Wood Finishing Tips: How to Renew a Finish

Updated: Aug. 29, 2023

Easy furniture face-lift

bathroom-moldFamily Handyman
Traditional paste wax is still the best way to renew and enhance natural wood finishes, and it will hold up better than liquid furniture polish. All you need for application is an old t-shirt and plenty of elbow grease.

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Clean, apply and then polish

Photo 1: Clean

Clean the wood using a soft cloth dampened with mineral spirits. Open windows for ventilation. Touch up scratches with a fine-tip marker before you wax. Visit an art supply store to find a wide array of browns.

Photo 2: Apply wax

Wrap a ball of wax in a cloth and apply a thin, even coat of wax. Rub on the wax in a circular pattern.

Photo 3: Polish

Wipe off the excess wax with a soft cloth. Turn and refold the cloth frequently to expose clean cloth.

Photo 4: Wax choices

Different colors of wax are available. Use dark wax for dark, grainy woods or to subtly darken a lighter wood.

If you have wood furniture that’s looking dull, revive the shine with a paste wax finish. Wax is a more durable coating than liquid furniture polish and it won’t attract dust as many polishes do. Wax will fill and hide very fine scratches, but it won’t hide dents or deeper scratches.

Wax is available in several colors. Most home centers and hardware stores carry only light-colored wax, which is fine for most finishes. But don’t use light wax on dark finishes that have recesses in the grain. Yellowish wax that fills the tiny crevices in the surface will look bad. (This won’t happen on glossy, solid dark finishes.) For wax in a variety of colors, check woodworking and paint stores and online suppliers (Photo 4). You can also use dark wax to deepen the color of a finish.

Clean the wood with mineral spirits to remove grime as well as residue left by furniture polishes (Photo 1).When the mineral spirits dries, buff off any residue with a dry cloth. Then cut a rag from an old cotton T-shirt and wrap it around a walnut-sized ball of wax. As you rub with the ball, wax will ooze through the rag (Photo 2). Apply only enough wax to form a thin gloss—a heavy coat just leaves you with more wax to buff off later. If you haven’t used wax before and you’re working on a large piece of furniture, wax and then buff small areas no more than 3 x 3 ft.

Don’t wait for the wax to dry completely and form a haze the way you would with car wax. Fully dried furniture wax is very hard to buff smooth. Wait only until the wax partially dries and begins to look dull (typically 15 to 30 minutes). Then rub the surface with a cotton cloth to remove the excess wax. The rag should glide smoothly over the wax with only a little elbow grease. If you’ve waited too long and can’t rub out the swirls of wax, simply apply more wax, then wait and wipe again (solvent in the second coat of wax will soften the first coat).

A wax finish doesn’t require any special care; simply dust with a dry or damp cloth. A wax coating will last months or even years depending on how heavily the furniture is used. When the finish again looks worn, scuffed or dirty, just clean and rewax. Don’t worry about wax buildup. Each new wax job dissolves and removes much of the previous coat.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Marker
  • Rags
You’ll also need rubber gloves and a cotton t-shirt

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • Mineral spirits
  • Paste wax