Refinishing Furniture

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Original Chair

Article and Photos by Waitsel Smith

This is part of a new series called “Projects That Build Character.” It seems that everyone is looking for the easy way to do everything, especially when it comes to “how to” projects. Well, the easy way is rarely the best way, it won’t give you the feeling of satisfaction for a job well done like the hard way will, and it certainly won’t help to build your character. I like doing things that are hard because I know, in the process, I will learn something – not only about what I’m doing, but about myself. And if I can end up with a beautiful piece of work to boot, then that is something worth doing. These are harder-than-normal projects, but they are projects from which you can gain an immense feeling of satisfaction and self-worth; and, if you’re interested, from which you, and whoever works with you on them, can grow in character.

This first project is refinishing furniture. For those who don’t know, my first year out of college, I worked as a color stylist for a chemical company designing the finishes that go on furniture. A little later, I worked as a furniture designer for Lane Furniture Company, designing the actual furniture. So I have some experience finishing furniture. But I had only used non-commercial equipment for finishing furniture once before this project; meaning, the process I am about to describe was almost as new to me as it may be to you.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Worn Off Finish

First, it’s important to understand why we should want to refinish our furniture at all. Why not just go out and buy some new? Well, good luck finding fine quality furniture anymore that is made from American woods that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Since the furniture industry (like most industries in this country) was shipped overseas, most of the furniture being produced today is of inferior, asian woods, which have little character, and are of inferior construction. But most of the furniture you bought thirty or forty years ago, or was handed down to you from your parents, was of far, far superior materials and workmanship, almost regardless of what was paid for it, because that is just how furniture was made in the old days.

So it behooves you to take care of whatever you have. And if it is looking a bit shabby, you will be doing yourself a favor by refinishing it for a few dollars rather than going out and buying a more expensive, poorer quality substitute. For the general public, the days of quality furniture-making are over, and what you have now is probably all you’re going to own of fine furniture for the rest of your life. Scary thought, isn’t it? So please, please take care of what you have.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Cracking Finish

Okay, now that I’ve put the fear of the Lord in you and given you new respect for the old furniture sitting around your house, let’s pick some furniture to refinish. I’m going to work on six kitchen chairs that belong to my mom. They’re captain’s chairs, which is a colonial style, and I think they’re made of pecan, although I would like to believe they’re maple. Pecan is a wood I don’t particularly like, and since captain’s chairs are traditionally made of maple, I have in my mind that these chairs should have a colonial maple finish on them. But when I look around my mom’s kitchen, everything is pecan, including the table these chairs go with. Since these are the days of mix-and-match furniture, why not do a combination of stains: one coat of colonial maple and one coat of pecan? A happy medium – but will it work?

Notice in the two photos above some of the problems with the old finish: there is a wearing away of finish on the arms, cracking and wearing away of finish on the back edge, stickiness on the arms and back edge, etc. These are all good reasons to refinish these chairs. My mom asked, “Can’t you just refinish the arms and back?” You cannot refinish parts of a piece of furniture – you have to refinish the whole thing. Refinishing is not like painting, where you just paint the parts that need it. With refinishing, you have to take everything back down to the bare wood. But that is part of the fun: seeing what is underneath that finish.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Gloves Needed

Another part of the fun is working outside. You’re welcome to do this indoors, if you have a very good ventilation system; but you’ll be missing a big part of the enjoyment. I did this project in the middle of summer, in 75 to 90 degree weather, under a shade tree, and loved it. The one step of the process that does need to be done indoors is the two coats of polyurethane at the end. You need to be in a totally dust-free environment for that – which makes most basements the perfect place.

Notice the three pairs of gloves above: they represent three of the four steps in this process. The first step is stripping. For that, you will need some gloves that resist chemical solvents. Your hardware store will have these, and they will be labelled as such. That’s the orange pair above. The second step is sanding. For that, I recommend a good pair of work gloves. My favorite is deerskin, like those on the left. The third step is staining. For that I like the little disposable gloves in the middle. The fourth and final step is applying the polyurethane, for which I don’t use gloves. If you would like some, use the little disposable ones again.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Brushes Needed, Goggles, etc.

