DIY Furniture Refinishing Guidelines
We are often asked, as professional furniture refinishers, how you might do it yourself. We, of course, are biased and believe that an item worth refinishing is worth doing it correctly and that usually means having it performed professionally. Two other aspects are at play: cost and professionals who are less than thoroughly expert themselves.
While there are many guidelines, options, and rules for refinishing that could be covered, we will describe for you our primary recommend approach. There are NO good short cut approaches. It is all hard work.
The Basic Assumption:
The assumption is that you have an older well made wood furniture item. It does not matter if it has veneered surfaces or is solid lumber. It does not matter what room of the home it will be used in. It does not matter what the style might be. What matters is that you like the item because of its history, its style, or its keepsake aspects and are willing to invest the time to accomplish a good result. It is vital that you can work around the various chemicals and solvents involved. It is crucial that you read all instructions and follow all safety instructions. There are hazardous and flammable materiasl involved.
Preparing the Item:
Disassemble the item as feasible. Remove the back, doors, drawers, hardware, and any other aspect that is nailed or screwed on. It is easier to work with the pieces and anything that can be laid flat. Plan to work an open well ventilated areas with no open flames from furnances or water heaters, for example.
Removal of old finish:
- The older the finish on the item, and not necessarily the age of the item, the more the likelihood is that the finish is varnish. Varnish turns dark with age, can prune or wrinkle. Varnish can move away from heavy wear areas like the hand areas of chair arms and collect in non-wear areas like the back spindle area of a chair seat. It can be removed easily.
- The newer the finish the more the chance that it is a furniture manufacturer’s lacquer. It also can be removed easily.
- At the same time, the newer the finish and the thicker it might now look, and especially if it has an orange or yellow cast, the more the chance that it is a version of polyurethane. Polyurethane finish is very difficult to remove.
- Any newer higher gloss finish should be carefully tested in an out of the way surface, since it might be a finish that simply can not be stripped by you.
- The finish should never be sanded off. The sanding approach might remove 90%, but grind the other 10% deep into the grain. It is the biggest procedural error we hear of.
- The finish should not be scrubbed off with a "reliquifier" like Formby’s refinisher products. It is merely an active solvent that dilutes old finish like varnish and allows you to again scrub off 95%, but scrub in 5% they call the "patina" with its waxes and polishes.
- We do not recommend the newer "environmentally safe" stripper products. They are not significantly any safer and are much less effective.
- We do recommend traditional methylene chloride base strippers, but they must be used with due care.
- We do not recommend any one brand of finish remover, usually called paint and varnish stripper. Different brands and grades within brands work differently on different existing finishes. We recommend buying a small can and testing it on an out of the way surface. If it works well and easily enough, then go back to the store and buy the amount that you need. The range of strength is generally varnish, lacquer, paint, and then polyurethane removers.
- Using too strong a strength can damage the item. Using a too weak stripper makes for entirely too much work and poor results.
- Finish removers are generally either a water thin liquid or a thicker paste stripper. We recommend the paste stripper versions.
- All finish removers should be used with due care and caution. The chemicals can be hazardous to you personally. Wear protective eyeglasses and old long sleeve clothing with rubber gloves. Work in well ventilated areas. The removed finish and waste stripper is combustible, so handle and dispose of safely. Do not just wad up in newspapers and throw in the trash can. It can combust all on its own.
- Hand stripper usually involves two or more applications. The first to remove the bulk and the second to clean up the cracks and crevices. Additional coats may be required.
- Finish removers will not return the wood to a "white" state. It will usually leave some discoloration due to the old finish, wear, and chemicals involved. That is fine and should be expected. As a result, stripping an old dark finish and then expecting to not stain the wood but only apply a clear coat is not advisable as a realistic goal. An application of a light stain will bring out the grain and beauty of the wood.
- If water is used to scrub clean the stripped item, the item must be allowed to thoroughly dry. If lacquer thinner is used to scrub the item, the same is true and must be done with extreme care. The fumes are dangerous. We allow items to dry for three full days in a highly ventilated area.
Sanding the Item:
- For most items a relatively light sanding to remove any raised grain is all that should be expected. For course grain woods like oak the grit might be 150. For smoother grain woods like maple the grit should be higher like 180. If you sand too much or too fine the result is that the wood is burnished and will not take stain or not take it evenly. This is the second big mistake we hear about.
- Assuming that the new stain will not be too light, it is not necessary to sand every crack and crevice to a consistent lightness. The stain will accent the involved area.
Staining the Item:
- Different brands and wood stains take differently on various woods. The store samples are always on new white wood. On your older item they will usually take much darker.
- The process of mixing stains to get a color match is not what we recommend. It is better and more controllable to layer the stain applications. The first application of stain will generally seal the wood so apply the darkest coloration that you are seeking. Let us presume brown walnut. Then apply the accent color stain, such as mahogany red, to get the accent that you are seeking. If the second color is applied while the item is still wet from the first coat it will take stronger.
- If you buy a stain that takes too dark, let the can settle and remove some of the pigment from the bottom of the can and then use the balance. On the same basis the settled pigment can be used to add to another can to gain a little more darkness.
- We generally recommend penetrating oil stains. Gel stains and dye stains are too difficult to work with. Finishes that have color in them are called "toners" and generally are unsucessful since the more you brush over one area the more color you apply to that area versus another.
Applying A Finish:
- This is where the most options exist. We simply recommend the following as the best approach for the DIY-er.
- The product is called Deft brand’s "Clear Wood Finish". It is a brushable lacquer. It requires 3 to 4 applications. It acts as its own sealer. It comes in flat and high gloss sheens. The sheens can be mixed for satin or semi-gloss sheen. It does smell terrible during the application and drying stages.
- The secret to its successful application is a good brush and thin coats. A good brush is made of animal hair and about 2" to 2½" wide. A good brush is defined as one that costs maybe $10 or more. No disposable and no sponge brushes. Buy a can of lacquer thinner to properly clean the brush. The brush can be used for both staining and brushable lacquer applications. Given a thorough cleaning the brush can last for years.
The Sheen Level:
- The early coats should not be a high gloss coat. It is harder for the second coat to bond to it. If you want a higher gloss final result then make that the final coat application.
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