How to Refinish Furniture: The Sanding and Prep

>> 3.24.2010

If you've been reading along, you already know about my struggles with trying to refinish my Craigslist Pottery Barn table. I started off with a positive attitude and a bit of confidence. I had Google and Blog tutorials on my side; what could go wrong?! Everything went wrong. After not one, but TWO failed attempts at getting the beautiful, rich stain that I wanted, I finally came up with a solution to my problem:

Meet Mike, he's a professional carpenter friend of mine who graciously invited me into his shop to learn a few things about how to whip my table into shape. What kind of blogger would I be if I didn't share everything with you...?
As you can see, things were not looking good!

The gunky buildup ruined this piece of sandpaper.

*Decide if your piece is ready for sandpaper. In my first attempt, I (probably wasted) a day's worth of work trying to strip off the existing finish on the table mistake #1. In reality, the existing finish would have sanded down relatively easily. In my next attempt, however, the gunky buildup from the first staining attempt made sanding almost impossible. I (or the Renozilla) probably wasted $5 of sandpaper by trying to sand the thing down mistake #2. On the third attempt, Mike quickly realized that the gunk was becoming a problem so used a wood scraper tool on the portions with heavy buildup and paint thinner to prep the others.

Thinning the existing stain really helped out in the sanding process.

*Take baby steps with the sandpaper. In my first two attempts, I jumped straight from 80 to 220 grit sandpaper mistakes #3 & 4. This resulted (both times) in swirly orbital sander marks all over the table's surface. To prevent this from happening, Mike suggests starting low and then making gradual steps that will slowly smooth out any visible marks. We used 80, 120, and 150 before finally using 220.
Note: Mike said that this was very important in my case because of the type of wood that I was working with (pine), but jumping grits might work if you're blessed with a harder wood. 

(yes, we used two different sanders Mike had on hand)

*Sand within the circle. If you're using a orbital sander and gradually stepping up your grit, it doesn't matter if you sand with the grain. The important thing is to sand each square inch of your surface uniformly so that you avoid creating any dings or dips in the wood mistake #5. To do this, Mike sands in a circular fashion: he circles the outside of the surface twice and then "fills" in the center area. He said that it is common for people to under sand the outer edges

*Don't finish sanding until the piece is consistently smooth. To check if your surface is ready for the next step, shine a light across the horizontal plane and look for uneven portions mistake #6.

*Know your wood. In my case, I wanted to go super dark with a light pine table. It was no surprise to Mike that I ended up with a zebra stripe look when I first attempted to stain it mistake #7. As an expert, he knew that that type of wood sucks up stain color at an uneven rate and by lightening my stain choice and going with a good wood conditioner, I was able to come up with a better product. Here's a quick article that might help you work best with your wood.
This is what my knotty pine looks like sanded and unsanded.

*Invest in some lent-free rags (honestly, not a big expense). This is a mistake that I didn't actually make! When you're wiping down your table, you don't want to ruin the finish with little clumps of dust or debris.

*Condition it correctly. Using a good conditioner can work wonders for producing an evenly toned product (trust me!). The first time I attempted staining I didn't even use conditioner and the second time I went with one that was for water based stains mistakes #8 & 9.... both mistakes led to major spottage on my finish. Mike recommends following the directions on the can and then using a lent free rag to scrub off the remaining residue before staining. This isn't something you can usually do the day before staining (my product recommended to stain within two hours) so only condition the piece that you plan on staining mistake #10.
Oops... I should have gone with oil-based!

Third time IS the charm in my case. I'll reveal my final staining steps and the finished product soon!

Did you make any of the mistakes that I made? Have any other tips that I forgot to mention?

PS Here's how to finish up.


The Brick Cottage March 24, 2010 at 10:38 AM  

Thanks for the detailed tips! I'm bookmarking this for the future. I can't wait to see your finished table!!!

Kristi W @ Life at the Chateau Whitman March 24, 2010 at 11:04 AM  

Very good tips.
Hey, I mentioned your blog today. I gave you the Sunshine Award (which I was so kind to receive myself). You should go check it out. :)

Heather @ McKinney Living March 24, 2010 at 11:30 AM  

Whew - what a project!! Sorry it's been a nightmare, but thank you for all the helpful tips!! Can't wait to use this in the future - I've always been too scared to stain!

Mrs. Chic March 24, 2010 at 11:48 AM  

great tips from a professional! I'm sure the table looks amazing now! Our table we re-did was oak, I think it was easyier for us to sand down etc..