Here is your equipment: goggles, because you do not want to get any of the stripper anywhere near your eyes. For that matter, you do not want to get it anywhere on your body. So wear a long sleeve shirt and pants – yes, even if it is 90 degrees. Which, by the way, is the hottest it should be to do this project. I think 60 is the coolest. It says on the stripper, stain and polyurethane cans what the ideal temperature is. What I do is perform my stripping and staining steps in the morning, when it was cool, but after the dew has evaporated. Then I sand in the afternoon when it’s hot. In the evening, several hours before the sun goes down, I apply my polyurethane in the doorway of our basement, which faces west. That helps to give me plenty of light, which you need when you work with polyurethane.

The mask is for sanding: you will be creating a lot of wood and finish dust, and you don’t want to breathe that. If you don’t normally wear eyeglasses, wear some kind of eye gear during all steps of this project. You’ll get sick of the goggles; so during the steps when you’re not stripping, have a light pair of eye protectors to put on. The scraper will help you remove old finish after you’ve applied the stripper – so will rough sand paper. Use natural bristle brushes for applying all materials because they will destroy acrylic brushes. Clean everything up after each application with turpentine or mineral spirits.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Sandpaper Needed

By the way: when you clean your brushes, do so in a way that does not get material or solvent on your grass – they will kill it. When you’re stripping, put plastic down on the grass to protect it. When sanding, you can just sit on the grass – it won’t hurt it. When staining, use a different piece of plastic from the one you used to strip. As a matter of fact, you won’t be able to reuse your stripping plastic as it will be covered in gook. Dispose of your rags – old towels work well – and plastic in a metal container to prevent a fire hazard. Stripping material is highly flammable. The label on the can may even say not to store it in a basement. I would just get rid of it totally when done.

You’ll need three grades of sandpaper: 80, which is really rough, for removing the stripper and for sanding down to the wood. 150 is a good medium grade, for in-between work. And 220 is a fine grade for your finish sanding. What I do is apply stripper, scrape and then sand with rough sand paper until all the stripper is off. Then I continue sanding with rough sand paper until I’m down to bare wood, which, by the way, takes a long time. This is when you’ll need a lot of patience and, if you’re outside, you’ll need your natural surroundings to help distract you. If you’re inside, try music as a substitute for nature.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Seat of Fully Sanded Chair

After I’ve sanded with the 80 grade paper, I wet my piece of furniture all over to raise the wood grain; then I sand it back down with the 150 grade paper. If you don’t do this, the stain will raise the grain and you’ll end up with a rough-feeling piece of furniture. You finish up with the 220 grade paper just to get the surface as smooth as you can.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Fully Sanded Chair Seat

Let me say at this point that, if you’re a perfectionist, this is the point in the project to exercise your obsession. Because after this, you will be going for overall effect, not detail. If you try to be too detailed with the stain, and especially with the polyurethane, you’ll end up messing up the piece of furniture and have to restrip it, which you do not want to have to do. So, make that sanding job just as perfect as you like; but realize that, after this, you are going to take on a different attitude – one that will feel almost cavalier. But it will be anything but. It will be highly controlled. Speed is the key in staining and in applying polyurethane. You will be tempted to panic – don’t. Just keep moving and don’t look back – sort of.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Fully Stained Chair

I know – that was a strange way to explain what you are getting ready to do. Let me put it this way: the stain dries relatively fast; the polyurethane dries really fast. You cannot work back into it once it has started drying. With the stain, you have about 15 minutes to work the same area, depending upon the temperature; with polyurethane, you have about 5 minutes. Do not be tempted to go back to an area that you have finished and try to “fix” it – you will end up ruining it. Let it go. There are several pieces of good news in all this: first, you will be putting the stain on with cotton rags, which will make it far, far easier than with a brush. Do not be tempted to use a brush – you will regret it because it will look thick and unprofessional. Trust me: rags make it so much easier. You just rub the stain on with one rag, and then rub it off with a second. That’s what the white rag on the chair a couple photos back is for. It’s an old t-shirt. Old underwear also works well.

Here’s a second piece of good news: you will be doing two coats of stain and two coats of polyurethane, so if you miss a spot on the first coat, there’s a good chance you’ll catch it on the second.

