My first real part-time job was refinishing furniture.
For two years, I worked in a tiny shop that was staffed only by the owner and myself – this was a true master and apprentice experience.
I already had 4 years experience building furniture, but my finishing techniques were crude at best and always did my work a disservice.
Luckily, I learned a ton about refinishing and honed my skills over those years so that I can now finish projects as well as I can build them.
Although I no longer do this work for money, I sill love to tinkering on my own projects for my home.
Refinishing Furniture – My Project
I really love the midcentury modern aesthetic, which influenced our choice when my wife and I bought our current 1960s home.
So keeping in the spirit of our house, we've been on the lookout for furniture to match.
I found this dresser at Goodwill for only $20 (!) and it was exactly what I was looking for. The clean lines, high and elegantly sweeping legs, and unique star-shaped wooden knobs make it a real beauty.
And it was actually in pretty good structural and cosmetic condition…except for a few missing or broken knobs and the top surface being pretty much trashed.
Not to worry – I can fix that!
How To Refinish Furniture
Like most DIY ventures, refinishing furniture can either be a total nightmare or, like this project, relatively simple and straight forward.
The more ornate and angular your project, the more difficult it's likely to be.
Since I decided to only refinish the top of my dresser, my biggest challenge was going to be matching the color.
Supplies I Use For Refinishing Furniture
Supplies to Prep the Project
- Scrap cardboard
- Painter's tape
- Old newspaper
Supplies to Remove Old Finish
- Paint brush (I used a couple of the cheap, disposable brushes from Home Depot)
- Rubber gloves
- Mineral spirits
- Plastic scraper
- Electric sander
Supplies to Apply New Finish
- Top coat (I made my own wipe-on poly)
- Steel wool
Steps To Refinish Furniture
As I mentioned, I decided to only refinish the top of this dresser so it was fairly straightforward.
Also, I chose to use a wipe-on poly for my top coat, so the instructions will reflect that choice. If you prefer another method, feel free to use what you're comfortable with.
Removing Old Finish
I slid a few pieces of thick carboard underneath the dresser to protect the floor from any drips.
Then I taped off the areas I didn't want refinished using masking/painter's tape and old newspapers. I made sure to really press the edges of the tape down to prevent stripper or stain from seeping onto places I didn't want it.
All those drips on the cardboard are from work I did in the garage. I'm not that sloppy!
I poured stripper into a cut-off fast food cup and then brushed it on in a fairly heavy coat while also being very careful and applying sparingly near the edges.
The tape will protect the sides to some extent but it won't stand up to any heavy globs sitting on top of it.
NOTE: For a large project, I work on one panel at a time to prevent areas from drying while I'm working on others.
I waited about 15 minutes for the stripper to fully loosen the old finish. I knew it was going to come off easy because I could see bubbling within a couple minutes.
First, I tested a small spot and the finish came off and left me with dry looking, lighter colored wood underneath. Once I saw that, I proceeded to scrape the finish in short strips from the entire surface.
If my test strip wasn't successful, I would've applied more stripper to any dry spots and waited another 15 minutes.
Once the scraping was done, I discarded the gloopy stripper/finish in a paper cup and threw the whole thing away.
With all the old finish was removed, I wiped down the surface with a rag and mineral spirits to remove all residue.
Then it was clean and ready for sanding.
Half sanded. That big water mark isn't coming out without sanding through the veneer.
Now that my project was free of old finish, it was time to sand it to remove imperfections and provide a good surface for the upcoming stain.
I used 220 grit on a Dewalt sander as an all-purpose sandpaper for my project. I didn't bother with a progression from coarse to fine sandpaper since I wasn't going for perfection.
If you're trying this out for yourself, DO NOT aggressively sand scratches and dings! This will create depressions that won't be visible on bare wood but will reflect light and stick out like a sore thumb once a sheen is applied.
I always keep the sander flat and remove material from large sections surrounding scratches to minimize or remove them.