Sara @ Russet Street Reno March 24, 2010 at 1:53 PM  

Great tips. Tomorrow I'm posting about staining our floors, and using water to 'pop' the grain to absorb more stain. It's similar to using a conditioner, but free!

Meg March 24, 2010 at 3:55 PM  

This is way helpful! I'm totally bookmarking this and using it in the future. Thanks for another great post!

Jenny @ Anything Pretty March 24, 2010 at 7:32 PM  

What amazing tips...I have never taken on a staining project because it scares me. But I starred this post to come back to so that when we do take it on, that we do it correctly. Thanks for sharing!

MrStackable folding bookcase March 25, 2010 at 1:03 AM  

Great tips. it 's useful for me .
It was easy for us.
thanks you for good post .

:) good job

Kate March 25, 2010 at 7:10 AM  

I'm so glad you figured out how to work with your piece - I can't wait to see the final result!

Babs March 25, 2010 at 10:21 AM  

Great tips! Thanks so much for sharing :) Lookin' forward to your grand finale!

Wood works August 18, 2010 at 12:38 PM  

Very detailed tips, great work. 'be back for the finished product :)

gail September 22, 2010 at 5:53 PM  

Thanks for the help. I found a great old chest in need of some work. Your step by step prep helped sooo much. I purchased milk paint at (cheaper price than other sites) and tried my hand at an old fashioned worn look. I distressed it a bit by lightly sanding it. The results were great!

Ryan Cunningham December 3, 2010 at 3:48 PM  

I love seeing what people have done with their refinishing projects. I absolutely love furniture and what you can do to bring it back to life. Very cool to see your first article and how excited you were to get the table and read on to the frustrations that came next. Once you have done a couple, it becomes an addiction. I get all of my furniture at the local thrift store, its really fun to find a high end piece at the thrift store, refinish it and tell everyone you paid $20 for an awesome piece of furniture. I have a couple of pieces you might like, they all come from thrifty beginnings!
Refinished Distressed Nightstand

Refinished Desk and Nightstand

Good Work!

Kerrie Lightfoot February 21, 2011 at 6:07 PM  

Thank you for all the info. It was MUCH needed!

karma June 5, 2011 at 4:19 PM  

I only wish we had budget to do a similar thing with our Reproduction furniture

Mannix Photography ( June 25, 2011 at 9:53 AM  

Hello! I just got a great Pottery Barn table off of freecycle and was planning to stain it darker. So glad I Googled and found this post! It'll prevent me from making all the same mistakes. Thanks for sharing!

Matt S. July 14, 2011 at 1:54 PM  

This looks great! It was an interesting and informative read. We share an interest in refinishing old furniture! I'm glad to see others with a similar passion.

Sue July 26, 2011 at 12:43 PM  

Help!!!! I sanded a table that looks very similar to the one you were working on. Only I got very ambitious with the sander on one stop and took it down to far. Now I have a big white spot and don't know how to fix it before I apply the stain????

Kasey at Thrifty Little Blog July 29, 2011 at 12:33 PM  

@Sue~ If it's solid wood, it should stain along with the rest of the table, but it will probably be a lighter color or have a noticeable dent. If I were you, I'd go find a stain-able wood patching kit. Make sure that you test the putty a bit before staining because it can still stain as a slightly different color.

Antique restoration manchester August 21, 2011 at 1:46 PM  

Great way to document a project. Good luck in your future endeavors, I have tried to document similar work but usually end up frustrated and miss big segments out. Great read and good work.

Conference Tables August 30, 2011 at 8:57 AM  

I've had a couple of old conference tables in my office that I think would make a really cool dining room table and I never knew where to start until now. Thank you so much for the tips and advice. It's always nice to know where to begin a project.

Toronto Home Renovations September 20, 2011 at 5:36 AM  

These is the great idea about the refreshing furniture. I think, You are doing very hard work. I see in this picture. I think,Refinishing is much easier than you would ever think. Quality wood furniture is expensive, so if you have a good, solid piece of furniture it will save you money in the long run if you can find a way to make your piece work in a new way. The side table above was natural maple color and it would not have worked in the bedroom next to our mahogany bed. A fresh coat of white paint and it looks perfect in this space.
Toronto Home Renovations

