So you've found the perfect piece of furniture, and it's gorgeous! Or, at least it would be if you could just refinish it. But you can totally see the hidden potential in it! Well, I'm going to show you how to refinish a flat surface of wood furniture so you that you can uncover the wood grain that is just waiting to show its pretty face.
I am absolutely addicted to refinishing wood furniture. Taking something that is all beaten up looking, and turning it back into a glowing and shiny gem is the best rush, so I want to share that with you! Then you can be an addict like me! And we can start a support group, RA - refinishers anonymous. And....I'm done. End Scene.
The thought of refinishing furniture may sound intimidating at first if you don't know what to do, but it's actually really easy. And you will get better each time you do it. I'm going to show you how to do a flat surface. Doing curves or intricate details and all that jazz are done pretty much the same way, but it's just more work and more time consuming. So let's start off easy.
Here's what you need:
1. A piece of furniture that's just waiting for your magic touch.
2. Stripper (pole optional, just kidding!) - this is a maybe item, depending on the furniture piece you're working on, and I'll explain why once we get to that step. There are lots of different brands and types of strippers, but I'm using Citristrip, which is supposedly better for the environment and less toxic. Most strippers are extremely toxic, so since you're working with it and probably inhaling some, I would go with the easiest on the environment. Because they're probably a little easier on you. If you choose a more toxic one (which will work faster), get a serious chemical mask/respirator, and may God have mercy on your soul!
3. A metal paint tray to put the stripper in when you're working with it.
4. Different sandpaper grits, either with sanding blocks or paper for an electric sander. I'm using both an electric sander and sanding blocks. The higher the number, the smoother and finer the sandpaper - 120 is good for your rough sand and 220 grit is good for your fine sand, 320 if you want to be super fine (not that you're not already super fine! wink wink). I just did 120 and 220.
5. Pre-conditioner - optional. I didn't use it on this project, but I'll show you when, why, and how you can use this if you choose.
6. The stain color of your choice. I'm going to use Special Walnut by Minwax. It's a great color and is used in a lot of mid century furniture.
7. Polyeurethane - a small can of it is good.
8. A rag to apply the stain with, and a tack cloth to dust with.
9. A good paintbrush, or 4.
10. Mineral Spirits, totally optional, and I'll explain why later in the process. I don't use it, but I'll tell you what it's for so you can decide if you want to use it.
11. Safety goggles if you're using an electric sander.
12. A dust mask to wear when you're sanding.
13. Gloves for when you're using chemicals.
Good grief! Sounds like a lot of stuff, right? Well, once you do it once, you only need to replenish supplies every once in a while when they run low.
So, let's get started. Here's the piece that I'm going to demonstrate with:
The sides, fronts, and legs of this cabinet are in really good condition, but the top is a mess. There are scratches and the original finish has started to deteriorate big time. This tells me that the top needs to be refinished, and that it is not just a matter of giving it a good cleaning.
Here's what you do with that mountain of stuff you just gathered:
1. Clean that furniture. Just give it a good once over with mild soap and water (dish soap is fine). You don't want to soak the cabinet. Wood does not like to be wet. Just take a towel, put it in the soapy water, wring it out, wipe the cabinet. Then wipe it down again with just a damp towel to get the soap off. Then dry. Again, don't get crazy. Yet :)
2. Stripper....Now let me explain why this is a maybe item in the list of stuff you need. I'm going to use stripper here because there's still a lot of old varnish (clear coat finish) on this cabinet, and it would take me a while to sand thru all of that. Plus, I don't want to inhale all the dust from that old finish. God only knows what is in that stuff. I mean, it was the 60s after all. Pretty sure everyone and everything was on magic mushrooms.
If your piece has a finish still intact on it or is painted, applying stripper will save you from having to try to sand thru all that. Seriously, it saves time and all the inhaling of chemical dust, and with old paint, possibly lead dust. But, if the finish on your piece is no longer there, and it's basically down to the wood, you can skip this step.