Applying New Finish
Once I had a bare wood finish, it was time to figure out what stain I needed to match the original color.
I gave the bare wood a wipe with mineral spirits to see what it would look like without any stain and just a clear coat.
Then I selected a stain that I thought would, in combination with the darkening effect of the top coat, match the rest of the piece.
To test stain choices, it's highly advisable to use a scrap piece of the same wood, a backside edge, bottom of a drawer face, or some other spot that won't be seen.
Once I had my stain selected, I brushed it on one section at a time to ensure complete coverage and rubbed in and wiped off the excess using an old t-shirt.
Stain is really forgiving and goes on evenly as long as you follow these steps and don't let puddles sit for long periods.
I got super lucky and the can of Minwax in Early American I already had was literally a perfect match.
I then allowed the stain to dry per the instructions on the can.
I've never done this in the past and usually go right to the top coat stage, but since I was using a top coat consisting of 50% mineral spirits, I actually followed the instructions so as to avoid partially dissolving and streaking the stain.
The next step is applying several layers of top coat.
For my homemade wipe-on poly (see the recipe after the final step below), all I had to do was shake the jar, dip the rag, and apply in long, overlapping strokes.
I waited until the surface was dry to the touch between coats (around 1 hour).
This is a thin finish so it WILL look streaky for the first few coats. Don't worry. As the finish builds, it will take on a uniform sheen.
Patience is KEY here!
After I had applied 3-5 coats, I let it dry overnight.
The next day, I gave the surface a light rub down with 0000 steel wool to smooth any imperfections and even out the finish.
I then followed up with more coats using the technique in Step 3 until I was happy with the sheen and thickness of the finish. I ended up doing about 8-9 coats of the wipe-on poly.
The Final Results!
When working in a shop, I had access to hundreds of stains and sample pieces of wood as well as toners in every color that could be sprayed on individual panels or entire projects to achieve a perfect color match.
But at home, I can only buy the closest matching stain and cross my fingers. Well, it worked marvelously this time and I can't believe how well the color came out.
My wife also gave the drawers a gentle wipe with a microfiber cloth dipped in water to carefully buff away some marker and crayon that was on the drawers.
We weren't too crazy about eliminating every single mark and ding though – that's part of the charm of the whole piece.
I also still have to replace a few of the knobs, just haven't found any I really like yet.
If I can't find an exact match, I'm thinking of replacing them one at a time with mismatched knobs as I find ones I like.
Wipe-on Poly Recipe
I made my own wipe-on poly at home in about one minute. To do that, I used:
- 1 part brush-on polyurethane
- 1 part mineral spirits
I mixed equal parts (just eyeballing it) polyurethane and mineral spirits in a glass jar and shook to combine. That's it!
I chose to use a wipe-on poly over brush-on because hand-rubbed topcoats produce a much nicer finish (in my experience).
Brush-on poly is so thick and takes so long to dry that it leaves brush strokes, stray bristles, air bubbles, and embedded dust all over the surface of your project, giving it the look and feel of sand paper.
You can also buy wipe-on poly, but I could only find it in satin and gloss and I wanted a semi-gloss. So I chose to make my own.
Why Refinish Furniture
Checking my local Craigslist shows that prices for mid-century modern dressers range from $200 up to about $2,000.
I picked mine up from Goodwill for $19.99 and invested about $30 in materials and supplies.
I'm all in for about $50 plus a few hours of my time!
But aside from saving a few bucks and gaining a very functional piece of furniture, there's a certain satisfaction I get from creating something with my own hands.
It doesn't matter if it's changing my oil, starting a campfire, fixing a flat bike tire, or refinishing a piece of furniture, these sort of projects focus my attention on the task at hand, allowing a temporary break from abstract thought.
If you've never refinished a piece of furniture, I hope this article can inspire you to try it out for yourself.
Maybe you'll find as much satisfaction in it as I do.
All the best,