Step 1: Start with a thorough cleaning
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Photo 1: Remove old paint spots
Soften old paint
along the edges of
trim with alcohol. A
rag wrapped around
a putty knife lets you
scrub the trim without
onto the wall.
You can dramatically improve the
appearance of stained and varnished woodwork without
all the work and mess of a complete stripping and
refinishing job. We'll show you a much easier process
here—and you may even be able to eliminate some
steps if your woodwork is in better shape than ours.
Just gather the supplies in a 5-gallon bucket and tackle
the renewal project one window or door at a time
whenever you have a few spare hours. Start in a corner
or in an inconspicuous area—better to learn from
your mistakes there than on the front door.
The first step in renewing your woodwork
is cleaning it to remove grease and grime
and create a contaminant-free surface for
the new finish. Wash the woodwork with
a TSP substitute. Use just enough cleaner
to wet the surface. Scrub with a sponge
dipped in the cleaning solution. Then
rinse with a sponge and clear water and
wipe off the wood with a dry rag.
If there's paint slopped onto the edges
of your trim or spattered on the surface,
now's the time to clean it off. A rag dampened
with denatured alcohol will remove
most paint spatters (Photo 1). Alcohol
won't harm most finishes, but it will dissolve
shellac. Don't worry if some of the
finish comes off. You can touch it up later
(Photo 7). Protect the walls with masking
tape to prevent the alcohol from damaging
the paint. For tougher paint spatters,
use a fine synthetic abrasive pad (such as
a 3M Wood Finishing Pad) dipped in
Step 2: Scrape and sand badly damaged areas
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Photo 2: Scrape eroded areas
finish. A carbide paint
scraper removes the
old finish much faster
But be careful not
to gouge the wood.
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Photo 3: Bleach out dark stains
deep stains that
scraping or sanding
won't remove. You
don't have to scrub;
just let the oxalic
acid penetrate and
lighten the stain.
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Photo 4: Sand bleached areas
after it dries. Start
with 120-grit sandpaper.
Then sand with
180-grit. Vacuum the
dust before staining
Window stools and other areas exposed
to moisture and sunlight may need to be
completely refinished. In spots such as
these where the wood is discolored and
the finish worn away, you'll get the best
results by scraping and sanding to expose
bare wood (Photos 2 and 4).
If the wood has dark water stains that
scraping and sanding won't remove, you
can remove them with oxalic acid (Photo 3).
Caution: Wear protective gear, including
goggles, rubber gloves and a long-sleeve
shirt, when you work with oxalic acid.
Mix the oxalic acid in a plastic container.
Add 1 oz. of oxalic acid powder (about 2
tablespoons) to 1 cup of hot water and stir
it until the powder dissolves. Then brush
the solution onto the stain with a disposable
sponge brush and let it work for 20
minutes. You can repeat the process to
further lighten the stain. Wipe the
bleached wood with a sponge and clear
water. Then neutralize the oxalic acid by
applying a solution of 3 tablespoons of
borax to 1 gallon of water with a sponge.
Finally, rinse the bleached wood with
water again and let it dry overnight. Then
sand it with 120-grit followed by 180-grit
sandpaper (Photo 4) and stain it to match
the rest of the woodwork.
Step 3: Roughen the finish and fill small holes
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Photo 5: Roughen the old finish
Rub the wood
with an abrasive
pad to create a
surface for the new
finish. Vacuum the
dust from the surface
before wiping on a
new coat of finish.
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Photo 6: Fill holes
matched putty. Just
knead different colors
together until you get
an exact match.
To make new finishes stick well, slightly
roughen the old finish first (Photo 5).
Synthetic finishing pads are the best choice
because they conform to profiles and aren't
as aggressive as sandpaper. Buy medium
and fine and experiment in an inconspicuous
area. Use the pad that roughens the finish
without removing any stain.
Fill holes left by nails or screws with
soft wood putty. Wood putty is available in
many colors that you can blend for a perfect
match. Application is easy. You just
push it into the hole and wipe it off (Photo
6). There's no sanding required. Buy several
shades of putty, ranging from dark to
light, that are similar to the color of your
trim. Then mix them to match the wood
surrounding the hole. Push the putty into
the hole and wipe off the excess with your
fingertip. Then remove residue from
around the hole by wiping over it with a
clean rag. If your woodwork has filled nail
holes that have darkened and no longer
match, pick the old filler out and replace it
with soft putty. Buy water-based putty if
you plan to use water-based polyurethane.
