Buying unfinished furniture
The down-and-dirty truth about buying unfinished furniture
and finishing it yourself is that it won't save you much money. In fact, you may be
able to find finished pieces at about the same price as an equivalent-quality raw
piece. So why bother? The big advantage of doing it yourself is you can custom-finish
a piece of furniture to match existing furniture and color schemes. You can
also choose exotic colors or combine several colors on a single piece.
This article will tell you how to select unfinished furniture and give you tips on
staining and applying clear finishes. We also show how to disassemble furniture and apply contrasting stains to create an artful and appealing piece.
Choosing wood types
Most of the unfinished-furniture
stores will carry many styles in maple,
pine, oak and alder. Every piece we
looked at was labeled with the name
of the wood it was made of. If you're
trying to match a piece of your furniture
and are unsure of its wood type,
take a drawer front or door to the
store with you and ask.
Different woods take stains differently,
an important factor to consider
when selecting your furniture.
Stained furniture is often displayed in
showrooms. If they don't have stained
furniture on the floor, they'll probably
have a variety of stain samples on different
types of wood to help you envision
a finished product.
How to find good unfinished furniture
When we went out shopping for the
dresser featured in this story, we
were surprised at the range of quality.
If you have more than one unfinished-
furniture store in town, it pays
to shop around, snooping for the
small details that give away poor
craftsmanship. We noticed chipped
veneer around the edges of the top of
almost every piece at one store. It
indicated a poor job of applying
edge-banding (the thin veneer hiding
the plywood core on the edges of
tops) and sawing.
Don't bother looking for large
pieces of true solid wood on hardwood
pieces. Practically every piece
of furniture made today uses
veneered particleboard on larger surfaces
such as cabinet sides and tops.
However, you should expect to see solid wood on the legs and exposed
framework. If the company is chintzing
out by using particleboard for
these elements, look elsewhere.
Once you decide on a piece, ask
the salesperson to see the one you'll
actually be taking home. Its quality
may not match the one displayed, and
you should inspect it in good light for
flaws and workmanship.
Examine doors and drawer fronts
for how well they line up with their
neighbors. If you see uneven gaps and
crooked lines, you can be sure there's
plenty of poor craftsmanship you
Can you take it apart?
To get clean, crisp finishes with different
stains on different components,
you have to be able to take the furniture
apart. It's nearly impossible to
stain adjacent boards different colors
because it's impossible to keep the
stains from bleeding. Here are the components that generally are
- Drawer fronts are screwed from the
inside of the drawer. Sometimes manufacturers
use small nails to hold the
drawer front on straight while the
screws are installed. After unscrewing
the drawer front, pry off the drawer to free the nails, then pull them out with
- Tops of nearly every piece of furniture
are attached from the underside
with screws. Pull out and remove top
drawers and look under tabletops to
see if it has these screws.
- Legs may be bolted or screwed to
skirts (the vertical trim board under
tabletops). You can spot these screws
by looking under the tabletop.
- Skirts are usually screwed onto
tabletops from underneath.
Immediately place used oil-soaked
rags in a flame-proof, water-filled
container to prevent spontaneous
Sanding techniques that guarantee a fine finish
While you may be tempted to dig out
the random or orbital sander, resist
the impulse! An electric sander
greatly increases the chances of sanding
through veneers and you'll give up
the meticulous, tactile advantages of
Lightly sand all parts (with the
grain) with 220- or 240-grit sandpaper
using a cork, rubber or custom
block made to fit your hand (see
Photo 2). Use a raking light (a light
held at a low angle to the surface) and
your fingers to find rough areas.
You'll be sanding not only now but
between each clear coat too.
All sanding should be performed
in an area away from the finishing
area. If that's not possible, wait a few
hours between sanding and applying
coats of finish to give the airborne
dust particles a chance to settle.
Don't oversand! There is little to be
gained by sanding until you have a
baby's butt smoothness on the wood.
