Okay, so you want to refinish some old solid wood furniture. Cool. I’ll guide you through the process whether you’re a beginner or an “old pro”. Yes, even if you’re an old dog there are still some tricks you need to learn (or perhaps more accurately, some new perspective on what you already know).
First off, you need a project. The temptation might be to jump into doing some ridiculously ornate piece with all kinds of spindles and details. So that’s our first lesson – don’t do that. You’re setting yourself up for a) a time sink, b) disappointment and frustration and c) turning yourself off of doing future projects and thus a great source of zen meditation. No, I wasn’t kidding about the “zen” part of the title. In fact, that’s the whole point.
I found this on Craigslist. In the free section. A beautiful solid oak piece of furniture for nothing. The guy said he just didn’t have the time to refinish it and it was just taking up space in his garage (does anyone park cars in garages anymore?). So it was a pretty ideal acquisition for me. I may not have money (hence combing the “for free” ads on Craigslist) but time I have. So I took it off his hands (which didn’t get him very much closer to getting his car in his garage). Now here’s the cool thing – it just so happened to be the exact match for a solid oak coffee table I bought when I furnished my first apartment twenty-seven years ago.
Before we go on, a word about furniture. When I furnished that apartment all those years ago and was looking around furniture stores, I saw a lot of junk. Oh, it looked beautiful in the showroom but it was really just junk in waiting. Think Ikea furniture. It’s cheap veneer over particle board. One wrong move and a leg (or a drawer front or whatever) just pulls apart. It gets exposed to some standing water, it swells and it’s ruined. It’s just junk. And not inexpensive junk. I knew I couldn’t afford to buy junk.
I have a simple rule that I learned when buying high-end hi-fi gear – buy it right, buy it once. So I rejected anything with particle board. I also rejected anything that was trendy or looked like period pieces (IE: Colonial, etc). So I gravitated towards simple, timeless contemporary designs and solid wood construction. I’d bought a den desk a few years earlier that was solid maple and just followed the same principle. Which is why I’ve never had to replace a single piece of furniture in nearly three decades and close to ten moves. And oh, the stories my coffee table could tell! It’s been a message table, love has been made on it, it survived my growing daughter, numerous parties and the thing is still like a rock. Ditto with the dining room table set. It’s lasted for going on thirty years and looks as good and is as solid as the day I bought it. And it’ll look as good thirty years from now. It’ll look as good as when my daughter’s children (which are still some years distant in the future, thank goodness) have it. Solid wood makes heirloom furniture. Ikea crap does not.
Buy it right, buy it once.
Here’s what solid wood furniture should look like. The best place to look is at the bottom of the legs. It’s there where you’ll see whether they’re solid or just veneer over some kind of particle board.
That’s what solid wood construction should look like. Solid wood can take a lot of damage and there are many options for fixing it. Not so with veneer over particle board. But hey, wood does pick up scuffs, scrapes, your kids’ “art etchings” and other souvenirs of decades of use. So now we get to the refinishing part. And the incredibly satisfying task of making a tired piece of furniture look like it just came off the showroom floor.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- some power sanding equipment
- various grits of sandpaper (roughly 80 to 220 should do)
- some little blocks of wood
- some good quality clamps are handy
- a power drill is also handy (preferably cordless)
- a soft head hammer
- elbow grease
What you DON’T need is a lot of fancy tools “just like the pros”. I’m a pro (having actually made a living in carpentry and working under master carpenters). I don’t use a lot of fancy tools. The only fancy tool you need is the one between your ears. If you don’t have the right tool, get creative.
See, here’s the thing with tools and weekend warrior amateurs – the latter wastes a lot of money on the former in some vain (double entendre) attempt to “be like the pros”. All this will result in is a garage full of tools that will sit around largely unused, tools the money on which was wasted would have been far better put towards the mortgage, the kids’ education, or retirement savings or any number of wiser investments. The pros only buy a new or specialty tool if its going to make money for them. You’re not going to do that (unless you plan on furnishing your whole house with free furniture you found on Craigslist). So save your money and just make a few basic tools work. Failing that, culture friends who have tools.
Okay, let’s get started. The first thing you need to think about is disassembly. Disassembling the piece into all its basic components can take a bit of time (at both ends of the job) but save a lot of work when sanding. You see, you can’t get power sanders into those little crevices so those will have to be done by hand. Ever sanded solid oak by hand? Yeah, didn’t think so. You don’t want to do too much of that. But the decision isn’t so simple. If a lot of glued joints are involved, that’s going to be quite problematic. But I looked at this piece and saw that the top was just held on by simple clips. Further investigation (by my trained eye) told me there was no glue involved in the other joints. So disassembly it was.
You’ll want a jar (with a lid) to put all the screws and other little loose bits that may result (and any little shards of wood that splinter off … you can use those later).
Looking at the table broken down like that you can see it’s far easier to get at all the surfaces when they’re separated. On this design, for example, the edges of the table top were far easier to get at.
Now, let’s talk about sanding. Sanding hardwood is a very zen activity. It requires not a lot of mental activity but it does require focus and mindful attention. All the hassles and unfairness of life can disappear when you’re sanding and paying mindful attention to what you’re doing. And it’s enormously satisfying as you see the drab, nicked up old surface slowly disappear under your hands and beautiful fresh grain emerge.
Before we go on, let’s talk about what that mindful attention should be directed at. I shouldn’t have to mention basic techniques and dos and don’ts but I’d better. With a belt sander or hand strokes, go with the grain. With a palm sander it doesn’t matter quite so much (though still basically direct longer stroking actions with the grain). As you’re zenning along and becoming more and more at one with the wood and your focus is getting deeper, you’ll start to notice more and more little nicks. The temptation will be to let your perfectionist side keep working at it until you get all the little nicks out. You’ll begin imagining the perfectly restored piece of furniture without a single flaw. You’ll begin imagining how people will be impressed with your high level of professionalism. And you’ll keep sanding that piece for hours getting out every single little nick.
