If you’re wondering how to refinish wood furniture but aren’t sure where to start, this is a great beginner’s guide. See the step-by-step instructions and tips from my personal experience below.
A total beginner’s guide to refinishing wood furniture
Hey all! I figured for today’s article I would take it back to some basics. I haven’t been doing a ton of furniture refinishing over the last few years simply because we haven’t had a need for more furniture.
But since we’ve moved, I’ve been doing some thrifting and acquiring some new pieces for the house. Since this house was built in the 60s, it is perfect for older pieces. I found the table I’m working on in this article while thrift-picking around town one day.
I love it because it’s small, even when fully extended. And the extension mechanisms are all wood, not metal—meaning less prone to failure/breaking.
I have refinished many pieces over the years and have picked up some useful tips and tricks along the way. So this article builds on my much older how to stain and seal wood article with some extra info for furniture—and beginners seeking practical advice from someone who knows a thing or two!
- What to look for in a wood furniture piece to refinish
- Supplies you’ll need
- Steps to refinish wood furniture
What to look for in a wood furniture piece to refinish
I want to talk a bit more about why I chose this piece to take home before we go over how to refinish wood furniture. First, this piece was cheap! And I could fit it in my little car 🙂 But a few of the reasons I chose this piece are also good rules for furniture thrifting in general.
1. Look for wood furniture without a veneer
First—if you’re looking to refinish a piece (not paint it), I recommend looking for pieces that are solid wood and do not have a layer of wood veneer on top. It’s definitely possible that a piece has solid wood under wood veneer and you could sand it off and refinish. I’ve done that.
But it’s also possible that there could be something like a composite material under the veneer. While that would be fine for painting, it’s not great for refinishing. This table was solid wood with no veneer anywhere.
If you notice that there appears to be a thin later on the surface of the piece, it’s likely a veneer. On older pieces, the veneer will be cracked or chipped in places. It is definitely possible to repair and refinish veneers, but it isn’t great for beginners.
Since this is a practical guide for beginners, I recommend looking for pieces that do not have a veneer and that are solid wood.
2. Look for wood furniture that doesn’t have a ton of detail
If this is one of the first pieces you’ll refinish, it’s best to look for small- to medium-sized pieces that do not have a ton of detail. That’s because a ton of detail makes sanding more of a pain.
This table had really great lines, and you’ll see in later photos of the legs that they are very simple. The construct of the table is timeless and clean—and easy to sand! Perfect for a beginner.
3. Look for pieces that are stable
It’s certainly possible to repair and replace parts on thrifted furniture. However, if you’re a beginner, it’s probably a good idea to find a piece that doesn’t need any structural repair.
I love that this table was stable, and both leaves were fully functional. I could focus solely on refinishing the table instead of repairing broken mechanisms.
Refinishing supplies you’ll need
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Here is a list of my recommended supplies if you’re new to refinishing wood furniture! Everyone uses slightly different tools, and that’s okay—but this is a good get-you-started list.
- Orbital sander
- Sanding discs in different grits
- Fine-grit sandpaper for hand sanding
- Dust mask
- Wood stain
- Small roller
- Disposable gloves
- Finish of your choice—I’m using Minwax water-based polycrylic in a matte finish
- Assorted rags—some you’ll be able to wash and reuse, some you’ll need to trash
- Recommended but optional: Tack cloth, wood conditioner
And here’s how to refinish wood furniture!
Step 1: Wipe down and prep the piece
The first step is to wipe down, inspect, and prep the piece. My table had pretty dense cobwebs on the underside, so I wiped those off with a damp rag. I also wiped down the rest of the piece so I could get a better idea of what blemishes were actually part of the finish.
If you can easily take your piece apart, this usually makes it easier to sand and refinish. For example, if the top of a table comes off of the base, or if the seat of a chair comes off of the legs. I decided to keep mine as one piece since this is a fairly small table.
Step 2: Sand, sand, sand the furniture!
The next step is to sand off the existing finish. As you can see in the pics, this table had a ton of discoloration, scratches, nicks, and water stains. I use an orbital sander to sand off the finish. If you’ve never used one, you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.
When you turn it on, you’ll notice that it starts vibrating. The sander is moving the sanding disc area around in random circles, which is perfect for removing existing finishes without creating additional marks or unevenness.
Most imperfections will probably be in the finish you’re sanding off. So once you’re done removing the original finish, the surface should be free of blemishes. If some stains or scratches went a bit deeper, simply give them a bit more time with the sander.
How do I know what type of sandpaper to use for refinishing furniture?
I recommend purchasing a multipack of sanding discs. If the finish is really difficult to get off, you’ll want to use a lower grit sandpaper. I would recommend something in the 100s.
This table’s finish came off really easily, though. So I just used a 220-grit disc, which is finer. The lower the number, the coarser the grit. While that helps remove tougher finishes, it also leaves a rougher surface.
So if you start with a smaller grit, you’ll want to work your way up and use a higher-grit disc after removing the finish to even out the surface and make sure everything is super smooth. That’s why a sanding disc multipack is nice to have on hand.