I'm using Citristrip, but you can use whatever brand you want. Even if it says you can use it indoors, I would not recommend it. Even if you can't smell the fumes, it doesn't mean that you're not pickling your lungs. I don't trust chemicals.
So, you're going to slather on a coat of the stripper with a paintbrush onto the surface where you want to remove the finish. If there are parts that you do NOT want the finish to come off of (like the sides and front on my cabinet), be careful not to get stripper anywhere other than where you're working. This stuff starts eating thru finish/paint/etc. very quickly. If you DO happen to splatter it, or it drips, wipe it off immediately.
Now you wait......anywhere from an hour to up to 12 hours. You want the stripper to dissolve all that stuff down to the wood. Go order a pizza.
3. Scrape that stripper off. (If you didn't use stripper, skip this step. Obviously.) Okay, so once your stripper has done its job (tip her, hahahaha, love my ridiculous stripper jokes), you're going to scrape off the resulting goo (and try not to get it on your hands - I mean, you won't die, but still...chemicals) with a "plastic scraping tool". Or at least this what they tell you on the container. I just use old gift cards or credit cards I don't need (consider the card garbage if you do this), cuz I'm too cheap to buy stuff I don't really need. Now, before you scrape everything off, check to make sure the stripper is done working. Just scrape a small area, and if it looks like you're scraping down to wood, you're good. If it looks like there's still some finish on there, let it work a little longer.
Tip: I'm going to share a very useful tip here, so listen up. If that stripper has dried out and is no longer wet and gooey, don't try scraping it. You'll be miserable and won't get it off. I learned this the hard way....a few times...before I wised up and asked the Google. Just spread more stripper over the dry parts. Then the wet stripper and the dry stripper will combine to make goo stripper. Now you can scrape.
What to do with the goo? If you are using this on a painted item, the paint may contain lead if it's old. So, you should contact your city and see if you should dispose of it in a specific way. I just scrape the goo onto some old newspaper or cardboard and then throw it all away in the end.
4. Mineral spirits, optional use #1. (Again, if you didn't use stripper, skip this step.) Now, if you have stripper residue leftover on your piece after scraping as much off as possible, you can use mineral spirits with a coarse steel wool pad to clean off the residue. I've never done this, but it's an option. You can also just use coarse steel wool with water (not a ton of water because this is raw wood and it will ruin it), which is a less toxic alternative. I usually just scrape like a lunatic and then sand. But if you have stripper goo leftover and try sanding it, it gunks up your sandpaper pretty quickly.
5. Now sand your piece til it's as smooth as a baby's bum. Okay, so now we get to the dusty part. You want to start sanding with the lower number grit (120- the rougher sandpaper), and you want to sand in the direction of the wood grain. You can either sand by hand or sand with an electric sander. In the past, I've done a lot with my electric sander because my arms are weak and squishy instead of strong and muscle-y, and I figured this is less work. Well, I have recently come to appreciate hand sanding because it's not as hard as my wimpy arms thought, and also, you don't get those annoying little circles that some electric sanders create. I have a beautiful buffet that was refinished by the previous owner, and when I look closer at it, I can see those tiny swirly circles all over it from their sander. Grrrr. Another thing that's nice about hand sanding is that if the surface is a really thin piece of wood veneer, as is often the case, it's less likely to wear thru the veneer. That's never happened to me with my electric sander, but I also don't sand like a maniac.
So, you sand with the lower grit (120 should be fine), then you want to go over it with the higher grit sandpaper (220 or higher) to make it super smooth.
6. Now, remove ALL that dust. Everything I've read says to remove the dust with a tack cloth to REALLY remove the dust. Just a regular dry cloth won't remove it all.
7. Wood pre-conditioner. This is completely optional, but it does make a difference. Don't ask me how it works, but I can tell you that this is meant to help the wood to absorb the stain evenly so there isn't different amounts of saturation in different spots. You are going to do this with a paintbrush or foambrush. It doesn't matter if your brush is high quality or whatever at this point. Just use what you have and brush that pre-conditioner on in the direction of the wood grain.
