The first thing you should think about when considering whether to fix up an older piece of furniture is, “Is this an antique?”. If it is, consult an expert before touching it. Many people have destroyed valuable antiques by removing the original features that made them valuable. Thinking they were fixing it up. If you don’t know, then find out. There is nothing worse than having a $10,000 antique and turning it into a $10 item because you thought you were improving it.

That said, if you know the item isn’t a valuable antique, you can begin refinishing it.

When looking for a project, try to assess the items’ foundational value before beginning. Do the math; is it worth fixing? You don’t want to put time and resources into rehabilitating a piece only to find that it is made of poor materials and isn’t worth much. In general, anything made from particle board isn’t worth refurbishing. You know, IKEA furniture. These items are made from cheap materials and are not designed to last. Ideally, you want real wood (hardwoods are best), metal, glass, ceramic, etc. If you start with a quality foundation, your finished piece will be more valuable and hold up over time.


Organize your supplies

The first thing to do is consider what you’ll need for your project and assemble the materials necessary. Getting organized first will allow you to work without worrying about not having something and needing to go to the store to get it. This sort of disruption could be a big deal if you are in the middle of something, and if you don’t finish, you’ll have to start over.

Here is a short list of materials to have on hand before you begin:

  • Rags
  • Paint Brushes
  • Bucket
  • Soap
  • Sanding tools and supplies
  • Varnish or lacquer
  • Tarp or drop cloth
  • Protective gear (eye protection, rubber gloves)
  • Stain or paint
  • Putty/filler and putty knife
  • Chemical stripper

After you have organized your supplies, it is time to start. The first thing is to clean the piece you are working on. Soap and water. Just clean any dirt, dust, or loose material off so you have a solid piece to work with. Let it dry, then decide on the approach to stripping the item so you can apply new coatings or stains.

Do you want to paint your piece or stain it? If you are going to paint it, you have a lot of leeway as to how clean it needs to be before finishing. If you are using stain, it must be pristine before applying the new stain. The same is also largely true if you wish to use a wash of some kind.


Stripping and sanding

The best approach is to start with a chemical stripper and then use sanding to bring it down to the raw wood. Chemical strippers can be very toxic, so if you are using a toxic stripper, make sure to use proper protective gear and be in a well-ventilated workspace. I recommend using a natural stripper like Citristrip. This is a safer product and can be left for long periods to strip multiple layers. After stripping the piece, use hydrogen peroxide bleach to remove any wood stains left over. I picked these two tips up from a friend with a lot of experience renovating furniture. The best approach is to use the stripper, sand the piece, use the peroxide bleach, and then sand the piece again.

Sanding is important so you get down to a solid surface for the primer to stick to or to the raw wood so the stain will enhance the wood grain. When sanding, you will want to be cautious of fine details. You could easily remove these by being too aggressive with the sanding. I recommend a fiberglass scratch brush pen to sand fine details. This will carefully remove paint and debris from the details without marring them.

When choosing the grit of sandpaper to use, always start with the coarse grit and move to a finer grit as you progress. The coarser grit will remove more material but leave grooves behind. If it is a big job like bookcases or a large desk, you might consider employing an electric sander to hit the big areas to speed things along. If an electric sander is not an option, you will want to get a sanding block to allow you to sand large surfaces evenly.

When you finish sanding, wiping the piece down with a wet cloth is always a good idea before moving on to the next step. This will ensure dust and debris won’t mix with your work and give a lesser outcome.


Evaluating your piece for imperfections

Once your piece is sanded, you can now assess its condition. Look for dents, scratches, splits, missing chunks, and cracks. If your piece has dents you can steam them to make the wood pop back out. You can use a purpose-made steamer or just use an ordinary clothes iron and hit the steam button. If you plan to stain the piece, this is a really good idea so the flaw won’t be prominent in the final item. If you plan to paint the piece you could steam the dents out or fill them with putty and sand them down. If the item has scratches, splits, missing chunks, or cracks, you are going to have to use putty to fix it. This means staining it is no longer an option, and you will need to paint it instead. When using putty, just apply it with a putty knife, let it dry, then sand it down so the surface is even. As always, use a damp cloth when you are done to clean the area before priming it.

Finishing your piece

Once you are satisfied with your stripping and sanding work, it is time to decide how to finish your item. If the wood surface looks good without blemishes, staining is an option. If there are some minor blemishes, you could consider a wash. This will let some of the wood’s character show through but will cover minor imperfections. If there are noticeable imperfections, painting is your best option. The paint will cover these, and the piece will look good.

  • Paint: Before painting, you must apply a primer. This layer provides a good bond between the paint and the item’s surface while also masking any imperfections and providing a solid undersurface so the paint will look uniform. If you are going to use darker paint, you should use a grey primer. If a lighter color is chosen, you should use a white primer. You will want to apply two or three coats of primer to ensure solid coverage. Let each coat dry before applying the next. When you are satisfied with the priming, you can then paint the item, and the uniform undercoat should make this an easy task. How you paint the item matters. If you want a smooth surface, you might choose spray paints. If you want some texture, you could choose different types of brushes to leave brush strokes. You could even apply patterns if you wish. The possible textures are in your imagination. You could even hand paint or stencil it if you have the required skills.
  • Stain: When it comes to staining, the wood surface must be impeccable. Any imperfections will be highlighted by the stain. If you are comfortable that your piece is good enough for staining, then here are some pointers. With stain, what you see is not what you are going to get. The stain will be darker in the can than it will be when you apply it. Also, stains will appear differently on various types of wood. If you are unsure, apply a little stain to a small area and see if you are satisfied with the result. Another rule of thumb is that you can always go darker on the stain. If you apply a light color stain but think it’s not dark enough, you can apply a darker stain, no problem. It doesn’t work the other way around. If you apply a stain and think it is too dark, you’ll have to start all over and sand the piece to apply a lighter shade. So err in the direction of lighter. If you want it darker, that’s easy to do.
  • Wash: A wash is when you paint an item, but the brush is wet with solvent so that only a light veneer of paint is applied. This diluted paint creates a semi-transparent effect and reveals the under layers or wood grain. Whitewash is a common veneer, but you can use this technique with any color. It can add a lot of interest and give a piece a semi-distressed feel.


Final steps

When you are done finishing your piece, you can now choose to apply varnish or lacquer to protect it from the elements. This is not always required. If the item is intended for indoor use and the climate is not wet or salty, then having no protection layer is fine. But if you want the shiny look of a top coat or the item is intended for conditions where the wood and surface would be under stress, then applying a top layer is a good idea. Varnish is very tough and can withstand severe conditions while protecting wood from decay. Boats are often coated with varnish, so this attests to their protective qualities. The downside to varnish is that it tends to yellow as it ages, so this should be considered when choosing a protective outer coating. Lacquer is also an excellent protective coat but not as strong as varnish. The benefit of lacquer is that it does not yellow over time. After applying varnish or lacquer and letting it dry, you will want to sand it with steel wool to make it smooth. Steel wool is recommended as it will get into little crevices.

So that’s the best advice I can offer. There is much more to know, so this is just a cursory starting point. Refinishing furniture can be very rewarding and even profitable. You can have a business refinishing rescued items and reselling them. You could also start a YouTube channel demonstrating your refurbishing projects. You can even post your projects to social media like Facebook to generate buzz while also getting noticed and obtaining clients.