Here’s a third piece of good news: as you work with the piece of furniture, you will get to know it. That will help you when you get to the third and fourth steps. You will remember little nooks and crannies you might otherwise have overlooked.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Seat of Fully Stained Chair

Here’s another really, really good piece of advice: figure out a plan for your particular piece of furniture. For example, with my chairs, they naturally break down into four areas: 1) arms and back, 2) spindles, 3) seat and 4) legs and stretchers. So, as I’m staining and as I’m applying polyurethane, I will finish with one area before going to the next, and I will work logically across an area, rather than jumping around. For example, on the arms and back, I might start with the right arm, work my way around the back, then do the left arm and finally do the front. That is logical. It might also seem logical to do the right arm, then the left, then the front and then the back. You decide for yourself. You’ll have some forgiveness with the stain; but you will have none with the polyurethane. So have your plan well in place before you get to the polyurethane step.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Light Setup for Applying Polyurethane

Okay, here’s the question everyone is wondering: what brand should you use for the striper, stain and polyurethane? I really don’t want to make a recommendation, because there may be other products out there better than what I use. Kudzit stripper works fine for me, although it is a little more difficult to get the old finish off than I would like. So I may also use a rag soaked in solvent after I’ve applied and removed the stripper. Cabot stains and polyurethane are wonderful. Cabot products are really easy to find and have a fine reputation. If this is your first refinishing job, ask your hardware man what he recommends – that’s why he’s there. If he doesn’t seem to have a preference, try Kudzit and Cabot. As far as sandpaper, I highly recommend Gator. They have a line that is specifically made for stripping. You will use a lot of the 80 grade, about half as much of the 220, and about a quarter as much of the 150.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Reflection on Polyurethane

I said you would be doing two coats of stain, but that depends on how deep and rich you want your finish to look. If you’re going for a thin, light look, just do one coat. Since I am blending two colors, I chose to do two coats. I could also have mixed the colors together, but I don’t think I would have been as happy with the results. By layering them, I’m creating depth and richness. Of course, I’ve added another step to the process; but it is worth it. I’m applying the orangier, maple color first. It’s called “Colonial Maple.” Then, after the first stain is dry, I’m applying the darker, pecan color and wiping it off quickly, so it doesn’t end up too dark.

Here’s something you’re not going to like: you need to wait 12 to 24 hours between coats. That’s 12 to 24 hours between and after the stains, and 12 to 24 hours between and after the coats of polyurethane. So this is a week-long project, not a couple of days. Does that disappoint you? Well, it needn’t. You just need more than one piece of furniture to work on so that you can create a production line. While one piece is drying from stain, you can work on the next piece. While that one is drying, you can polyurethane a third. And so on. Your furniture will have plenty of time to dry while you are sanding other pieces, believe me. The sanding alone will take more time than all the other steps put together.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Seat of Finished Chair

When you finally get to the polyurethane step, you’ll need to put down newspapers or some kind of protection for your basement floor. You’ll also need to set up lights around your work area because you will need to see the reflection in the polyurethane as you’re putting it on. That is the only way to tell if you are covering everything. You do not want to miss a spot, and you do not want to rework areas. This is critical: use a thin coat. Do not over-load your brush. Polyurethane can run if it goes on too thick, and you do not want any runs.

Well, have I scared you enough? It does not hurt to have a healthy respect for polyurethane. As I said earlier, you almost need a controlled, cavalier attitude about it. You have a plan, you move fast, you continually check against the lighting to make sure you’re not missing anything, once you’ve covered an area you move on, you don’t go back and rework. And, before you know it, the piece is done. Once it’s done, you’ll be tempted to look it over to make sure it looks “right.” It won’t. Set the piece of furniture aside in a “drying area.” You can look it over after it has dried. Figure out ahead of time how to pick up the piece without touching the wet areas. For chairs, you can usually pick them up with one hand under the seat. Some pieces may be too large or awkward to move and will have to stay where they are until they’re dry.

Waitsel's Refinishing Furniture - Finished Chair

By the way, you will probably need to replace whatever footing is on your furniture, once you’re done. The refinishing materials will destroy the old ones. That will be the final step.

Refinishing furniture is a lot of work; but, once you’re done, you’ll be glad you went to the trouble. You’ll have some great-looking furniture to enjoy; you’ll feel good about yourself, both physically and emotionally; and you’ll have earned the praise of those who see your handiwork. My mom says she’s really proud of her new chairs. That’s enough for me.

One final caveat: do not use polyurethane on collectible antiques. This process is for everyday furniture. Fine antiques need to be rubbed with fine linseed oil. I’ll talk about that later. Enjoy your new furniture!

Waitsel Smith

Waitsel Smith, August 7, 2012

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Text and Photos © 2012 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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