Finishing Unfinished Furniture

Finding that perfect piece of second hand, antique or vintage furniture buried among the debris of otherwise worthless rubbish can be a thrilling experience, especially when you know that others have passed over it with an untrained eye. When you have found that piece it often needs quite a bit of TLC to restore it to its former splendor but few things are as rewarding as putting your own style and personality into a beautiful piece of craftsmanship that will undoubtedly become a conversation piece and source of pride for generations.

Choosing to apply your own finish to unfinished furniture is not only rewarding but can also save you money. When finishing any wood project, making sure that your desired finish is correctly applied requires proper planning and execution.

The very first thing you will want to do in this process is to acquire the proper tools (oh, and get the piece you want to finish. Click here or on the image to the right for some ideas). Without the right tools you will have a very hard time getting a decent finish and are likely to do damage to the furniture. Once you have assembled the tools and materials needed the next step is to prepare your material so that it will accept the paint or stain. This step should never be overlooked or done with haste.

If the surface is not properly prepared it will not accept the finish or may absorb it unevenly resulting in a poor quality finish.

After you have gathered the appropriate tools and prepared your furniture it is time to apply the finish. Below you will find a more detailed description of each step to help you bring out the beautiful color of your furniture.


To ensure you can get the best quality from your labor you will want to have the following tools on hand:

In addition, you may also want to wear a pair of rubber gloves to keep yourself from accidentally getting any of the finishing chemicals on your hands while applying the finish on your furniture, (remember to wear old clothes that you don’t mind getting paint or stain on).

Wood Finishing StainAnd lastly (and a requisite for finishing your piece), you need the finish that you would like to apply. If you are painting then the paint is likely all you will need. I recommend an acrylic paint or an oil based paint. Oil based paints are harder to work with because they are not water soluble and you will have to use thinner to clean your hands and tools- (you know what they say about painters; “they drink turpentine and bathe in gasoline”)-but oil based paints are much more resilient to weather and wear. If you want to stain your furniture you will need the stain and something for a top coat, like polyurethane.

Material Preparation (the most important part)

Once you have organized your tools and supplies, you need to prepare the piece of furniture for the finishing process. Begin by thoroughly washing its surface with water and soap to eliminate the accumulated oil and dirt. When you are done, rinse it thoroughly and soak up the remaining water using paper towels. When it is completely dry, use the sandpaper to lightly sand the surface.

Begin with a medium sandpaper (100-150 grit) and then switch to a finer sandpaper (180-220 grit). Avoid over sanding because it could close the pores of the wood and it will not accept finish. Use the lower end of the grit scale for harder woods and the upper end of the scale for softer woods.

Wood FinishingBy approximating the hardness or softness of the wood you can get a rough idea of the sand paper to use. Harder woods like Oak or Cherry will require rougher grits. For hard woods start with 100 or 120 for rough sanding and move to 180 for final finish prep sanding. For softer woods use 150-180 for rough sanding and 220 for final finish prep.

The purpose of sanding with lower grits is to remove any burs or splinters, or rough parts of the furniture. After the surface is completely smooth everywhere it is time to remove the sanding marks left by the lower grit. This is why we use the higher grit sand paper. The finer sand paper will remove the sanding lines while still leaving a surface that the finish will stick to.

If you apply the finish without any sanding, the finish will be rough and likely look uneven. If you skip only the final prep sanding you will likely see sanding marks from the rough sanding on your furniture. Sand with the grain and evenly over the entire surface or the stain will apply unevenly.

Remember that the finer the wood is sanded, the lighter the stain will be. This is because as you sand with finer grain it closes the pores of the wood and does not allow as much stain to absorb. If you sand too fine the stain will not apply evenly and may not absorb at all in some places.

It is extremely important to be thorough during your prep because this is the stage that will determine the final quality of your work. This is what separates professional from good enough.

Finish Application

If you are painting, this step is fairly straight forward and pretty simple. Pay close attention to places where the paint is so thick that it starts to run down the surface and brush those areas evenly so it does not run. Remember that the end grain will absorb more paint so you may have to paint those areas more than others. While you may be tempted to put the paint on extra thick so you do not have to apply additional coats, this is not the way to the best quality. It is nearly always better to apply multiple coats, it gives you greater control over even application. When applying multiple coats, let the previous coat dry until it is tacky but does not leave paint on your finger when you touch it. If you wait until it is completely dry you will have to sand it to create a surface for the next coat to stick to. Usually 220 grit is fine but make sure you clean the surface thoroughly before applying the next coat. The paint will not stick to dust.

Wood FinishingThe finish color (when staining) has a great deal to do with the wood type, particularly since the absorption rate depends on the wood (and how it was prepared/sanded). When applying the stain with a paintbrush, you need to ensure that you wipe off excess stain, otherwise you will have to wash the furniture and sand it again (basically a total refinishing). You will also need to take care to stain it evenly with a single smooth application or the furniture will seem like it was painted with two different colors. Sometimes it is easier for you to use a lint free cloth to both apply and wipe the stain. Use one cloth to apply the stain and another to wipe it away. Using a cloth allows you to apply less stain initially verses a paint brush. The longer you allow the stain to sit before wiping it away, the darker it will become. To play it safe until to get better at judging it, you can wipe away immediately and apply more stain if it is too light.

If you want to keep the natural look you will want to just use a finish like polyurethane. Usually 2 coats is sufficient but you may want to do more to make sure your project is protected by a nice thick layer. When doing table tops or other surfaces I have been known to do several coats so that I get a thick glass like surface. Before applying the finish, test it on a scrap piece (if available) or a part of the wood that is hidden, to evaluate how it looks. First, wet the wood with paint thinner. If it goes dark enough for your taste, you can apply the finish. If it does not, you will want to use a stain before applying the finish.

Final Steps

You can choose to apply 1 or 2 coats of finish to the object. When you are done with the first coat, look for bristles that may have stuck to the finish. Use a fine sandpaper to carefully sand the bristles off. Apply the second coat, if necessary, but use a light touch. Allow the furniture to dry naturally and do not expose to direct sunlight.

Finishing any kind of wood requires preparation. Remember to take the time to clean and sand your unfinished furniture, because no amount of finish can make it look good if you do not pay attention to this step. With a little bit of effort, you will have a beautiful piece of furniture you can be proud of and save money in the process.

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