How to refinish furniture without stripping: Benefits
Stripping furniture is a messy, time-consuming
process. And sometimes the
results aren’t as great as you had hoped.
Fortunately, you don’t always have to resort to stripping
to restore your furniture to its original luster.
To show you an easier alternative, we enlisted
Kevin Southwick, a furniture restoration specialist.
We’ll show you Kevin’s tips for cleaning, repairing
and restoring finishes without all the messy chemical
strippers and tedious sanding. You’ll save tons
of time. And since you’ll preserve
the patina and character
of the original finish, your furniture
will retain the beauty of
an antique. One word of caution,
though: If you think
your piece of furniture
is a valuable antique,
consult an expert
before you do
Kevin Southwick, Furniture Conservation Specialist
Meet the Expert: Kevin Southwick
Kevin Southwick specializes in the conservation and
restoration of antiques and in custom wood finishes.
He also consults in these areas. Kevin's expertise is the
result of more than 20 years' experience working with
and learning about wood finishes and furniture repair
Assess the finish with mineral spirits
Before you start any repairs or touch-up, wipe on
mineral spirits to help you decide what your next
steps should be. The mineral spirits temporarily saturates
the finish to reveal how the piece of furniture
will look with nothing more than a coat of wipe-on
clear finish. Don’t worry; this won’t harm the finish. If
it looks good, all you have to do is clean the surface
and apply an oil-based wipe-on finish. If the surface
looks bad even when wetted with mineral spirits,
you’ll have to take other measures to restore the
finish. We show some of these in the following steps.
Clean it up
A thorough cleaning is an important first step in any furniture
renewal project. Removing decades of dirt and grime often
restores much of the original luster. Kevin says it’s hard to believe,
but it’s perfectly OK to wash furniture with soap and water.
Kevin recommends liquid Ivory dish soap mixed with water.
Mix in the same proportion you would to wash dishes. Dip a
sponge into the solution, wring it out, and use it to gently scrub
the surface. A paintbrush works great for cleaning carvings and
moldings. When you’re done scrubbing with the soapy water,
rinse the surface with a wrung-out sponge and clear water. Then
dry it with a clean towel.
Fix white rings
White rings can
be easy to get rid
of, or they can be
a real nightmare.
First, slather the
ring with petroleum
jelly and let
it sit overnight.
The oil from the
will often penetrate
the finish and remove the ring or at least
make it less visible.
If that doesn’t work, you can try a product such
as Homax White Ring Remover (about $6 through our affiliation with amazon.com) or
Liberon Ring Remover (about $22 at Rockler,
Woodcraft or through our affiliation with amazon.com). They often work but may
change the sheen. If these fixes don’t work, consult
a pro to see what your other options are.
Scrape paint without damaging the finish
Paint spatters are common on old furniture, and most of the time you
can remove them easily without damaging the finish. Here’s a trick we
learned from Kevin to turn an ordinary straightedge razor into a delicate
paint scraper. First, wrap a layer of masking tape around each end
of the blade, and then bend the blade slightly so it’s curved.
The masking tape holds the blade slightly off the surface so you can
knock off paint spatters without the blade even touching the wood.
Hold the blade perpendicular to the surface. The tape also keeps you
from accidentally gouging the wood with the sharp corner of the
blade. The curved blade allows you to adjust the depth of the scraper.
If you tilt the blade a little, the curved center section will come closer
to the surface to allow for removing really thin layers of paint.
Replace missing wood: Apply epoxy
If you discover missing veneer, chipped wood or a damaged
molding, you can fix it easily with epoxy putty. Kevin showed
us the process he uses, and the resulting repair is so realistic
that it’s hard to spot. When it’s hardened, the epoxy is light
colored and about the density of wood. You can shape, sand
and stain it like wood too, so it blends right in. Quickwood and KwikWood are two
brands of this Tootsie Roll–shaped epoxy (Photo 1A). You’ll find it at home centers and specialty
woodworking stores for about $9 a tube.
To use this type of epoxy, you slice off a piece with a razor blade or utility knife and
knead it in your gloved hand. When the two parts are completely blended to a consistent
color and the epoxy putty starts to get sticky, it’s ready to use. You’ll have about
five or 10 minutes to apply the epoxy to the repair before it starts to harden. That’s why
you should only slice off as much as you can use quickly.
