How To Restore Old Wooden Furniture

Introduction to antique furniture restoration, including shop and tools, preparation, stripping, finishing, and sales.

| September/October 1975

DIY Furniture Restoration

Old pieces of wood furniture can find new life with a little patience and a coat of oil paint or wood stain.

Photo by Getty Images/Sabyna75

Heading for an auction or thrift shop? While you're there, take a second look at those old tables, chests, and whatever shoved back in odd corners . . . and don't be overly turned off by ugly paint or varnish. What's under the surface may be a quality piece of furniture that will make a fine addition to your own home or which can be a welcome source of extra cash.

Often, the difference between junk store dust catcher and collector's item is just one simple step: refinishing. I've put some time into learning this skill and find it very useful and profitable. My house is full of old furniture which I bought for next to nothing and made beautiful at low cost . . . and down in the basement right now is a piece which set me back $90.00 and should sell easily for over $300 when I've finished with it. The work isn't exactly fun, I'll admit, but now that I've perfected my methods I do find this home business to be truly absorbing and rewarding.

How To Restore Old Wooden Furniture

My first and most important piece of advice to anyone who wants to copy my success is, "Forget all the refinishing guides you may have read." Most such directions make impossible demands on your time and money. A perfect high-gloss finish, for instance, is difficult to apply and a waste of effort. The same goes for the majority of "grain fillers" and sealers. Ditto for oil finishes, which are fragile. Forget all that and let me tell you about my favorite method of how to restore old wooden furniture . . . a quicker, less expensive technique that lets beautiful old wood look like beautiful old wood.

Your Stock in Trade

What you want to look for in secondhand furniture is good wood hiding under layers of badly applied paint or varnish. The more thoroughly its quality is concealed, the more valuable the piece will be when you're done. Many smaller items, and almost anything that is lightly finished, will be bid out of sight . . . so your best bets are the big gummed-up uglies.

Material, construction, and general appearance of old furniture are more important than detail or present state. I've even bought pieces that were failing apart, as long as the wood wasn't cracked and the joints themselves — as distinct from their shaky fastenings — were in decent shape.

Look at undersides, chipped places, etc., to find out what the wood's like, and don't be fooled by veneers (they peel and split and bleed, and pieces so covered aren't worth much at best unless they're unusual for some reason). The following are my favorite materials, listed in order of preference: oak, walnut (even though it may streak in finishing), pine, maple, and birch. Mahogany bleeds badly and is very soft. Other woods may be OK for all I know, but you're not likely to run into them.

3/14/2016 7:33:23 PM

I would like information on how to redo a woven chair.

11/23/2015 1:41:47 PM

So true, I've seen so many blogs with beautiful pieces that took 35+ hours to sand and finish. I only shop for used or vintage furniture and have been having some recent success on Trove:

11/23/2015 1:34:45 PM

So true, I've seen so many blogs with beautiful pieces that took 35+ hours to sand and finish. I only shop for used or vintage furniture and have been having some recent success on Trove:

5/24/2015 5:46:32 AM

That is a good tips I will add that to the intractable somewhere.

4/10/2015 9:38:56 AM

Really great article, I learned a lot from this - most helpful article I've read on refinishing. Questions: 1)You use a rag to apply stain, Not a sponge brush, why? 2)What do you use to apply the paint stripper? 3)Have you ever stained cedar?

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