Whether you succumb
regularly to the charms of thrift shop and garage sale treasures,
or just acquired a piece of unpainted furniture to complete a
room, you'll want to explore the fine art of furniture finishing.
Even the most derelict cast-off or blah piece of unpainted furniture
can be transformed into a cherished family heirloom with a little
patience, elbow-grease, a few simple tools and the appropriate
materials. Here's how:
* Assemble all
the necessary tools and materials. (Don't forget brush cleaning
solvents!) Be sure to have plenty of newspapers and clean rags
* Remove all hardware or non-fixed ornamentation.
* Read all finishing products' labels thoroughly.
* Be good to yourself - work safely! Protect hands with rubber
gloves and wear safety goggles when working with products such
as paint removers and bleaches, or when sanding. Always work
outside if possible or in a well-ventilated room with all doors
and windows open, away from sparks and open flames. Clean up
promptly and dispose of soiled rags and newspapers in covered
metal containers kept outside the house.
It is often necessary to remove all of the old finish from a
piece of furniture before successful refinishing can be carried
out. You can either strip it yourself, or take the furniture
to a commercial establishment to do it for you, usually at a
fairly reasonable price. These companies simply soak the piece
in a vat of remover until the finish is softened and then they
clean it. Here's how you do it yourself:
1. Buy a good
quality grade of commercial paint and varnish remover. Although
there are many types, in liquid or paste form, you may prefer
to use one of the non-flammable, wax-free varieties, as they
require no after-rinse or neutralizing when the job is done.
2. If you are using a liquid remover, pour some of it into a
3. With an old paint brush, spread the remover liberally on one
small section of furniture at a time. Stroke in one direction
4. Allow the remover to soak into the surface until the finish
has been softened all the way down to the wood - usually 5 to
5. Scrape off the softened finish with a dull putty knife. On
carved or grooved surfaces, pointed sticks, coarse twine or an
old toothbrush can greatly aid the removal process. Wipe off
your tools frequently on newspapers. On very old furniture with
many coats of paint, several soak and scrape operations may be
6. When stripping an open-grained wood such as walnut, oak or
mahogany, you must also remove the old finish from the pores.
Saturate a pad of medium gauge steel wool with remover and rub
the wood with considerable pressure, working with the grain.
A stiff bristle brush is also helpful.
7. After the finish has been removed, wipe the wood dry with
clean cloths. Follow directions on the remover label. A final
wipe with mineral spirits or turpentine is recommended since
some removers contain wax and this must be removed from the wood
All stripped or unfinished furniture must be sanded as smooth
as possible before any finish is applied. This all-important
step will, to a great degree, determine just how professional-looking
your finished project will be.
1. Sand with
progressively finer grits of sandpaper, starting with medium
or fine grades, and finishing with very fine. Always rub with
the grain to avoid scratches that may show through the finish
There are many
different types of sandpaper available, but generally, open coat
aluminum oxide paper is preferred for furniture, since it cuts
faster and lasts longer.
2. Use a sanding block on flat surfaces to prevent unevenness
and rounded edges. You can buy one or make one from a block of
wood with a cloth or felt pad attached to the bottom under the
3. For curved or irregular surfaces, cut sandpaper or emery paper
into strips and use it without a block. Pads of medium to fine
steel wool work well on difficult areas, too.
4. If you use an electric sander, it should be a belt or reciprocal
type, as circular sanders do not sand in a straight line. They
are likely to leave marks on the wood surface which show through
5. After sanding is completed, thoroughly remove all dust. The
best way to do this is with a tack rag. You can buy one at your
paint dealer or make one from a piece of lint-free cotton cloth.
Just dip the cloth into varnish that has been diluted with an
equal amount of turpentine or mineral spirits. Wring the cloth
until almost dry.
This procedure is necessary only when you wish to lighten the
wood's natural color, or to remove undesirable stains. For best
results, use a commercial wood bleach. Most are two-part solutions
which are either intermixed or applied in successive steps (read
the label). Use rubber gloves and keep bleach out of the eyes.
