Uncovering History: Restoring And Repurposing Antique Wood

Uncovering History: Restoring And Repurposing Antique Wood

The Joy of Refinishing

I’ve been refinishing wood furniture for many years now, and it’s one of the things that initially led me to starting this blog. I enjoyed the creative process of decorating our home, and it was fun to document the projects I worked on. Then I started to sell some of the pieces I had refinished. As much as I loved each one, I couldn’t redecorate and add new pieces without letting go of past projects. That was exactly how we got started and opened our shop.

We had a tiny little space in a vintage shop to start—just 64 square feet—but I was selling furniture pieces faster than I knew was possible. Within a few months, we’d expanded to two locations, and it turned into a full-time job for me that continued for several years. In that time, I’ve also learned a whole lot about the process of refinishing furniture. Hundreds of pieces have passed through our life during the time we had our shop, and at our height, I was refinishing at least 10 pieces a week.

What started as a little side project ultimately led me to meet some really incredible people and form amazing friendships along the way. For me, the community of friends I’ve made in this learning process is invaluable. These are friends who not only appreciate the value of taking on projects but they also love to preserve heritage and history. That’s an important value for me. I hate to see the stories of where we came from lost to the passing of time. When we lose touch with our roots, we forget who we are and what it took to get us here. That’s not something to take for granted, and it certainly isn’t something we should forget.

The Importance of Preserving History

Preserving our history and the stories of our past honors the hard work and sacrifices of our ancestors and reminds us of the most meaningful parts of life. I’m so glad you’ve decided to learn this hobby and become part of a community working to keep those stories alive. Every project you take on is a thread in the tapestry of our country’s history. It is truly meaningful work.

The guide that follows includes the step-by-step process for how to refinish wood furniture. Whether you’re just beginning or looking to improve your skills, this tutorial will give you practical advice from real-life experience. I’ve also featured a collection of 10 truly gorgeous before-and-after furniture transformations to inspire you in your next project. All of these featured projects have been provided by my dear friend Terri Llanes of Painted Pink Peony Co. Terri has an incredible eye for detail and can envision stunning transformations in pieces that others would overlook. If you want continued inspiration or to purchase any of these pieces, be sure to give her a follow on Instagram.

Understanding the Process

When we’re talking about how to refinish wood furniture, it’s important to understand the terminology. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between refinishing, restoration, and refurbishing.

Refinishing furniture is the act of removing the existing finish and then applying a new finish. It’s a fairly broad term because there are many ways this can be done. For example, you could strip a piece of furniture down to bare wood, sand it, then stain it. You could also paint the piece a new color. Generally speaking, refinishing doesn’t entail doing significant repairs—only working with the finishes.

Furniture restoration, on the other hand, involves returning a piece of furniture to its original state. This usually requires cleaning and possibly some minor repairs if there is incidental damage to correct. Unlike refinishing, which gives you the opportunity to reimagine a piece of furniture, restoration is more about renewal of the original piece.

If there are more significant repairs needed or structural changes to be made, that’s when you will want to refurbish a piece of furniture. You might do this because there are parts that cannot be saved or restored, or you might be upcycling a piece into something completely different. A great example of refurbishing is shown in this pair of side tables which were originally a larger vanity.

Gathering the Right Tools

Before embarking on your furniture refinishing journey, you’ll need to assemble the right tools and materials. Which items you’ll need will ultimately come down to the specific project you’re tackling. When you’re first starting out, I would recommend tackling easier projects that give you an opportunity to develop your skills using some of the tools you’ll need. Then, as your proficiency increases, you can try more complicated techniques and incorporate new tools to build new skills.

Here’s a comprehensive list of tools and materials to get you started:

Tool/Material Purpose
Sandpaper (60-220 grit) Smoothing surfaces
Random orbital sander Expediting the sanding process on larger pieces
Chemical stripper Removing old paint or varnish
Heat gun Softening and loosening old finishes
Respirator and safety glasses Protecting your lungs and eyes
Paint sprayer Achieving a professional-looking finish
Drop cloths/canvas sheeting Protecting the work area
Stains, paints, and sealants Refinishing the furniture

Each tool and material serves a specific purpose in the refinishing process and helps to ensure that you achieve the best results. Again though, some of these are more advanced than others, so the best idea is to take on a manageable project while you’re developing your skills.