Photo 1 shows how to replace missing veneer. Here are a few things you can do before
the putty starts to harden to reduce the amount of sanding and shaping later. First,
smooth and shape the epoxy with your finger (Photo 2). Wet it with water first to prevent
the epoxy from sticking. Then use the edge of a straightedge razor to scrape the surface
almost level with the surrounding veneer. If you’re repairing wood with an open grain, like oak, add grain details by making little slices with a razor while the epoxy is soft (Photo 3).
Replace missing wood: Finish the epoxy
After the epoxy hardens completely, which usually takes a few hours, you can sand
and stain the repair. Kevin sticks self-adhesive sandpaper to tongue depressors or craft
sticks to make precision sanding blocks (Photo 4) . You can also use spray adhesive or
even plain wood glue to attach the sandpaper.
Blend the repair into the surrounding veneer by painting on gel stain to match the
color and pattern of the existing grain. You could use stain touch-up markers, but Kevin
prefers gel stain because it’s thick enough to act like paint, and can be wiped off with a
rag dampened in mineral spirits if you goof up or want to start over.
Choose two colors of stain that match the light and dark areas of the wood. Put a
dab of both on a scrap of wood and create a range of colors by blending a bit of the two.
Now you can use an artist’s brush to create the grain (Photo 5). If the sheen of the patch
doesn’t match the rest of the wood when the stain dries, you can recoat the entire surface with wipe-on finish to even it out.
Video: How to Patch Veneer with Quickwood
Fixing a chipped piece of veneer isn't as hard as you think. Kevin Southwick, an expert at The Family Handyman, will show you how to use Quickwood for veneer repair.
Restore the color with gel stain
It’s amazing what a coat of gel stain can do to
restore a tired-looking piece of furniture. The cool
part is that you don’t need to strip the old finish for
this to work. Kevin demonstrated the tip on this
round oak table. The finish was worn and faded. He
loaded a soft cloth with dark gel stain and worked
it into the surface. Then he wiped if off with a clean
cloth. It was a surprising transformation. Of course,
gel stain won’t eliminate dark water stains or cover
bad defects, but it will hide fine scratches and color
in areas where the finish has worn away.
There are other products, but Kevin prefers gel
stain because he finds it easier to control the color
and leave a thicker coat if necessary. Also, since it
doesn’t soak in quite as readily as thinner stains,
gel stain is somewhat reversible. Before it dries, you
can remove it with mineral spirits if you don’t like
the results. Gel stains offer some protection, but
for a more durable finish or to even out the sheen,
let the stain dry overnight and then apply a coat of
wipe-on finish as shown below.
Fill small cracks
If you find nail holes or
tiny cracks after applying
the final finish, fill them
with colored wax fill
sticks, wax repair sticks or
fill pencils, found at home
centers and paint stores.
The directions tell you to
rub the stick over the
defect. But Kevin recommends
breaking off a
chunk and warming it up in
your hands. Then shape it
to fit the flaw and press it
in with a smooth tool. He
uses a 3/8-in. dowel with
an angle on the end. For
cracks, make a thin wafer,
slide it into the crack and
then work the wax in both
directions to fill the crack. Buff with a soft cloth.
Get rid of dents
You can often get rid of small dents by wetting
them. The moisture swells the crushed wood
fibers back to their original shape. (You can’t fix
cuts or gouges this way, though.)
Moisture must penetrate the wood for this to
work. Finishes prevent water from penetrating,
so Kevin suggests making a bunch of tiny slits
with a razor blade to allow the water to penetrate.
Use the corner of the blade, and keep the
blade parallel to the grain direction. Next, fill
the dent with water and wait until it dries. If the
dent is less deep but still visible, you can repeat
the process. As with most of the repairs we talk
about here, the repaired surface may need a coat of wipe-on finish to look its best.
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Renew the luster with wipe-on finish
The final step in your restoration project is to wipe on a
coat of finish. After you clean your furniture piece and do
any necessary repairs and stain touch-up, wiping on a
coat of finish will restore the sheen and protect the surface.
Any wipe-on finish will work—Minwax Wipe-on
Poly is a common brand (about $12 a pint). But Kevin
prefers a wipe-on gel finish like General Finishes Gel
Topcoat Wipe On Urethane (about $20 a quart). It’s thick,
so it’s easy to put on with a rag. One coat is usually all
you need to rejuvenate an existing finish. To find a retail
store near you that sells General Finishes Gel Topcoat,
use the store locator at generalfinishes.com.
To apply wipe-on finish, first put some on a clean rag.
Apply it in a swirling motion like you would with car wax.
Then wipe off excess finish, going in the direction of the
grain. Let the finish dry overnight and you’ll be ready to
proudly display your furniture restoration project.