DIY Furniture Refinish

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Our house is kind of a mish-mash of different furniture we’ve inherited from different people over the years; parents, grandparents, friends who were moving, some new pieces we purchased and possibly a few dumpster pick ups (like a really ugly bedroom dresser that I have no idea where it came from – it needs to go).

It never occurred to me that I could fix wood with just a few simple tools and that it would be really cost effective to do so until I stumbled upon some YouTube videos of people restoring wood and all of a sudden I was addicted to watching them.

A New Hope

We have an antique cabinet that my ex’s mother had donated to us and my ex didn’t want it when we split up. I only know it was old because she didn’t like antiques but had kept it around (it must have belonged to her relatives or something) and it was old as of 30 years ago, so I’m pretty sure it qualifies. I loved the bottom with the ball claw feet but the top was quickly breaking apart – veneer was coming off and even the varnish was cracked and flaking.

cabinet before refinishing

My goal was to salvage what I always felt to be a really nice piece of furniture and restore some of its broken pieces so that it didn’t continue to be shame-hidden on the side of the room by the dog toys.

With my newly acquired skills (and by skills I mean the ability to watch YouTube videos like no one’s bizniz)… I felt like I was ready to tackle a makeover project and the ball-claw cabinet felt like the perfect victim candidate.

Let me assure anyone who might think this is beyond your talent level that I have never done any wood restoration before in my life. This was my first DIY wood project.

Getting Prepared

For those of you reading this wondering if you should tackle a project like this I will say follow this advice:

  • Make sure you’re not going to devalue your piece by attempting to fix it up – a lot of antiques only hold their value when they are untouched.
  • Make sure you get the proper tools: it is critical to have adequate ventilation, a respirator mask, and a way of disposing/storing toxic rags and chemicals. Wood restoring products are highly flammable and combustible. Follow all of the precautions on the labels carefullyΒ and rigorously.
  • Evaluate the condition of your piece. You would be amazed at how much you can revitalize old wood just by CLEANING and/or oiling it with a restoring oil. This might be all you need/want to do.
  • Buy Your Materials

You may need all or some of these:

Step 1: Clean & Assess

The first thing I did was use some Murphy’s Wood Soap just to clean the piece really well. I sprayed it down and with a microfiber cloth got into all the nooks and crannies.

I am embarrassed to admit that I should have done this many years ago, because this step alone really popped out all of the beautiful detail in the wood that had been hidden with a layer of grime for so long. I had dusted it, but I never cleaned it the way I should have. It just never occurred to me to do this and because the piece was so damaged on top I think I may have been afraid I would have made the damage worse.

I removed the hardware (the two pulls). These looked pretty dingy so I took a green scrubby sponge and toothpaste and got the dirt out as best I could. I also used a nail file and sanded off the high areas so that some of the original brass color came through.

Cleaned Up Cabinet Hardware

Step 2: Fix the Missing Veneer

I actually kept the veneer that had popped off from the longest missing area, and so to reapply that back on you just have to use wood glue and a clamp.

Butter both the wood on the cabinet and the wood on the back of the veneer with a light layer of wood glue, then you squish them together as tight as possible with your hands.

This is messy and wood glue will be squeezing out all over the place. Take a damp rag and wipe any excess glue off but some will still squish out more, especially when you clamp it.

Next, take a shim or other block material and place it on top of the veneer – clamp it down being careful not to damage any of the wood itself. Go as tight as you can with your clamp (this is very important to get a smooth and seamless bond) but don’t break the wood.

clamped wood veneer

Leave this in place for 24 hours.

The wood putty was not quite as easy as the veneer re-attaching – it took a bit of coaxing to get it in right. You squeeze it out of the tube and it’s like a soft, dry clay, but it doesn’t really stick that well at first. I had to keep smashing it in, adding layer after layer to get it kind of overflowing out of the hole.

The directions say to make it higher than the original wood so that you can sand it down to be even with the wood layer.

I let all of this sit for a day to firm up/dry before coming back for the initial sanding.

Step 3: Waxing

I didn’t want to sand the whole thing, and really, there wasn’t any need to.

I used a beeswax on the outside of the cabinet and let that sit for about 20 minutes then rubbed/buffed it off.

I then replaced the hardware. The body of the cabinet looked really good at this point.

Step 4: Sanding the Top

Coming back to the top area, I used a small nail file to gently scrape off the extra glue from my clamped veneer, and ran that same file over the mound of plastic wood to even it out some before doing the full sanding on the top.

veneer dried

I opted not to use the stripper I had purchased, because I was doing this inside and didn’t want to inhale fumes. Since it’s winter we wouldn’t even be able to air out the room with an open window, so to avoid this I just sanded the top off with an 80 grit.

After getting the initial varnish layer off, I went back over with a 120 sandpaper, then a 220 sandpaper.

I vacuumed all the dust and then wiped the whole thing down with a damp rag to pick up any particulates.

sanded top

Step 5: Oil

This was the moment of truth, and was an AMAZING transformation. After you sand you’re like “uhhh, what have I done”? A sanded top doesn’t look great.

BUT then, the oil.

All of a sudden you have this shiny, rich, beautiful wood grain pop out – like magic. It is a great feeling that all your hard sanding work paid off.

oiled top

I applied the oil until it was saturated and a little too oily, then let it soak in for about an hour. Then I came back with a rag and took off any excess oil.

I left it until the next day when I re-wiped it down with a rag to make sure there wasn’t any extra oil on it.

I ended up using permanent markers on the wood putty to blend the colors so that it somewhat matched the rest of the wood color. There might be a better way to do this…

Step 6: Polyurethane

The first coat of polyurethane needs to be light. Just make sure your strokes are even and from end to end so that you don’t have brush marks.

Also, you’re supposed to use a natural bristle brush (but I didn’t).

Then it’s just a matter of waiting until that dries – my instructions said 6 hours.

I waited until the next day because it was still tacky after 6 hours, and then I hit it with some high grit sandpaper to take out any bubbles/pits. Then I re-applied the polyurethane.

It seemed like every new coat I applied took longer to dry than the coat before. This whole process took over a week but mostly only because I’d have to wait for the top coat to dry before sanding and reapplying the next layer.

Overall, I think I did about 6 coats to get the top smooth and even.

Step 7: Stare at Your Masterpiece for Hours

Refinished Cabinet

This step is optional, but I know I can’t stop looking at how gorgeous that once ugly, beat-up cabinet now looks.

I will warn you right now this is very addicting. I am now examining all the wood pieces in the house and wondering what combination of oil/repair/sanding they might need.

Here is the video with the steps that I took to transform this piece:

DIY Furniture Restoration

Watch me refinish this old wood cabinet

If you try this – let us know how it came out below!

What are your thoughts?

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