The beginner’s guide to DIY refinishing
Image: Robin Stubbert
The beginner’s guide to DIY refinishing
Never refinished before? No sweat! These tips will help you tackle your first project like a pro.
There are plenty of reasons to try your hand at refinishing furniture. Perhaps you’ve just picked up a terrific piece from the antique market that needs a little love, or maybe you’ve been wondering how to give a fresh look to old household staples. Sanding, staining, or painting your own furniture can seem like an intimidating task at first, but it can also be extremely rewarding. Before you head to the hardware store, here’s everything you need to know about refinishing pieces yourself.
1. Have some breathing room.
Before starting your project, ensure you have a large, well-ventilated space to work with. The ideal workshop consists of a room that’s simultaneously sheltered but open to the outdoors, such as a covered deck or an open garage. Either way, it’s essential for your health that you do not work on projects in small or enclosed spaces, and you should always use a dust mask or respirator to protect your lungs from the dust and chemical particulates your project creates.
2. Stock your tool shelf with the essentials.
Every project is different, but these tools will be assets regardless of what you’re trying to refinish:
• multi-bit screwdriver
• hand sanding block
• assorted grit sandpaper
• lint-free rags
• tack cloths
• brushes (either bristle or disposable foam)
• heavy-duty rubber gloves as well as cheap disposable ones
• clean yogurt (or takeout) containers
• plastic putty knife
• dust mask or respirator
3. Don't take the easiest (read: quickest) route.
There are numerous products on the market that promise to cut time by being fast-drying or needing only single-coat applications. These products are (for the most part) utter junk and will not make your life any easier. Single-coat stains can go on unevenly, tinted polyurethanes may not penetrate the wood with colour, and fast-drying varnishes can dry with your brush strokes still intact. In many cases, the time you will spend undoing the damage from a quick-fix product is double or triple the time it would have taken to use a slower-working one.
4. Be mindful of mixing.
Generally speaking, water-based products are lower in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which means they are potentially less harmful to your lungs. Moreover, they clean up easily (with water itself), and they dry quickly. On the other hand, they can raise the grain of the wood (leading to an uneven finish) and sometimes dry too quickly to allow for any mistake correcting. Oil-based products, on the other hand, are higher in VOCs, but are slower to dry (allowing for mistake correction) and penetrate the wood without raising the grain. Their cleanup requires mineral spirits, and they are often prized for the quality of their finishes.
Whether you work with water- or oil-based products is a matter of personal preference rather than the inherent superiority of one over the other. That being said, whichever you choose, you should stick with. Just as a spoonful of oil will stay suspended in a glass of water without integrating, trying to work an oil-based product overtop of a water-based one (or vice-versa) will result in your products failing to adhere properly to one another. Check your labels carefully and make sure to stick to the water- or oil-based family throughout your project.
5. Give yourself extra time.
No matter what the project, take whatever timeline you had in mind and triple it. Sometimes the humidity levels will prolong a product’s drying time, or you will have to run back to the hardware store for something you forgot, or the sanding goes more slowly than you’d planned. Whatever the reason, projects often end up taking more time than you budget for, so make sure you have at least a couple of weekends free before taking one on.
6. Know these three helpful tips.
If there are only three things you bear in mind while starting a refinishing project, let this be them:
- Always sand with the grain of the wood—never (ever) against it.
- If you’re painting, use a primer first.
- If you’re varnishing, the thinner the varnish, the better.