)

For areas so stubborn as to resist spot sanding, you can resort to scraping with your knife. If you’re working on a practice piece, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Any over-scraped or uneven places can be looked at as adding character to your piece and giving it a use-worn, antique looking quality.

Step 2: Repairing Damages

After removing the finish, you may notice holes, cracks, or cigarette burns in the wood. They can be filled in with plastic wood filler. But cigarette burns should be scraped out before they are filled, so the filler will adhere properly. After the filler dries it can be scraped and spot sanded to become level with the surface. Then your project can be sanded with a fine grit paper. Experienced furniture refinishers believe it is not necessary to use sandpaper finer than 120 grit to prepare the wood surface for a finish; it is believed that 220 or 400 paper merely clogs the wood pores and prevents the varnish from penetrating.

Step 3: Staining the Wood

Before applying your varnish, you can stain the wood to darken it and enhance the appearance of the wood grain. Select a popular brand of penetrating stain such as Sherman-Williams, Benjamin Moore, or Min-Wax. Try to apply one even coat of stain the first time, since the first coat is the only one that actually penetrates, and any additional coats only conceal the grain rather than enhance it. Stain is usually applied with a cotton cloth, although a brush can be used in tight spots. The stain is then allowed to work into the wood and dry before it is wiped off – moving with the direction of the grain. Mainly you should follow the instructions on the brand of stain you have selected.

When you are sure the stain has dried sufficiently, sand it lightly with 320 grit sandpaper in case the stain has raised the grain of the wood a little. Sanding after staining will also help the varnish adhere to the wood.

Step 4: Varnishing the Wood

Before varnishing, wipe all sanding residue from the project and vacuum around it if possible. Use a foam brush to apply the varnish since some brushes will shed bristles into the finish. Start at the top and work your way down, applying an even coat, and brushing out any runs as you work downward. Let the varnish dry for a full day after applying the first coat. Then sand lightly with 320 grit paper. Sand in short strokes with the grain to smooth wood fibers that were raised by the varnish.

Before applying the second coat of varnish, again wipe away and vacuum up the sanding residue. This light sanding and removing residue process between coats is called ‘hand-rubbing’ and is the secret to obtaining a deep professional finish. Three to five coats of varnish will be sufficient.

Remember, be patient and you can refinish almost any type of furniture without the use of paint stripper or varnish remover.

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