1. Apply the
bleach with a brush or sponge. The label instructions will tell
you whether the two solutions should be applied separately or
mixed before applying.
2. Rinse or neutralize, if necessary (see label).
3. Allow the piece to dry overnight - at least 12 hours.
4. Sand lightly with very fine sandpaper to remove raised grain.
Wipe all dust from the wood.
Stains are used to color the wood to emphasize its grain, to
make one type of wood look like another, to create uniform color
in a piece which is made up of more than one kind of wood, or
to tint patched areas to match the rest of the piece. Most stains
should be used only over bare, smoothly sanded, clean, dry wood.
Of the many types
of stain available, two seem to be most popular with do-it-yourselfers:
stain is actually a finish system. It is a clear resinous coating
that sinks deep into the wood pores imparting a somewhat darker
appearance to the natural wood. Simply apply it generously to
the surface with a rag or brush, let it soak in for 30 to 60
minutes, depending on the darkening effect desired, and wipe
off the excess with clean rags. Since penetrating resin stain
is also a finish, a coat of wax is all that's necessary once
or wiping stains are the most easily controlled. Even if a piece
or section gets too dark, it can be lightened with minimum effort
by rubbing with turpentine while still wet, or by sanding when
dry. Before using a oil stain, wipe off the smoothed surface
with a clean cloth dampened with turpentine or mineral spirits.
Then wipe the entire surface with a tack rag. Then just apply
the stain with a brush, wait 5 or 10 minutes, and wipe off excess
with clean rags. Let it dry for 24 hours before finishing.
Both of these
types of stains are available in a wide range of colors. Shades
of the same type can be mixed to produce even more color variation.
Be sure to test colors on similar scrap wood first. To get an
idea of what the finished piece will look like, coat the test
scrap with the clear coating you plan to use, too. Here are some
additional staining tips:
1. For best results
when using an oil stain, apply a thin sealer coat to the bare
wood first. This gives a more uniform color effect. Your paint
dealer can recommend one that is suitable.
2. Stain and wipe one full section or panel at a time.
3. Do less conspicuous areas first, saving the front faces and
tops for last.
4. In the final clean-up operation, wipe in the direction of
5. Since end grain wood will absorb a far greater amount of stain
than other surfaces, wipe it with linseed oil or a clear coating
first to slow down absorption.
Open-pore woods, such as walnut, oak and mahogany, require the
use of a paste filler if a super-smooth finish is desired. These
fillers are available in colors. You can also buy a natural or
neutral filler and tint it with the stain you've used on the
piece or with pigment from tubes. Here's how to use it:
1. Put some of
the paste filler into a clean can and thin it by adding turpentine
or mineral spirits, stirring until the mixture is the consistency
of heavy cream. Be sure the wood is clean and that all dust is
out of the wood pores.
2. Brush the filler onto the workpiece with a short, stiff-bristled
brush. To assure that all open pores are filled, stroke on the
liquid first with the grain, then across the grain.
3. Allow the filler to set until it loses its shine - about 20
to 30 minutes.
4. Remove the excess filler with a rough-textured cloth, such
as burlap. Wipe first across the grain to force the filler into
the pores. Then, do all final wipes gently with the grain.
5. Finish by wiping down the entire surface, with the grain,
using a clean, lint-free cloth.
6. Let the piece dry or at least 24 hours before proceeding further.
Though there are many finishes you can use, two types are perennial
favorites with do-it-yourselfers because of their reliably satisfactory
Linseed oil finish
is time-consuming to apply, but gives the wood a beautiful, mellow
lustre. Although it is not highly water-resistant, this finish
will withstand hot dishes. Also, it is less likely to show scratches
than would a varnish finish.
Often, this finish
is applied directly to raw wood, but keep in mind that it will
tend to darken the wood in most cases. If you decide to stain
first, a water stain is preferable as it will leave the wood
more porous than oil types, which tend to fill the pores. Follow
these steps for best results:
1. Purchase boiled
linseed oil from your paint dealer.
2. In a clean can, make a mixture of two parts of the oil to
one part turpentine or mineral spirits.
