The refinishing of old furniture needs some planning:-

first, is the piece worth the effort?

Second, is it valuable “in the antique sense”?

Third, is it solid wood? Where veneered panels are concerned greater care has to be taken.

For solid wood furniture, if it has a coating of any sort that can be seen as a separate layer on top of the wood, this needs to be removed first, either by scraping and sanding or by using a proprietary stripper.

Once you are down to the bare wood you need to see if there are any holes or cracks that need filling. Fill any holes with a suitable filling material. There will be several different kinds at your store.

Choose a suitable colour, and if the holes are large maybe wider than 3 or 4 millimetres (1/8inch ), I would recommend a two pack filler. That is one that sets by chemical reaction. Fillers that “dry’ will take a long time to be ready to sand over.

The next stage is to sand the wood smooth, for this I use 80 grit paper. Carefully sand along the grain of the wood. Sanding across the grain will leave scratches that are hard to remove.

Finer paper (120 or more) does not make such a good job of leveling off irregularities.

Once the job is looking evenly worked all over , or at least where it shows, give another sand with slightly finer paper. No finer than 120 to 180 at this stage.

If the wood seems dry and not greasy or oily, brush dust off work and give it one coat of polyurethane one pack varnish. Satin or matt.

Wait until thoroughly dry - look at manufacturers instructions. Now, using a 180 grit lubricated paper go over the work until it looks like bare wood again. Remove dust from the surface with a soft cloth or ‘tak rag’

Now, overcoat and when that is dry sand using finer paper - 240 perhaps. Smooth ‘til the surface is sanded all over, remove dust and coat again.

At this stage you may feel that you have put enough varnish on. If you want to put more on sand again with 240 paper. Feel the work all over and if it feels smooth, remove dust and coat again.

Now whether you have three or four coats (and with modern materials it should not need to be more) the next process is to “de nib” the whole surface with fine paper. This time you are not trying to make the finish more “level’ but just to remove any rough patches or dust specks (“nibs”) . For this we use 320 grit paper.

Once the work feels smooth all over, abrade the whole surface working carefully along the grain with a pad of fine wire wool (at least 00 grade) ‘til the whole surface is equally bright.

Wipe the dust from the work with a soft cloth and go over the whole surface with a good wax polish. This will take the dry look from the work and it should look like good oiled timber and feel wonderful to the touch.

What you will need..

A place where you can make a mess.

Some sort of dust mask

Some “sandpaper”.

For sanding down ready for finishing you need some 80 grit paper . silicon carbide, aluminium oxide or some other modern abrasive will be best but Garnet, or glass paper will do at a pinch.

For sanding down between coats of finishing material you will need 3 grades of “lubricated finishing paper” such as 3M’s “Tri-M-ite Freecut” 180 , 240 and 320 grit.

Prorietary stripper to remove old varnish or laquer.

Some stopping or filler for any deep defects

A “Tak-Rag” or some soft lint free cloth to remove the dust from the work after sanding.

Some fine steel/wire wool at least 00 grade.

Some hard drying matt or semi mat varnish . In the Uk somthing like "Ronseal Matcoat" which is a one pack polyeurethane material

Some good quality furniture wax.


If the wood seems oily when you have finished sanding it and dusted it off it may cause problems with Polyurethane.. Traditional varnish such as yacht varnish may not mind but that would not produce the finish we are looking for here. At least not without a lot more work and much longer waiting times between coats.

The solution to this problem can be to give the work a coat of shellac..( French polish.). Try to use one which has no oil in its formulation.. Most do it yourself polishes do have some oil , if only a small amount and will probably do the job anyway.

This isn't guaranteed to work and if the work seems very oily I would advise varnishing a small area first to see if the varnish dries all right

These polyurethane's will not set on some timbers at all. certainly I never use them on "Rosewood" and similar timbers. However the shellac solution may work here too. again try varnishing a small area first.

If the work was stained or coloured you will have to decide whether you want to try and do the same or if the piece will look OK in its natural colour. ( See STAINING under the heading FINISHING THE FINAL TOUCH).

If the furniture has veneered panels in it you will need to be very careful in the stripping and sanding stages. Modern veneers are only 0.6 mm or so thick and so you don't have much to sand off. The only advice here is proceed with care. if you are worried as to whether you have veneer or not the way to tell in most cases is that if the same pattern of grain is repeated more than twice then it has to be veneer.

Please send any queries about this subject to me.

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