But this is where the real zen work comes in. And real professionalism. Working to achieve perfectionism is one of many of what are known as “cognitive distortions”. See, here’s the thing; nobody in the remaining history of this piece of furniture is ever going to run their hands over it feeling for every imperfection the way you are now. Nobody. Ever. So don’t delude yourself into thinking that anyone is ever going to notice what a perfect job you did. Yes, I know you’re afraid that someone is going to notice a big nick you missed and think you a piss poor furniture refinisher. But it’s highly unlikely the scenario your perfectionist mind plays out for you will ever happen. But it is not without consideration. So let’s learn what the pros do about this.
Pros know a) they can never make a perfect job and b) that they’ll go broke trying to do so. Perfect work requires time and very few clients are willing to pay for the time it requires for a highly paid craftsman to achieve that. But to stay in business pros do have to create the illusion of perfect. So what pros do is understand where eyes are likely to go on a given piece of work. Take the table from our demonstration project here. Where are people most likely to notice a large flaw? On the top of course. So put more time into the top. The legs? Possibly but direct more effort to the outsides of the legs. The insides just need to look clean but not perfect. Not every corner needs to be perfect, only where eyes are likely to go. Again, remember that no human on earth is ever going to look at your refinished piece of furniture the way you do when you work on it. So just put your zen focus on the more eye catching surfaces of the piece.
And as you do your zen sanding and make these little judgment calls, think about how you can apply this to your life in general. Where are you wasting time in your life trying to achieve perfect results where it really doesn’t matter? Life really is like this piece of furniture you’re working on; there are parts that matter more and that’s where you should focus your attention and there are parts that aren’t as important that still require work but not so much time, attention and detailed finish. Just as with this table, you’re going to achieve a beautiful result but in less time, time that you can then direct to other important things in life. Or more pieces of furniture. Or to other things you may be procrastinating about finishing.
So think about that as you zen out moving the belt sander back and forth or are doing that final 220 grit palm sanding. Focus your full attention where it matters most, on the less important areas, not so much.
Okay, we’ve sanded all the components to satisfaction. Time for their first coat of stain. Stain is a big question. There are many colours and shades so which way to go? I’m afraid I can’t be of much help here. I have my tastes, you have yours. If you don’t have a particular taste, this is the time to develop that. Think it through carefully though. Once your piece is stained you really don’t want to strip it down again if you’re not happy with it. Myself, I prefer lighter stains on oak. That’s oak’s most natural state. I guess that’s a good rule of thumb – try to stay within the range of a given wood’s natural colour. All a good stain has to do, in my view, is bring out the grain. A stain a bit lighter than the wood’s natural colour will have a bit more contrast which is what’s going to make the grain stand out. Other than that basic rule, all you have think about is how it will fit into the room it’ll be in.
Stain is applied according to the same rule as sanding – with the grain. You don’t have to be too fussy with it. Just make sure you apply it evenly and wipe away excess. It’s zen but not quite as zen as sanding; push other thoughts out of your mind and apply mindful attention to what you’re doing and you’ll be fine. If you’ve never stained before you’ll find this mindful attention will tell you everything you need to notice. Beware again of perfectionism, however. For one, stain is very forgiving (much more so than paint) and two, it’s highly unlikely anyone will notice some little flaw that you can’t ignore. And lastly, you’re going to give it another coat after you put it all back together.
Now for reassembly. Here you need the soft head hammer, a small piece of soft wood and some rags one of which you’ll want to dampen. The idea here is to protect every surface of the pieces as you tap them back into place. Place the piece on rags or bits of carpet. Protect the surface you’re going to be tapping with the hammer with a rag, then the short piece of wood which you’ll strike with the hammer. Dab a little carpenter’s glue between the surfaces. Use firm but gentle strikes to tap the pieces together snugly. Use the damp cloth to wipe away excess glue. Repeat with each piece. Once all the pieces are together, go around and give each joint an extra tap. Where possible, use clamps to draw them tight. Again you want to apply your judgment here. It’s possible that not all joints are going to go back together as tightly as original so again put your focus where it matters most, where it’s most likely to be visible. Just bear in mind that it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to notice – or care – if a few joints aren’t perfectly aligned and 100% tight. Your main concern should be functionality – does it affect the way the four legs stand? If moving parts are involved, do the parts move properly and smoothly? Satisfy those basic questions and let the minor details slide. Again, this is what the pros have to do. Pros make mistakes, pros will be less than perfect. But they learn where to hide the mistakes, where to focus their best efforts. You’ll do the same.
Once it’s all together, apply a second coat of stain following everything discussed so far. Then let it dry and bingo, you’re done and ready to move on to another piece.
So here’s my finished table.
Is it perfect? Nope. I could go over it and find little nicks and other imperfections. But does anyone else do this? Nope. They see a beautifully refinished piece of furniture that looked like crap before. Then they’ll never notice it again. It’s just a piece of furniture where they’ll put their coffee cup, the TV remote and a few magazines. Which is another big lesson in life – your best efforts are seldom noticed by the world. Yup, this can hurt.
But this is part of the zen too. When you’re working on a piece of furniture, what you’re really working on is yourself for yourself. The only person who really needs to notice is you. Work on what’s important, let go of what’s not so important, and like that furniture you refinished, people will notice improvements and then just accept you for who you are.