3. Warm the mixture by standing the can in a larger container
which can be kept filled with hot water.
4. Spread the oil mixture liberally over the surface with a thick
pad of clean, lint-free cloth. Continue applying and rubbing
it until the surface no longer absorbs oil. Discard rags as they
become oversaturated. To avoid spontaneous combustion spread
the rags out or immerse them in a pail of water.
5. Using a piece of tightly woven cloth, buff the surface continually
until a finger touched to the surface does not pick up any oil.
6. Let the piece dry overnight and repeat the entire process
again. Opinions differ on how many coats to apply, but generally,
a minimum of three applications is necessary. The more you apply,
however, the more attractive and durable the finish will be.
There are many
new, improved varnishes or clear coatings available for furniture
finishing. Some are very pale for use on light colored furniture.
Others offer resistance to foods and alcohol. Ask your paint
dealer for recommendations.
To apply varnish:
1. Work in as
dust-free an environment as possible. Although there are a number
of varnishes that set dust-free in one-half hour or less, some
take much longer to dry. Naturally, the more dust that settles
on the surface, the more time will have to be spent smoothing
the piece later.
2. Use a tack rag to remove every possible trace of dust before
applying the first coat.
3. Thin the first coat of varnish with turpentine, mixing gently
with a clean stick. (Successive coats are then applied as the
varnish comes from the can. Do not stir varnish, as this causes
4. Apply varnish with a good quality natural-bristle brush. Dip
the brush into the varnish only one-third the length of the bristles.
To remove excess varnish from the brush, tap the bristle tips
lightly against the inside of the container. Do not drag the
bristles across the rim of the can, as this causes tiny bubbles
to form, making it extremely difficult to create a smooth finish.
5. Brush the varnish on the surface, then work the brush at right
angles to the original direction of application.
6. Finally, tip off with an almost-dry brush held at a 30 degree
angle to the surface.
7. Allow the
varnish to dry completely - 48 hours is best. Then, sand lightly
with the finest grade of sandpaper or steel wool available. Dust
well and wipe with a tack rag. Repeat this step between each
coat. (Normally, one thin coat and two from the can will suffice.)
8. Let the final coat cure for at least one week before applying
Many a white elephant has been transformed into a decorator's
dream with a coat or two of shiny or matte enamel in some marvelously
off-beat color. Enamel is also a good finish choice for inexpensive
unpainted furniture when paint quality wood has been used, or
for furniture to be used in children's rooms or other areas where
frequent damp wipings will be necessary. But, in today's sleek,
contemporary interiors, painted furniture is right at home in
any room. And, because enamels are available in a wide range
of glosses - from elegant eggshell to the dramatic wet look -
and in a rainbow of colors, almost any effect you want is possible.
There are two
types of enamel -- oil-based and latex (water-thinned). Usually,
the oil-based type produces the best results on furniture. This
type is available in both regular brush-on and spray formulas.
Spray enamel is especially good for small projects and intricately
steps for a beautiful enamel finish:
1. If painting
over a previously finished surface, sand lightly with fine sandpaper;
then, thoroughly clean off old wax, grease or dirt with detergent
or solvent. Rinse, and wipe dry.
2. If applying enamel over an unfinished piece, the surface should
be sanded as smooth as possible. If the piece is a hardwood species
with open pores, use a natural paste filler before proceeding
(see Paste Wood Filler section). If you're painting a softwood,
it is best to apply a sealer first. Ask your paint dealer to
recommend the best products for your particular project. Following
sealing, rub lightly with fine gauge steel wool. Dust the piece
carefully and wipe with a tack rag before going on to the next
3. Apply a coat of enamel undercoat. After it dries, rub lightly
with fine gauge steel wool and dust thoroughly.
4. Brush on one or two coats of enamel, using a good quality
enamel brush in the widest possible width appropriate to the
surface. Whenever possible, work with the surface in a horizontal
position to prevent runs or sags in the enamel. If two coats
are used, it is advisable to sand lightly and wipe between coats.
© National Paint & Coatings Association