Tips for Starting Your Own Furniture Project

Apparently my last post didn’t motivate me as much as I was hoping, so we still have a bunch of projects in progress. They’re so close to being done, but I have no official “finished product” pictures to show you today. We have started some new projects though, so I’ll write about those in my next post. What I really wanted to write about is how to get started refinishing furniture if you’re new to it, and this post is inspired by a friend who has been itching to start working on her own projects. Since it took me and Nik a few years of troubleshooting to get to where we are now, we’ll share some tips on the best type of project to start on, what supplies to buy to get started, and the basic steps for refinishing something with stain and/or paint. If you’re on the fence about trying to refinish your own furniture, hopefully this will convince you that it’s something worth trying! This will be a LONG, detailed post, but if you’re really interested in doing your own furniture, its worth it to read. For your starter project here are some good rules: 1) Get something cheap. There is great stuff on craigslist for <$40, so this will decrease the pressure if you screw it up (which you won’t, but just in case!). 2) Make sure it is actually made of wood. Only wood can be sanded down and stained (including wood veneer, which is a thin layer of real wood that covers some sort of cheaper composite material, but if the veneer is in good shape it can be sanded and stained like solid wood). If you’re planning on painting, other materials like laminate or particleboard will be fine if you rough it up with sand paper enough for the paint to adhere. 3) Flat surfaces are easier to deal with than detailed things. Dressers with long flat sides and simple drawers, or side tables that don’t have a bunch of hard-to-reach-into-shelves, or simple coffee tables are good starter projects. I’d stay away from chairs simply because the chair back and legs are tricky smaller surfaces to work with. Supplies to buy (I’ll try to list brands/stores that I buy these, and pictures of products you might not recognize): For projects that you plan to stain wood: Chemical-resistant gloves, 15 minute stripper (Kleen Strip – we only find this at Home Depot), cheap chip brush for applying stripper, plastic scraping tool, steel wool (something in the mid-range of “scratchiness”), 100 and 220 grit sandpaper, face mask to keep out sanding dust, tack cloth, stain (we usually use Minwax), good quality paint brush (Purdy and Wooster are great if you want to spend the $, and a shorter handled 2″ brush is a good size to start with), paint can opener tool.

For projects that you’re painting: 100-grit sandpaper, tack cloth, plastic drop cloth, water-based primer paint (I use Behr latex drywall primer and sealer, but there are other good brands out there like Kilz), paint (I recommend latex because it is water based, cheap, and easy to use, but there are other options out there like enamel, chalk paint, milk paint, oil-based paint), Floetrol (optional; this is a paint additive that extends drying time of paint, and helps reduce brushstrokes), good quality paint brush, paint can opener.

For sealing your project: For stained projects, you can seal with polyurethane. The classic oil-based poly we use is Minwax, which requires clean up with mineral spirits and is pretty smelly. You’ll want a separate brush for applying oil-based poly since it will never be 100% clean enough to use with a “water based” thing like latex paints afterwards. We recently tried Minwax wipe-on polyurethane and it seemed to work fine, and you can just discard the rag you use afterwards. Oil based polys will amber as they dry, so only use them over stained wood projects! We’ve also tried lacquer which works similar to polyurethane and has a similar clean up process.

Water based polyurethane looks milky and dries perfectly clear, so it works great over latex-painted projects, and also seems to work fine over stained wood even though the stain itself is theoretically oil-based. It is applied with a brush which cleans up with soap and water so you can use the same brush for this that you use with latex paint. We’ve tried Minwax polycrylic which is about $18 per quart, and recently switched to Rustoleum water-based polyurethane which is only about $12 per quart and works great. At this point, this is mainly what we use to seal stained and painted projects simply because it is easy to clean up and has much less vapors so it isn’t too smelly to apply inside (where there is less ridiculous North Carolina heat/humidity!).

Wax can be used as a sealant as well. We’ve only tried Minwax furniture paste wax, and it is a little orange-yellow looking so if you’re sealing a project with light colored paint, it could tint it a little. Wax is applied with cheesecloth and is rubbed all over the piece, allowed to cure, and then buffed off. It is less heat-resistant than other finishes and should be reapplied from time to time. Wax works best on porous surfaces, such as wood that has been stained, or wood that has flat paint or chalk paint on it – if the wood is painted with paint that has a sheen (like satin or semi-gloss) there are less “pores”, and instead of curing into the wood to harden and seal it, the wax will form more of a film that is not as durable. Wax is trickier but can lead to a beautiful “buttery” finish on stained wood projects, so there are definitely times where it pays to use wax!

