How to Refinish Furniture


Learn how to refinish furniture faster and easier by avoiding stripping. A seasoned pro tells you how to clean, repair and restore old worn finishes without messy chemical strippers
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How to refinish furniture without stripping: Benefits

Stripping furniture is a messy, time-consuming process. And sometimes the results aren’t as great as you had hoped. Fortunately, you don’t always have to resort to stripping to restore your furniture to its original luster. To show you an easier alternative, we enlisted Kevin Southwick, a furniture restoration specialist. We’ll show you Kevin’s tips for cleaning, repairing and restoring finishes without all the messy chemical strippers and tedious sanding. You’ll save tons of time. And since you’ll preserve the patina and character of the original finish, your furniture will retain the beauty of an antique. One word of caution, though: If you think your piece of furniture is a valuable antique, consult an expert before you do anything.
Meet the Expert: Kevin Southwick

Kevin Southwick specializes in the conservation and restoration of antiques and in custom wood finishes. He also consults in these areas. Kevin’s expertise is the result of more than 20 years’ experience working with and learning about wood finishes and furniture repair and refinishing.

Kevin Southwick with furniture to be refinished

Kevin Southwick, Furniture Conservation Specialist

Assess the finish with mineral spirits

Before you start any repairs or touch-up, wipe on mineral spirits to help you decide what your next steps should be. The mineral spirits temporarily saturates the finish to reveal how the piece of furniture will look with nothing more than a coat of wipe-on clear finish. Don’t worry; this won’t harm the finish. If it looks good, all you have to do is clean the surface and apply an oil-based wipe-on finish. If the surface looks bad even when wetted with mineral spirits, you’ll have to take other measures to restore the finish. We show some of these in the following steps.

Clean it up

A thorough cleaning is an important first step in any furniture renewal project. Removing decades of dirt and grime often restores much of the original luster. Kevin says it’s hard to believe, but it’s perfectly OK to wash furniture with soap and water.Kevin recommends liquid Ivory dish soap mixed with water. Mix in the same proportion you would to wash dishes. Dip a sponge into the solution, wring it out, and use it to gently scrub the surface. A paintbrush works great for cleaning carvings and moldings. When you’re done scrubbing with the soapy water, rinse the surface with a wrung-out sponge and clear water. Then dry it with a clean towel.

Fix white rings

White rings can be easy to get rid of, or they can be a real nightmare. First, slather the ring with petroleum jelly and let it sit overnight. The oil from the petroleum jelly will often penetrate the finish and remove the ring or at least make it less visible.If that doesn’t work, you can try a product such as Homax White Ring Remover (about $6 through our affiliation with amazon.com) or Liberon Ring Remover (about $22 at Rockler, Woodcraft or through our affiliation with amazon.com). They often work but may change the sheen. If these fixes don’t work, consult a pro to see what your other options are.

Scrape paint without damaging the finish

Paint spatters are common on old furniture, and most of the time you can remove them easily without damaging the finish. Here’s a trick we learned from Kevin to turn an ordinary straightedge razor into a delicate paint scraper. First, wrap a layer of masking tape around each end of the blade, and then bend the blade slightly so it’s curved.The masking tape holds the blade slightly off the surface so you can knock off paint spatters without the blade even touching the wood. Hold the blade perpendicular to the surface. The tape also keeps you from accidentally gouging the wood with the sharp corner of the blade. The curved blade allows you to adjust the depth of the scraper. If you tilt the blade a little, the curved center section will come closer to the surface to allow for removing really thin layers of paint.

Replace missing wood: Apply epoxy

If you discover missing veneer, chipped wood or a damaged molding, you can fix it easily with epoxy putty. Kevin showed us the process he uses, and the resulting repair is so realistic that it’s hard to spot. When it’s hardened, the epoxy is light colored and about the density of wood. You can shape, sand and stain it like wood too, so it blends right in. Quickwood and KwikWood are two brands of this Tootsie Roll–shaped epoxy (Photo 1A). You’ll find it at home centers and specialty woodworking stores for about $9 a tube.To use this type of epoxy, you slice off a piece with a razor blade or utility knife and knead it in your gloved hand. When the two parts are completely blended to a consistent color and the epoxy putty starts to get sticky, it’s ready to use. You’ll have about five or 10 minutes to apply the epoxy to the repair before it starts to harden. That’s why you should only slice off as much as you can use quickly.Photo 1 shows how to replace missing veneer. Here are a few things you can do before the putty starts to harden to reduce the amount of sanding and shaping later. First, smooth and shape the epoxy with your finger (Photo 2). Wet it with water first to prevent the epoxy from sticking. Then use the edge of a straightedge razor to scrape the surface almost level with the surrounding veneer. If you’re repairing wood with an open grain, like oak, add grain details by making little slices with a razor while the epoxy is soft (Photo 3).

Replace missing wood: Finish the epoxy

After the epoxy hardens completely, which usually takes a few hours, you can sand and stain the repair. Kevin sticks self-adhesive sandpaper to tongue depressors or craft sticks to make precision sanding blocks (Photo 4) . You can also use spray adhesive or even plain wood glue to attach the sandpaper.Blend the repair into the surrounding veneer by painting on gel stain to match the color and pattern of the existing grain. You could use stain touch-up markers, but Kevin prefers gel stain because it’s thick enough to act like paint, and can be wiped off with a rag dampened in mineral spirits if you goof up or want to start over.Choose two colors of stain that match the light and dark areas of the wood. Put a dab of both on a scrap of wood and create a range of colors by blending a bit of the two. Now you can use an artist’s brush to create the grain (Photo 5). If the sheen of the patch doesn’t match the rest of the wood when the stain dries, you can recoat the entire surface with wipe-on finish to even it out.

Video: How to Patch Veneer with Quickwood

Fixing a chipped piece of veneer isn’t as hard as you think. Kevin Southwick, an expert at The Family Handyman, will show you how to use Quickwood for veneer repair.