Step 4: Apply stain to hide dings and scratches
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Photo 7: Apply matching stain
chips and worn away
finish with a
fresh dose of stain.
Then wipe the woodwork
with a clean rag
to remove the excess
stain. Let the stain
Completely refinishing the area may be
the only way to make flawless repairs to
badly damaged doors, windows and
moldings. But you can greatly improve
the overall appearance of worn or damaged
wood with less drastic measures.
Disguise large areas where the stain is
worn away by dabbing stain over the light
areas to blend them in. The patched area
may not match exactly, but at least the
spot will be less obvious. Or simply wipe
the surface of the wood with a rag dipped
in stain to fill in small scratches and
imperfections—you'll see a big improvement
(Photo 7). Wipe the stain on. Then
wipe off the excess with a clean rag.
Allow the stain to dry overnight before
you apply the finish.
One of the trickiest parts of a wood
restoration project is finding stain to
match. You can pry off a small piece of
trim and ask the paint department to mix
stain to match. Some paint stores and
home centers offer inexpensive sample
packets of stain. You can choose several
samples that are close to the color of your
wood and experiment in a hidden area to
find the best color match. Then buy a larger container.
Another approach is to buy two or
three cans of stain that are close to the
color of your woodwork and mix them to
get the right color. Use an eyedropper and
disposable plastic cups to mix small
batches until you get the proportions
right. Keep notes so you can reproduce
the results in a larger batch.
Step 5: Apply the fresh finish
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Photo 8: Wipe on polyurethane
shine with a
fresh coat of
polyurethane. Wipe on
poly gives you a
faster, smoother finish
with less mess
than brush-on poly.
The final step in your trim renewal project
is to apply a fresh coat of finish. Wipe-on
polyurethane is a good choice because
it's fast and easy to apply. You simply
wipe it on with a soft rag and let it dry.
Each coat is very thin and dries quickly.
You can recoat in two or three hours if
you want a thicker finish for extra protection.
Several coats of wipe-on polyurethane
are required to equal the thickness
of one coat of brushed-on varnish, but it's
easier to get a smooth, drip-free finish
with wipe-on poly.
Fold a cotton rag to create a pad. Then
dip an edge of the pad into a container of
wipe-on polyurethane and press it against
the side to wring out the excess. Wipe the
polyurethane onto the wood in long
strokes in the direction of the wood grain
as you would if you were using a brush.
For window stools or other trim exposed
to sunlight, consider using spar varnish.
Spar varnish has built-in ultraviolet protection
and is more flexible, so it holds up better
in areas exposed to sunlight and water.
Experiment on a scrap of trim or in an
inconspicuous area to see if the slightly
amber tint darkens the color too much.
When you've completed all of the steps
above, your woodwork will look like new
and be protected by a fresh layer of finish.
If you don't have time to do an entire
room from beginning to end, just tackle
one door or window whenever you have
a few spare hours. You'll be done with a
room before you know it.
Round Up Your Supplies
You'll need the materials and supplies listed in “Additional information” below for a basic wood
renewal project, including several for refinishing window stools and
removing stains. Most of the tools
and supplies are available at paint
stores, full-service hardware
stores and home centers. Visit
an art supply store for the artists'
markers. Oxalic acid is available
online at rockler.com or at woodworking
stores and some hardware
stores and lumberyards.
Fill and apply background color
Faux Wood Patch
Dings and dents too large to fill with soft putty present a unique challenge.
If you can't replace the wood, the next best thing is to patch the damage with
filler and color the patch to match. Use hardening-type filler like Durham's
Rock Hard Water Putty. Apply the filler carefully with as little excess as
possible to minimize sanding. Let the filler dry and sand it smooth, being
careful to avoid sanding away the finish on the surrounding wood. Then use
felt tip markers to “paint” the patch to match (photos below). Art supply
stores are the best source of markers—you'll find endless shades of brown.
Most other stores carry only one or two. The repair won't be perfect, but you
may be surprised by how inconspicuous it is from a distance.