Finally, if you have a project that is painted with paint that has a sheen, a sealant might not be necessary. For example, if you have a dresser painted with satin or semi gloss paint, I will usually use water based poly on just the top since it will get more wear, but I’ll leave the sides be. Any sort of sheen in paint adds protection to the finish, and if it is a low-use surface, the sheen will be protective enough on its own. The more sheen, the more protective the paint alone will be. Flat paints should always be sealed, since they have no sheen and can practically rub off with a little force. Steps to refinishing your first project with stain: Once you have everything purchased, its time to get started! For staining, you always want to get down to the raw wood, which means stripping off any varnish and sanding down till you get nice smooth raw wood. First, put on chemical resistant gloves since stripper will sting if it gets on your skin. Use a cheap chip brush to glop on the stripper in a decently thick layer, and wait a few minutes until the finish starts to bubble up.To give you and idea, stripper looks like thick clear-ish mucus, so don’t be alarmed the first time you see it out of the can! As the varnish comes off, that will color the stripper – as you can see in the picture below where the stripping glop looks brown after applying it. Use your plastic (not metal! it will scratch the wood!) scraper and scrape off as much varnish as you can. I usually don’t wait the 15 minutes since if the stripper dries before you scrape it, you’ll need to reapply more.


You might need to reapply a second layer of stripper in some spots. After the stripper is removed, put on your face mask and use your steel wool (and some gloves) to remove any stripper sludge and residual varnish. Then use your 100 grit sand paper to sand away and get the raw wood more “uniform looking”. Finally, wet the whole piece with water and a rag to raise the grain, let it dry, and do one final sanding with fine (220 grit) sand paper. It will feel super smooth now! Vacuum then tack the whole piece with tack cloth to remove all dust.


Shake the stain can well, and use an old rag to apply stain evenly to the piece. You can apply the stain liberally, but make sure you do a final wipe-down to remove any excess pools or drips of stain because this will dry unevenly and sticky. Let it dry outside (stain is stinky) for 8+ hours.


Then decide how you want to seal it (see recommendations above), and put on your first layer of sealant. If using water-based poly, I recommend doing 2 coats, then fine sanding followed by a rub down with tack cloth, and then doing a final coat of the sealant to make it extra smooth. If you’re using oil-based poly, they recommend fine sanding in between all coats. Whenever you sand, make sure to wear your face mask. If you’re using wax, apply the wax, wait about an hour then rub the whole piece down with 0000 grade (very fine) steel wool to remove residual wax, then buff with a wool buffing pad and a lot of elbow grease.


For projects that are being painted, it is usually not necessary to completely strip down the old varnish or paint, unless there are lots of layers or the finish/paint is very uneven or chipping off badly, like this dresser was:


If the surface is relatively smooth, I usually just rough it up with some 100-grit sand paper, tack off the piece, and prime it with my primer paint. Primer will not cover perfectly, so if you see brush strokes or the color of what is underneath coming through, that’s perfectly fine.


Some people will fine sand after the primer coat to ensure a smooth finish before they start with paint, but I usually skip this step and move forward with applying 2-3 coats of paint. Finally, to seal it, I usually use 2-3 coats of water-based polyurethane, although as I mentioned above, you can use wax on flat paint, or you can choose not to seal it if it will be a low-use area and you have paint that has a sheen. So these are the basic steps that we use to refinish a project with latex paint and stain. If you search around, there are tons of other blogs and sites that may make different recommendations, which goes to show there are many ways to end up with a nice piece of refinished furniture. There are also a number of ways to antique things that have been painted, which I didn’t go into for this post, but if you search around you can get plenty of ideas. I hope this guide is helpful, and feel free to post or email me any questions if there’s something I didn’t explain well!

1 thought on “Tips for Starting Your Own Furniture Project

  1. Shelly

    thanks louise for typing all this up! i am sure i will still be calling you to come help! ;P can’t wait to give it a try!!!



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