Preparing the Workspace

A well-organized workspace is the foundation of a successful refinishing project. This is the step that most people skip because they’re so excited to dive into their project. However, it’s also the key difference between how to refinish wood furniture as a truly enjoyable experience versus finding yourself with a headache, mess, and partially finished project that you store in your garage and never complete.

Take the time to prepare for your project, and you’ll be so much happier in the long run. Consider the following tips for creating an ideal environment:

  1. Choose a well-ventilated area: Ideally, work outdoors to minimize exposure to fumes from paint, stain, or chemical strippers. If working indoors, open windows and doors for proper airflow.
  2. Ensure adequate lighting: Natural light or bright artificial lighting will help you spot imperfections during the refinishing process.
  3. Protect the work area: Cover the work area with drop cloths or canvas sheeting to prevent spills and stains. Protect your workbench or floor from potential damage.

By taking the time to set up your workspace properly, you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand and achieve the best possible results.

Assessing the Furniture

Before you take on a single project of refinishing wood furniture, it’s essential to assess the condition of the piece. This is the advice you really need to hear from someone who has made all the mistakes and lived to tell about it.

The difference between a shoddy refinish and one that you’ll be proud of later is taking some time to evaluate the furniture’s condition. Inspect the piece for any damages, scratches, or imperfections, and note areas that may require special attention during the refinishing process.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t refinish furniture that’s damaged. I’ve done it many, many times. But I also have loads of battle stories about projects that were soooo not worth the effort once I got started. Had I taken the time to really assess the level of work that would be needed beforehand, I could have saved myself a lot of hassle.

Sometimes, we’ll find an amazing deal and think it only needs X, Y, or Z to be beautiful. But you need to think about the cost of doing X, Y, and Z—both the financial cost as well as your time and energy. If the piece is going to take so much effort that the project becomes practically painful for you, I don’t think it’s worth it—no matter how good of a deal you have found.

This is a common rookie mistake, though, and early on, I acquired too many projects like this. They were such hassles that they would take up space in my garage and later storage unit, and I wouldn’t ever get to them because I didn’t want to deal with the headache. What might seem like a good deal can become quite a burden, so really think it over before you begin.

If you do notice damage and decide to take it on anyway, you know what you’re getting into and what it’s going to take to complete the project right from the get-go. And you can approach the refinishing process with a clear understanding of the work involved.

Identifying the Wood and Existing Finish

In addition to assessing the furniture’s condition, it’s crucial to identify the type of wood used and the existing finish. Different wood species may require different treatments, and knowing the current finish will help you choose the appropriate stripping and refinishing methods.

The big one for new furniture refinishers is confusing real wood with veneer. I have seen so many people make the mistake of buying a piece of wood-veneered furniture at the thrift store and thinking they can sand it down to refinish it, only to destroy the piece of furniture in the process. Can you refinish wood veneer furniture? Absolutely. But the process is different from working with solid wood furniture, and you need to understand those differences going into the project.

Veneer is a super thin sheet of wood that’s glued to another less expensive piece of wood, often plywood or even pressboard. So if your goal is to take a dark-stained or painted piece of wood veneer furniture and then strip and sand it down to the natural wood—like what’s currently quite trendy—you are setting yourself up for some disappointment, my friend. You need to find a piece of solid wood furniture for a project like that.

Be sure to take the time to investigate what you’re working with first. Then, you’ll know what your options are for refinishing, and you won’t end up in despair when you sand right through a piece of veneer and leave a big hole.

Stripping the Existing Finish

The whole point of refinishing wood furniture is that you want to change or improve something about the existing finish. This begins with removing or stripping the old finish, and there are several methods you can use to do this.

Sanding is a common method that involves using sandpaper to remove the old finish. Always start with coarse-grit sandpaper and gradually move to finer grits to achieve a smooth surface. The grit of sandpaper is denoted by a number, with the bigger the number, the finer the grit. So, 60-grit sandpaper is very coarse, while 220-grit sandpaper is very fine for finishing.

You can either sand by hand with a sanding block or use an electric sander. As I mentioned earlier, an electric sander takes some skill to use properly. However, ultimately, it’ll increase the speed at which you can complete these tasks, making it incredibly useful. No matter whether you’re sanding by hand or with an electric sander, you need a proper respirator to protect your lungs, as well as safety glasses to protect your eyes.

Chemical strippers are also effective for removing old paint or varnish. All you need to do is apply the stripper, wait for it to loosen the finish, and then scrape it off with a putty knife. However, it’s a pretty messy process, and you might not like the idea of using hazardous chemicals that could burn your skin or cause other damage. When I need to use a paint stripper, I prefer to use a citrus-based product that’s less harmful.

Heat guns can be used to soften and loosen the old finish, making it easier to scrape off. But do be cautious when using heat guns and follow safety guidelines. This would not be a great option for any piece that includes any veneered surfaces because the heat will also soften the underlying glue and cause buckling of the veneer. The key to using a heat gun is to keep it moving—don’t linger in one spot for too long. This does take some practice and skill, so it might not be a desirable first choice when you’re beginning.

Sanding for a Smooth Finish

In addition to sanding as one of the options for stripping the original finish, sanding is a critical step to achieving a smooth, pristine surface after the original finish is removed. Be sure to wipe down the sanded surfaces of dust frequently, and especially before you move to the next step of applying the new finish. Use a slightly damp cloth and wipe repeatedly until there are no bits left to collect.

Staining vs. Painting

Deciding between staining or painting a piece of wood furniture is going to come down to personal choice, but I know this is a hotly debated topic. Staining enhances the natural beauty of wood, allowing the grain to show through. It’s a great choice if you want to preserve the wood’s character. With antique pieces, there may have also been inlays or other details accentuated by the choice of a particular cut of wood that you wouldn’t want to hide beneath paint.

Painting, on the other hand, allows for more creativity and customization. You can choose any color that complements your decor, and it can be quite an artistic endeavor. Paint can completely change the look of a piece and refresh it beyond what you thought was possible. It can also help to salvage a piece of wood furniture that was damaged, giving it new life.

One alternative and compromise, as is shown in the transformation above, is to use a paint-wash technique. This is essentially a heavily diluted paint that allows the natural grain of the wood to show through.

Whichever choice you make, always follow these guidelines:

  1. Prepare the surface thoroughly before applying stain or paint.
  2. Use high-quality products and apply them according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  3. Allow sufficient drying time between coats.

Finishing Touches

After staining or painting, it’s essential to protect your hard work with some type of sealant. This step ensures the durability and longevity of your refinished furniture. A sealer or varnish acts as a protective barrier, preventing moisture, stains, and damage to the furniture’s surface.

You have a number of options depending upon the look you desire and the finish you selected. My two preferred choices are wax and polyurethane, depending on the look I’m trying to achieve. But whatever you choose, always be certain to follow the product’s instructions carefully and, once again, don’t rush the process.

Now that your furniture is beautifully refinished, it’s time to put the finishing touches on it. If you disassembled any parts of the furniture, reassemble them carefully, ensuring everything fits correctly. Use masking tape to label and number the pieces, and refer back to photos you took during the disassembly process.

Consider adding personal touches such as new hardware, decorative elements, or even a fresh coat of paint on drawer interiors. It’s the little details that can really make a refinished piece shine. And don’t forget to check out Hardware Tree for replacement hardware that matches the period and style of your antique piece.

The Importance of Patience

If you’ve read this entire step-by-step guide for how to refinish wood furniture, you may have noticed a common theme nestled into the advice I’ve outlined: patience. Refinishing furniture isn’t necessarily quick or cheap, but that’s not the point of the activity.

When you’ve decided to refinish or restore a piece of furniture, you are investing a piece of yourself into the project. And why would you want to do that in a way that’s disparaging to the value you bring to the work? Cheap things are cheaply made, but when you decide to refinish a piece of wood furniture, you are intending to increase its value and create something beautiful in the process. That takes valuable effort, and it also takes time to do it well.

Both of these qualities require patience and discipline to do the work the right way. Could you slap a coat of paint on something and call it refinished? I suppose so, but what value is there in that? Whenever we’re giving something of ourselves to a task, I think we should give our best. And if you’re just beginning, your best will get better with time and experience—but only if you have the patience to see it through.

You won’t learn how to refinish wood furniture just by reading tutorials, and you won’t become an expert after your first project either. It’s going to take time and cumulative experience to develop your skills. But here’s the thing—the time is going to pass anyway. If this is a creative endeavor you want to learn, start now and have the patience to stick with it as each project becomes a chapter in your story.

So, my dear friend, embrace the journey, cherish the community, and honor the history. With time and perseverance, your skills will grow, and you’ll uncover the true beauty that lies within each piece of antique wood. Happy refinishing!

PS: Deep gratitude and a big hug to my dear friend Terri for her permission to feature her incredible talent in furniture refinishing. For more of Terri’s inspiration or to purchase her work, be sure to follow her on Instagram.


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