With this sideboard makeover, in a two-tone finish, it was a perfect time to review my “How to refinish wood furniture” tips, tricks, products and what-not-to-do’s for both painted and stained furniture.
Product list to the items I use regularly are lower in the post. Amazon affiliate links
I have been building and refinishing furniture since 2013 – so almost 10 years now – and in that time I have come a LONG way.
While the process for refinishing wood furniture is fairly standard, there is always the temptation to shortcut. Let me tell you from experience, it is not worth shortcutting. You are going to put work into your piece no matter what, so take the extra time and do it correctly so that you don’t have to re-do the entire process a couple of years from now.
I wrote a post like this a few years ago “15 Things to know before refinishing furniture” , but since it’s been awhile, I thought I’d revisit the steps and answer a few questions that have come up in the meantime.
My friend Michelle brought me a knotty pine sideboard that had been well-loved.:
The upper two drawers were being replaced with two shelves to house AV equipment.
Pine is a very soft wood, so wear and tear shows much faster than it would on other woods.
Dents, scratches, a few deeper gouges – it was time for this baby to get a new life.
How to refinish wood furniture
Remove all of the hardware, drawers, hinges, shelves etc. Each piece will be refinished separately, so it’s much easier if you can lay them out instead of futzing around inside.
Clean your piece. I only do this step if there is gummy residue from tape, glue, crayons, markers etc. Krud Kutter is my favourite cleaner/de-greaser, but a lightly damp cloth with a teeny-tiny bit of dish soap will work as well. Just make sure you don’t leave soap residue and dry your piece afterwards.
Paint stripper versus Sanding? As a general rule you will always, always need to sand. Because sanding is inevitable anyways, I tend to just sand pieces versus using stripper. HOWEVER, if your piece is really old, the build-up of finishes can be quite thick and sanding would take a lifetime. Or, if your piece has a lot of ornate detail work, then stripping will be your only option to get into every nook and cranny. Smart Strip by Dumond is my favourite chemical (but non-toxic!) stripper and you can read more on that in this post.
The amount of sanding you need to do depends on whether you will refinish your wood furniture with stain or paint. If you are planning to re-stain your piece, then you HAVE to sand down to bare wood. I usually start with a 120 grit sandpaper and my random orbit sander. This is a courser grit sandpaper that should remove furniture polish, the previous top coat, the previous stain and the majority of blemishes and light scratches. I go over the piece with 150 grit and then 220 grit to get a buttery smooth surface
For areas that the random orbit sander won’t fit, I use a sanding sponge wrapped in the varying grits of sandpaper to remove the finish – see the routered edges of the sideboard above.
If you are planning to paint your wood piece, you still need to sand. Years of furniture polish and oily fingerprints will have built up on your piece which will impair the adhesion of your primer and top coat. Please, please sand – no matter what the instructions say – having a roughed-up surface will give strength to your finish so that it lasts much longer.
Repair your piece. If, after sanding, there are still large gouges that need to be repaired, now is the time to fill them in. I use a stainable wood filler (although I don’t find it stains well, so I only use it on parts that will be covered with paint). This is important; fill your holes etc once, sand, then fill them again (you may even need to fill a third time). Wood filler shrinks so one coat won’t leave you with a flush surface. Michelle is planning on replacing all of the hardware on this sideboard, so it was a perfect example to show you where wood filler comes in handy; filling in the hardware holes.
The cupboard door fronts also needed a bit of repair work:
If you are staining to refinish wood furniture, I would suggest using a pre-stain wood conditioner on the bare wood. Oftentimes, the furniture you are refinishing is very old and the wood might be very dry. Applying stain directly to the surface *could leave you with a splotchy or uneven stain. By applying the pre-stain wood conditioner, it’s like giving your piece some lotion – it absorbs into the wood and gives it a more uniform absorption and coverage when you apply stain later.
If you are painting to refinish wood furniture then now is the time to prime. Remove all of the sanding residue and apply a quality primer – my favourites are Rust-Oleum’s Bullseye 1-2-3 and INSL-X Stix primer (which I get at Benjamin Moore). I have tried Killz primer, but only in a spray can form and wasn’t impressed – but that’s not to say that the paint-on might be better.
You don’t need to panic about brush/roller strokes too much at this point; there is another sanding step coming which will smooth things out. Below you will see I’m using a tinted primer; Michelle’s sideboard is going to be black, so for this and any other dark colours, a dark tinted primer is the way to go. Benjamin Moore will actually custom tint your Stix primer to the paint colour of your choice which is even better. Primer is less expensive than paint, so the fewer top coats you need the less expensive your furniture refinish will be.
Milk, chalk, mineral paints versus furniture/cupboard paint? I’m sorry, I know there are die-hard mineral paint enthusiasts out there that love it because you don’t need to sand or prime before applying it. It certainly *seems like the easiest route to take…. and it is… but it won’t last. I have tried both mineral paint and chalk paints and they don’t harden over time so remain easily scuff-able. Perfect if you want the aged/antique look – awful if you want a crisp, new surface. There is also a ‘feeling’ to the wax coating that you need to apply to your furniture that doesn’t appeal to me.
Sand. I know, it’s getting old, but for the smoothest finish (with or without a paint sprayer) you should lightly sand your piece with 320 grit sandpaper and your hand (no power sanders). Close your eyes and run your hand over the surface until it feels perfectly smooth to the touch. Often your hands will feel what your eyes don’t notice. Remove all of the sanding residue with a tack cloth or damp rag.
If you are staining to refinish wood furniture: now is the time to apply your stain with a sponge brush. I use a foam brush because you can pick them up at dollar stores and so they are inexpensive and disposable. You can use a paintbrush, but then you should be prepared to clean the brush thoroughly with varsol or paint thinner. Too much work for me. Allow the stain to soak in, then remove the excess with a clean rag. I use old sheets cut up into scrap pieces.
If you are painting to refinish wood furniture: it is time to apply your first coat! My favourite paint for refinishing wood furniture is Benjamin Moore’s Advance formula. It is as close to an oil finish (with regards to hardness) as you can get without actually using oil paint. I never use oil paint, so I can’t speak to it’s quality – I just know clean-up is a bitch.
Michelle wanted two drawers replaced with shelves, so I cut them to size, attached them with pocket hole screws and primed.
First coat of paint is always the ugliest – don’t give up hope! The second coat of paint will make your piece look perfect.
Check for fit. Wood expands and contracts with moisture, humidity, and temperature. On top of that you have now added a coat of primer and a coat of paint to your piece so drawers and drawers may be snug. I check for fit at this point and if I need to sand a bit more off of drawer tops or cabinet door sides, now is the time to do it
Check for any paint drools or brush marks, lightly sand with 320 grit sandpaper and then apply your top coat of paint.
If you are staining to refinish wood furniture, your stain will need to set up overnight, but you can apply your top coat the next day. Michelle did not want a stain for her sideboard makeover, but opted for a matte clear coat instead. I’ve never used a matte top coat before so this was fun to try out to see the results. If you aren’t using a paint sprayer to apply your top coat, I recommend a sponge paintbrush. Rollers tend to leave small bubbles in the finish, and paintbrushes often leave brushstrokes. Foam brushes really even out the finish and, I feel, is second in quality to actual spraying. You’ll need to apply 2-3 coats with a light sanding in between for a durable finish.
Reassemble your piece and attach your hardware!
Please forgive the dusty handprints – this sideboard was madeover with a matte-finish black paint. While it’s gorgeous to look at, it does tend to show every particle of dust in my garage.
Now, to answer a few common questions: