Hands Down the Best Refinishing Furniture Guide to Learn How to Makeover Furniture

refinished hutch painted green with hardwood drawers and top

How to Refinish Wood Furniture DIY Step by Step

Interested in refinishing furniture, but don’t know where to start? Or what exactly to do. Or what supplies to use.

Then this how to makeover furniture guide is just for you!

I’m sharing everything you need to start refinishing old furniture. From the exact tools and supplies to the best method for cleaning, stripping, sanding, painting, staining, and sealing wood furniture.

I’m excited; let’s get to the good stuff!

Just a friendly reminder: This tutorial and any opinions or recommendations are genuinely mine, but this is not a substitute for consulting a professional. I also use affiliate links to earn a commission.

Supplies for Refinishing Furniture

I bet you only like to spend money on things if they are absolutely necessary, yes? That’s why I’m giving you this concise list of must-have tools for furniture restoration.

You don’t need fancy, top-of-the-line gadgets to get going with this! 

In fact, I discourage you from buying anything other than what’s on this list until you’re more confident in your skills and ready to invest cash into tools. 

Here’s what you need to get started with refinishing furniture:

  1. soft cloth– old socks and t-shirts work great!
  2. something to clean your furniture – I prefer Krud Kutter, and an even more affordable option is Dawn dish soap and water mixed into a spray bottle.
  3. screwdriver – to remove the old hardware.
  4. stripper – this is my fav and I’ll get to the best stripper out there! You’ll also need a scraper.
  5. sanding tools– random orbital sander and sandpaper. Make sure it is random orbital if possible.
  6. painting supplies – brush and a foam roller to paint your furniture.

Here are links to the exact products I use in all my furniture makeovers:

Getting Started with Refinishing Furniture

sage green painted dresser with wood drawers
blue painted dresser with hardwood drawers and black hardware

Every furniture refinishing project follows the same general process.

First, you find the piece you plan to work on.

Then you prep the furniture piece by cleaning and removing the hardware.

Next, you’ll determine if you need to strip or sand.

Followed by taking care of any furniture repair.

And lastly, prime and paint, or stain, and possibly seal.

Listen, even as a more seasoned diy’er, something always goes wrong. Know that these lessons make us better, so lean into the experience and try not to get so upset when something doesn’t go exactly as planned.

One other thing I will say is you can make your life easier by starting with the right wood piece.

I have put together a resource about finding quality furniture and I highly suggest you check it out. Higher quality wood is soooo much easier to work with than, let’s say, Ikea paperboard.

Lastly, when just starting out, go for smaller items such as an end table, nightstand, plant stand, coffee table or smaller dresser is a good idea. And definitely do not use something with sentimental value!

old cabinet painted white
white painted cabinet with olive branch wallpaper accents on the inside doors

Refinishing Hardwood Furniture vs Veneer

I get asked alllll the time about how to know if something is real wood vs fake wood vs wood veneer or laminate. So, I put together a resource on this topic. This has lots of pics and really great examples of the different types of wood. Go see for yourself!

Refinishing Furniture Basics for Beginners

1st Step: Cleaning Wood Before a Makeover

The first step in furniture refinishing is cleaning, and my go-to product for this step is a degreaser. You’ll also need a clean cloth and some warm water which I use to wipe everything down once I’ve done a round or two of the degreasers.  

Since almost all the furniture I work with is thrifted, things are usually quite dirty. But, even if you know where the furniture piece has been, for best results you have to remove any surface residue before you start. Plus, things are always dirtier than you think.

So, what degreaser should you use? I’ve tried many, and put together all the steps to properly cleaning, plus the best cleaning solutions here in this post from when I painted my kitchen cabinets.

sage green painted cabinet with wood accent
old antique cabinet painted sage green with wood accent around the door

2nd Step: Stripping Painted Wood

Stripping painted wood furniture is seriously so satisfying. That is, if you’re following the right advice. Because if you’re not, then it’s frustrating, and expensive!

To learn all about stripping paint head to this post that will teach you the easiest paint stripping strategy. It covers everything you need to know about stripping paint from wood and gives the all-time best paint stripper that produces mind-blowing results!

Remember, not all wood furniture needs stripping, but it always needs sanding!

**I’ll put together a resource on how to know when to strip vs when to sand because I get asked this all the time. Check back!!**

Chemical Free Way to Strip Wood

There may be a time when you don’t want to use a stripper – maybe the chemicals bother you, or you just don’t feel like dealing with the sticky mess. Regardless of your reason, if you’re looking to strip paint without using chemical paint strippers, then I have the tools for you!

stripped wood drawers

The good news is stripping paint from a door without any hash chemical strippers is possible. And it doesn’t require a big financial investment in special tools.

The not so good news is it is way more time consuming. This post on a chemical free way to strip wood will save you time and frustration because I’m sharing what worked (and didn’t work) for me.

3rd Step: Sanding Wood

The next step in your furniture makeover is sanding. Which is definitely an art, especially if you want to stain wood. That is why when getting started with furniture makeovers, I suggest painting instead of staining.

Here is a crash course on sanding wood:

  • Using a course grit sandpaper and random orbital sander go with the grain of the wood
  • Do the entire surface and then switch out to a higher grit. Work your way up to higher-grit sandpaper to get the smoothest finish possible (i.e. 120, 220, 320 and possibly higher)
  • After sanding, remove any sanding dust. A tack cloth, clean rag, or leaf-blower works great if you’re outside.

For the complete lesson on sanding for the smoothest and swirl free finish, you’ll find all of these tips and tricks in this post on random orbital sanding wood tips.

4th Step: Apply a New Finish

There are several options for this step in the furniture makeover process; paint, stain, or leave it natural.

old wood apothecary cabinet
refinishing dining room set painted black and hardwood accents
painted furniture black with hardwood accents - apothecary cabinet drawers on the left and open shelves on the right

Painting Wood Furniture

But first comes priming. My go-to primer is Zinsser 123. This is the only primer I use for my home projects and furniture makeovers because it covers wood knots and sticks to surfaces like no other! It may cost a little bit more, but I’m always satisfied with the results. 

I’m going to cover the basics of painting wood, but since there is so much to cover, you will also want to check out this more detailed guide on how to paint furniture. This guide goes into more than just these basics, so go check it out before you start furniture painting.

The two most important things to know about priming and painting furniture are:

  1. Do not skimp and buy a cheaper primer. Aside from sanding, the quality of your primer is essential to your paint sticking.
  2. Two coats of primer and two coats of paint. Never less!
  3. Here is a complete guide that goes into full details about furniture painting and painting wood.
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Applying Primer and Paint

If you’re dipping your toes in refinishing furniture, then a regular ol’ paint brush gets the job just fine! Keep things simple and stick with a basic brush. I prefer a short handle angled paintbrush, and you can pick one of these up for around $6.

Painting Furniture Step-by-Step

After you’ve applied one coat of primer, let it dry for at least an hour, and then give it a light sanding using 220 grit or higher. The trick is to apply gentle pressure; you’re doing the slightest sanding to smooth out any tiny paint imperfections and to scuff the surface.

After giving the area a quick wipe down with a clean cloth, you’re ready to add a second coat of primer.

Once the second coat of primer is dried, repeat the light hand sanding step from above.

Finally, follow the same steps you did for priming to paint your furniture.

vintage deconstructed couch
refinished dining table and chairs painted black with wood top

Staining Wood

Staining wood is trickier than painting, and honestly, if you’re a beginner, I do not suggest you attempt this quite yet. I have had years of experience in furniture refinishing and stain still trips me up, so the best option is mastering the basics before you jump to staining.

Now, if you’re anything like me, I usually do the opposite of what I’m told. So, for your curious mind, here is the best DIY staining wood for beginner’s guide.

5th Step: Apply a Protective Topcoat

The last step is to decide whether you’ll apply a topcoat or leave the wood natural. If you want to leave it as is, there is the potential for water damage or paint chipping.

I prefer not to put a topcoat sealer on my painted furniture in most cases.

But with that said, there are times when that’s a really bad idea, and you’ll want to protect your work.

There are soooo many different hacks to apply a topcoat that will get you a smooth finish. The verdict is still out on what I think works best so go ahead a join my list to stay in the loop.

There are different types of protective finishing – polyurethane varnish, wax, and shellac. And there are different reasons why you’d apply each one.

Here are a few tips about apply a topcoat to refinished furniture:

  • Poly and shellac are the most protective and wax is the least.
  • Use a water-based poly to prevent yellowing.
  • The way your wood looks wet is a good gauge on how it will look with a poly topcoat.
  • My fav topcoats are liming or white wax and another good one is this water based Polyacrylic protective finish

Read This Before Painting Antique Furniture!

Let’s talk about what you need to consider before refinishing furniture.

Although furniture flipping is usually a profitable project, this may not always be the case. There is the potential of devaluing the piece of furniture if it’s a valuable antique.

I usually don’t care because what I think is most important is that you refinish each piece of furniture in the way that you like most.

But I did want to point out that there are some nah-sayers out there who will criticize painted wood furniture, and so you know that there are times when keeping a piece in its natural state is more profitable.

That is if you’re flipping it… Now I’ve gone down a rabbit hole…

Before starting to refinish an old furniture piece, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this antique furniture worth something, and by painting it, will I devalue it somehow?
  • And if so, do I actually care that this may be the case?
  • How will you enjoy this furniture piece most – as is, or refinished?
  • Would I be crushed if this piece didn’t turn out how I envision (i.e., your first project shouldn’t be a family heirloom!)

I have an entire post dedicated to finding USA made old furniture that would make a good makeover. Which may be useful as you are now ready to get to work refinishing furniture!!

Next Steps

More Refinishing Furniture Techniques

(coming soon!!)

There you have it! Everything you need to know to get started refinishing furniture. I hope you’re feeling more confident about doing a furniture makeover now that I’ve covered all the essentials.

Hey Friend!

project planner pack

Every successful DIY project starts with a plan. That’s why I created the Project Planner Pack.

It’s everything you need to complete your project on time and on budget.

Unleash your creativity with a click, download your Planner Pack and start your DIY journey today!

furniture flipping // diy projects // home renovations // modern farmhouse decorating ideas