8. Now is the fun part! Stain that wood! Seriously, this is my FAVORITE part. This is where you really see the wood come to life. Here, you just need a clean rag to apply the stain. You can use a paintbrush, but why waste a perfectly good paintbrush on this when you can use a rag. Plus, I just feel like you have more control this way. You're going to apply it in the direction of the wood grain (like pretty much every step), and apply it evenly. This will stain your clothes, so be careful. And try not to get it on your skin. Remember...chemicals. Leave it on for 15 minutes, and then go over it with another dry rag to absorb any stain that has not soaked into the wood. You don't want to forget this because it will be a sticky tacky mess of a finish later.
Note: If the color isn't dark enough for you, add another coat after the amount of time recommended on the stain manufacturer's directions (look on the can). This is some number of hours (is that vague enough for you?).
9. Time to make it shiny! Or matte. Either way, now we protect that wood. After waiting the recommended number of hours before doing this step (again, look at the stain can), you get to do the tricky and sometimes frustrating part . DO THIS IN A WELL-VENTILATED AREA UNLESS YOU WANT BRAIN DAMAGE. Was that dramatic enough? You are going to take your polyeurethane, and a high quality brush to do this step.
Very slowly stir that poly (not with your brush). You don't want to do it too hard or you will create bubbles in it, which you don't want. Now you're going to dip the paintbrush into the can of poly, and then without taking a ton of it, you're going to "paint" a thin coat of that poly on. You want to do this as SMOOTHLY as possible. If you get bubbles, they will dry as bumps in the finish. If you do get some bubbles, don't freak out about it because you are most likely going to do a 2nd coat of poly with some sanding in between (yay....more sanding....womp womp), but still try to do the best job you can. Now let that thing dry (read the can for the number of hours - but usually 3-4). And go have a drink in the meantime (if you're not already woozy from the smell of the poly).
10. Mineral spirits, optional use #2. The paintbrush you used to put that poly on can either be thrown out because it will become hard from the poly, OR, you can soak that thing in some mineral spirits to dissolve the poly so that you can use the same brush again. I didn't do this, and I pretty much never do. I usually just throw out the brush and use a new one for the second coat. I know, I know, totally wasteful, but I hate using chemicals if I don't need to because I think that's worse on the environment, but it's totally up to you.
11. Yay! More sanding! Cough Cough. Okay, seriously, you better have a dust mask on. You're sanding plastic here. Now you're ready to sand again and that drink you had has worn off. Okay, so you're going to VERY LIGHTLY sand the surface with your fine sandpaper (220 grit or higher). You're basically just getting any little bumpies out. Speaking of which, every single time I do that poly coat, when I come back to check the finish before sanding, I always find some dead bug stuck in the surface. The stupid bugs breathed in the poly fumes, got brain damage, and then keeled over dead on my table. Dumb. Anyway, after you have VERY lightly sanded that top poly coat, dust it off again.
12. Repeat step 9 (poly), but be even MORE of a perfectionist about it because this is your final coat, unless you're doing something you really want more protection on. If this is a dining table or the top of a bathroom vanity, or some other surface that will take a beating or probably get wet a lot, you will want to do more than just 2 coats. If you need to do that, just do the poly, drink, sand, poly, drink, sand repetition until you're satisfied. Note: I'm just kidding about the drinking. I don't recommend drinking during any of this because, one, you'll probably screw up your finish, and two, if you're using an electric sander, you may accidentally sand your face off. And you should keep your face. There's the disclaimer, so don't try and sue me.
13. Wait about 24 hours before you go messing with that top. Just let it dry. THEN, invite all your friends and family over to ooh and ahhh over your newly refinished piece of furniture. Pat yourself on the back and go have a drink!
Disposal of waste:
Ug. This is my least favorite part. Chemicals...environment....sob. Okay, so the rags or whatever that you used to put stain on, or mineral spirits, are completely not safe to just leave lying around because they can spontaneously combust. So, make sure you follow the manufacturer's disposal directions on the can of whatever you're using. Seriously. Nobody should have stuff spontaneously combust on them.
Hope you learned something and had a few laughs. Until next time.....