Anonymous,  October 3, 2011 at 11:45 AM  

dear mike,I am a professional furniture restorer. Here is a list of tips:remove finish-metholene chloride based stripper, semi paste apply 1\2 gallon to top and cover with polyethelene plastic(construction rolled plastic sheet) let sit 2-5hrs. scrape top with putty knife put residue on card board sheet for disposal after stuff has dried. Apply a second coat of stripper 1\8gal. work off remaining finish with plastic bristle brush,scrape brush on edge of plastic pail to be added to card board later. Fill a five gal. bucket with hot water dip brush in water and work water into remaining stripper on top of table. Use lots of water until brush and top of table are clean.OR USE POWER WASHER FOR LAST STEP.Towel dry, put in sun to dry, and/or in front of fan. SANDING-use 220 grit silicon carbide wet or dry sandpaper (black) Use orbital sander NOT A D/A. sand until wood has consistent color and grain is clear.Remove paper from machine sand by hand with grain to remove any orbital marks.(NOTE last step not needed on hard woods).COLOR-simple method;apply stain of choice,and let dry as directed on product label (24hrs?).SEAL COAT this is the first step in finishing process . The product used at this point must be compatible with the product used on top of it and so on through out the finishing process. WHAT I prefer for furniture finish. Shellac top coated with nitrocellulose lacquer OR alkyd varnish. hinmanrestorations.

Aaron Wigington October 11, 2011 at 8:47 PM  

I have been in construction as a painter for over 12 years and with things being tight, I have turned to refinishing furniture to make a few extra bills and its been fun

howardproducts October 17, 2011 at 11:56 PM  

I think, Refinishing is much easier than you would ever think. Quality wood furniture is expensive, so if you have a good, solid piece of furniture it will save you money in the long run if you can find a way to make your piece work in a new way. Thanks..!!
Furniture Restorer

Steve January 2, 2012 at 9:48 AM  

That looks great, knowing the painstaking work and tedious steps has helped me to know how the professionals do it. I had a chair refinished and it came out great, you all are lifesavers.

Derek January 3, 2012 at 8:23 PM  

Good article. I find it is easier to hand strip the item, using a chemical stripper and steel wool. Most people leave swirl marks in furniture, when they try to strip-sand. You can buy a stripping agent from Home Depot or Lowes.

Derek Puleo
Atlanta Refinishing

Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust February 7, 2012 at 9:24 PM  

Great tutorial. I loved the "mistake # . . ." parts. I'm going to attempt to re-stain my bathroom cabinet. Wish me luck & I'm off to read more of your advice. Thank you!

Warmly, Michelle
PS - Are you sure you don't mean "lint-free" rag? :D

herry085 February 24, 2012 at 12:35 AM  

Nice information kasey. There are nice furniture finishing blog after all paint and some changes.

Teak patio furniture

furniture castors February 24, 2012 at 8:46 AM  

Antiques are treasures for the house. It gives a home a sense of rustic charm, elegance, and rich history. So before buying antiques for your abode, chose whether you want to stick to a particular era such as Late Victorian or Mid Gregorian.

Thigee April 6, 2012 at 3:48 AM  

Thanks for the information in your blog. About to start restoring an old hardwood side table.

Chesterfield leather sofa bed June 19, 2012 at 1:42 AM  

hmm..refinishing furniture is environment friendly. its really a good thing. thanks for the tips..its really a great post..

Jasmine June 27, 2012 at 12:52 PM  

I love reading about restorations. A fun and cheaper way to fix up your home! I like using this website as well to read the DIY blog.

Austin Furniture Repair July 11, 2012 at 6:05 AM  

This is absolutely true. All these tiny details are made with lots of background information and inspiration, both of which we all need, thanks for writing this blog.

Olek Lejbzon July 27, 2012 at 2:24 PM  

Matching the finish of old to the original is hard after stripping, as the old finish must be brushed out of the pores of the wood, to allow the pores to be stained darker.

Chesterfield suite August 6, 2012 at 8:28 AM  

thanks for the great tips..! hey.. what is the use of paint thinner..?

Kasey at Thrifty Little Blog August 8, 2012 at 5:21 PM  

@Chesterfield suite~ I had stained the table incorrectly and it was very sticky/ gunky. The paint thinner really helped to get that situation under control.

lowennaspinefurniture August 23, 2012 at 11:40 PM  

Really an amazing post and contains detailed and useful tips.This post has helped me a lot.


garage equipment September 8, 2012 at 12:57 PM  

This kind of tutorial is very helpful specially to those who are beginner. Sometimes we want to do something but we don't how to start because we have no idea specially the right tools that will be needed.

Post a Comment

I love reading your thoughts and ideas! Keep them coming!!

  © Blogger template Simple n' Sweet by 2009

Back to TOP