Also, veneer surfaces are very thin, so
it's easy to sand through the surface
and expose the plywood or particleboard
surface underneath. Most finishes
will level out as well on a surface
sanded with 220-grit paper as one
done with finer grits.
Mix, test and experiment with stains first
To avoid getting stuck with a color or
effect you don't want on your furniture,
test, test, test. Use a scrap of
wood that's the same species as your
furniture. Sand it with the same grit
sandpaper and use the same application
methods you intend to use on the
furniture. Veneered areas may take
stain differently than solid ones, so it's
important to try your techniques on
each. If you're careful, you can experiment
on hidden parts of the furniture
like the backside of drawers, but
remember that the perimeters and
edges may be exposed after reassembly.
The safest course is to pick up a
2- or 3-ft. piece of wood of the same
species at a lumberyard.
Choose the right clear coat for the job
The top of a dresser calls for a
durable, water- and scratch-resistant
clear coat to protect it from condensation
from water glasses and scratches
from those Old Spice bottles. With its
tough, easy-to-apply properties,
polyurethane is the perfect answer.
Once you decide on polyurethane, the
next step is choosing between water- and
Water-based (the stuff we used;
Photo 7) is environmentally friendly,
dries fast and is almost odor-free. It
also won't yellow over time as oil-based
poly has a tendency to do,
although the yellowing is sometimes
desired to give the furniture a more
aged look. The downside is that it isn't
as tough as oil-based poly, and can
leave a milky hue to the finish, which
is most visible on darker stains. Oil-based
poly, on the other hand, takes
longer to dry, so airborne particles
have a longer time to settle on and
mar the finish. But you do have more
time to apply it to large areas and
work out brush strokes and runs.
To enhance the grain, we oiled the
surface before finishing the non-stained
areas. Our oil was a store-bought
mix of tung and linseed oil. If
you choose to oil, read the can to find
out how long to let the oil cure before
subsequent finishing steps.
We chose canned spray lacquer for
the sides, drawer fronts and framework
because it's an easy-to-apply,
good-looking finish. It's not particularly
durable or scratch-resistant and
doesn't stand up to water very well,
but these parts of the dresser aren't
usually subjected to those insults.
Three light coats of lacquer should be
enough for a nice finish. Sand
between coats with 280-grit sand
paper. If you'd like a smoother finish,
rub out the final coat with very fine
When applying lacquer, wear a respirator
with organic vapor cartridges and
a paint spray prefilter.
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Use the right brush in a clean work area
Use a clean, medium- to high-quality
brush for brushed finishes. Select a
synthetic-bristled brush for
applying water-based finishes and a
natural-bristled brush for
The key to a good finish is cleanliness.
That means the brushes, the furniture,
the work area and you have to
be clean. Dust from the air, your dusty
clothes, or the floors and ceiling can
ruin the finish or cause a lot of unnecessary
additional sanding. Clean the
furniture after any sanding with a
soft-bristled vacuum cleaner nozzle
and a tack cloth (a soft, sticky cloth
you can buy at paint stores).
Water-based polyurethane sets up
very quickly, giving little time to work
the surface. Two or three brush
strokes per area is all you should allow
yourself for a smooth surface, and
make the final strokes go with the
grain. Just make sure there aren't any
runs or sags, especially on edges (Photo 7). Allow the finish to dry
overnight and sand with 240-grit
paper. Apply a second coat, allow it to
dry overnight and lightly sand again.
If desired, apply and sand further
coats to achieve an even smoother
Oil, gel and water-soluble stains
Pigment stains, aniline dyes and gel
stains are the three classes of stain
you can buy for your project. All
stains contain colorants (colored particles)
suspended in a solvent of
either water, alcohol or oil. Read the
label so you'll know which solvent
you need to buy for thinning colors
and cleaning up. To achieve custom
colors, you can mix colors—as long
as you stick with the same type and,
preferably, brand of stain.
A store that caters to woodworkers is the best
source of stains and application
information. They'll also have a
larger selection of colors on the shelf
than a hardware or paint store. You
also can ask their advice on which
class of stain is best for the wood
piece you select.