Once I’d removed all of the finish with the 220-grit disc, I went in with a piece of 220-grit sandpaper and gave the entire table a once-over by hand. This polished the piece really nicely.
Step 3: Clean off and prep the furniture for staining
Once the original finish is completely removed, I recommend wiping down the entire piece with a damp cloth. Let the piece dry, and then inspect it to see if you need to do any sanding touchups before you begin staining.
You can also choose to use a wood conditioner before staining your piece. This helps the wood absorb the stain more evenly. I personally skip this step and do not use a wood conditioner.
I like to see how the grain takes the stain, and if I’m not happy with how it looks after the first coat, I’ll add a second coat of stain to hopefully even things out. This works for me, but others swear by using wood conditioner!
Step 4: Stain your wood furniture
Now it’s time to really start transforming your piece. I love this step! I recommend flipping your piece upside down and starting from the bottom up. In my experience, this is the easiest approach when staining and painting furniture.
I chose a Minwax oil-based semi-transparent stain in English Chestnut for this project. It’s the same stain I already had on hand from the DIY fireplace mantel shelf, and the color worked perfectly. There are a variety of stains and brands you can choose from. Make sure to wear disposable gloves!
To apply oil-based stains like this one, I prefer to use a rag. Whenever we’re throwing out an old shirt or something, I cut it up and add it to the rag bin. Perfect for DIY projects like this one. I mix the stain up and then dip the rag in.
Then I simply wipe it down all over the pieces. The wood will soak the stain in. After I let the stain sit for about 5 minutes or so, I go in with a new clean rag and wipe off all of the excess stain that the wood isn’t soaking in. If you don’t do this, the finish will be all sticky.
A benefit of using a rag instead of a brush—other than it being much cheaper!—is that you can wrap the rag around your finger and stick it into tight places like the corner below.
It seemed that the legs on my table were made of a different type of wood than the top, which is not totally uncommon. Therefore, the legs and the top took the stain a bit differently.
After a few hours, I assessed how to stained piece had dried. The top was a bit lighter, so I grabbed a rag and wiped on another coat of stain. Remember to wipe off the excess and watch for drips that might dry sticky!
Step 5: Seal and protect the wood
Once your piece has dried completely (I let mine sit overnight), it was time to seal the wood. Wood is porous, which is why the stain sinks in so well. But that also means that the wood will soak in everything else…like water, food, etc. It will also scratch easily.
Adding a finish on top of the stain helps protect your piece and make it easy to wipe down and keep clean. For this piece, I am using Minwax water-based polycrylic in clear matte. I didn’t want any real shine added in or anything.
I don’t usually have a preference for oil-based vs. water-based topcoats. However, I do find that oil-based finishes go on very evenly with a brush, while water-based topcoats show streaks more easily. See the second pic below. (I also have an article on the difference between polyurethane and polycrylic.)
I ended up sanding this down a bit after it dried and using a small roller instead. This helps the finish coat go on super evenly and level out even more as it dries.
Before you apply the topcoat, you can wipe down your entire piece with sticky tack cloth to remove any stray pieces of lint, dust, or cat hairs. Or you can be somewhat lazy like me and wipe it down with a damp rag that doesn’t shed.
I applied two coats of the polycrylic to the table’s base and legs, but I added a third coat to the top since it would get more traffic. Follow the instructions for recoating on the finish you’re using.
Between each finish coat, I recommend going in and sanding lightly by hand with very fine-grit sandpaper (the 220-grit works fine). This will help remove any bubbles in the finish, as well as smoothing out any roller strokes or lines. Obviously don’t sand the final coat!
And here is the finished piece! You’ll want to check the cure time for whatever finish you use. That’s because while it might seem dry to the touch, it might not be fully cured. Until it is, it can nick or scratch very easily. Once it is cured, it will be very durable!
I hope you embark on your DIY journey with newfound confidence. Remember, each piece tells a unique story. And with the right techniques, you have the power to breathe new life into forgotten treasures! These pieces are some of my favorites in our home.
- Orbital sander and sanding discs in various grits
- Dust mask, disposable gloves, and assorted rags
- Small roller or brush depending on projects
- Wood stain and finish of choice (e.g., polyurethane)
- Tack cloth and wood conditioner (optional)
- Wipe Down and Prep: Clean the piece, inspect for blemishes, and consider disassembling or flipping upside down for easier sanding.
- Sand: Use an orbital sander with appropriate sanding discs to remove the existing finish. Adjust grit based on the difficulty of removing the finish.
- Clean and Prep for Staining: Wipe down the piece, inspect for any needed sanding touch-ups, and consider using wood conditioner.
- Apply Stain: Apply wood stain using a rag or brush, wiping off excess after a few minutes. You may need multiple coats for the desired color, especially in uneven areas.
- Seal and Protect: Let the stained piece dry completely before applying a protective finish (e.g., polyurethane or polycrylic). Apply the finish using a brush or roller. Sand lightly between coats for a smooth finish.
Tips for choosing a good piece:
- Look for solid wood furniture without a veneer.
- Small- to medium-sized pieces with simple lines to make sanding easier.
- Opt for furniture that is stable and doesn't require structural repairs.