Upcycling Furniture & Home Decor For Dummies
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Vintage solid-wood pieces that are 50 to 99 years old are ideal for restoring. These items are well made and feature quality artisanship that’s worth preserving.

Photos of a chair before and after refinishing ©John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
A refinished chair, before and after the work

But before you do any restoration or refinishing, you need to determine whether the piece you’ve found is worth saving. The main factors to consider are:

  • Dovetail joints: A strong joinery technique of interlocking “pins” and “tails."
  • Sturdy build: Solid wood and good bones are ideal.
  • Manufacturer’s stamps: A stamp is a sign of high quality that has been placed on the furniture by an artisan. A newer, factory-made piece won’t have a maker’s mark). The photo below shows a stamp on the piece.
Photo of a manufacturer's stamp on a piece of furniture ©John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
A manufacturer's stamp on furniture indicates a high-quality piece made by an artisan.

Do the “rickety test” and shake the piece back and forth to see how solid it is. You want a piece that’s structurally sound.

Supplies for restoring

As with any project, you should make sure you have the supplies you need for the various stages of furniture restoring. These are the materials you’ll use:
  • Cleaning: Dish soap, warm water, buckets and bowls, clean rags and cloths, old toothbrush, mineral spirits, vacuum
  • Stripping: Sandpaper (various grits), electric sander, sanding block, chemical stripper, putty knife
  • Repairing: Epoxy putty, wood restorer, wood filler, wood glue, antique wax, oxalic acid, an iron, stir sticks, clamps
  • Painting: Paint, stain, paintbrushes, drop cloth
  • Sealant: Wood sealant, wax, poly
  • Safety: Goggles, mask, gloves
Every restoration starts with a solid cleaning. Vacuum the piece and then give it a proper scrub with a mix of dish soap and warm water. Old toothbrushes are great for getting into the nooks and crannies.

When the piece is good and clean, assess the finish to determine your next steps. Wipe the piece with mineral spirits to temporarily reveal how it would look with clear finish. This won’t harm the piece, and you might discover that all it needs is a good coating of sealant.

Here are some signs that you need to further restore the piece:

  • Water rings and blemishes are visible.
  • The finish is peeling and flaking.
  • Even after cleaning, the surface is sticky.
  • Wood cracks are present.

Removing the old finish

You can strip the finish off the wood in three ways:
  • Scraping with a paint scraper if the finish is flaky
  • Sanding with sandpaper if the finish has a light sheen
  • Stripping with a chemical stripper if the finish is very glossy
If you need to scrape, follow these steps:
  1. Scrape off the brittle finish with a paint scraper or putty knife.
  2. Sand any remaining bits of finish with fine-grit sandpaper.
To use sanding as your stripping method, follow these steps:
  1. Start sanding with a medium-grit sandpaper. Sand until most of the finish is off.
  2. Switch to a fine-grit to remove the last bits of the former finish.
Using a chemical stripper is a little more involved than the other two methods. Here’s what you need to do:
  1. Set up your work area in a well-ventilated space. Wear gloves, a mask, and eye protection.
  2. Apply chemical stripper with a disposable brush.
  3. Allow the stripper time to work its magic.
  4. Scrape off the old finish with a putty knife.
  5. Use mineral spirits and steel wool to clean off the residue of the previous finish.

Removing black marks

Oxalic acid is brilliant for removing black stains from wood that has been exposed to metals and moisture. Use the following steps to apply oxalic acid to remove the black marks:
  1. Buy oxalic acid in crystal form from an online retailer.
  2. Dissolve the oxalic acid in hot water according to the manufacturer’s directions.
  3. While wearing heavy-duty gloves and a mask, dip a rag into the mixture and wipe the whole wooden panel, not just the stained area. Wiping the full area ensures that the color removal is consistent across the whole surface.
  4. Let the wood dry fully.
  5. Assess whether the stain was fully removed or if it needs another application. Repeat steps 3 and 4 if needed until the stain has disappeared.
  6. Add baking soda to water and wash off the crystals to neutralize the acid. The basic baking soda neutralizes the acidic oxalic acid.
  7. Allow the furniture to dry fully before sealing.

Be aware that you’re handling an acid. Wear protection. Don’t brush the crystals into the air or onto the ground because doing so will cause you to cough. And never mix the oxalic acid with another chemical or bleach.

Removing white rings

White rings on furniture come from moisture that has soaked into the wood sealant and gotten trapped. The photo below shows the dreaded water rings.

Photo showing water ring stains in wood furniture ©John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Water rings in wood

Water rings aren’t a total deal breaker. Here are a few different methods for removing them:

  • An iron: Place a T-shirt over the stain and then iron over it on a low setting. Avoid using the steam function as this will make the stain worse. Try doing a spot test first. Check progress frequently.
  • A hair dryer: Move the hair dryer side to side on a low setting over the affected area.
  • An equal mixture of olive oil and white vinegar: Brush this mixture onto the wood in the direction of the grain. Wipe the whole surface of the wood. Follow by wiping with a clean, dry cloth.
  • Mayonnaise or petroleum jelly: Dab the mayonnaise or petroleum jelly onto the damaged area and allow it to sit for a few hours. Wipe it away with a clean, dry cloth.

Repairing scratches, chips, and cracks

To remove scratches, lightly sand with fine-grit sandpaper in the direction of the wood grain. Smooth out the area by sanding once again with extra-fine sandpaper. Clean off the dust and refinish the wood with oil or wax.

Wood putty is perfect for repairing smaller cracks and chips in wood. Use epoxy putty for larger gaps. This is the process for filling chips, and cracks:

  1. Look for wood putty in the same shade as your wood.
  2. Dab the putty on the crack using a putty knife.
  3. Smooth the putty with the putty knife.
  4. Let it dry fully.
  5. Sand the area with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth it out.
If there are cracks in the wood, fill it with wood glue. In order to get the wood glue in, insert a toothpick into the split to carefully prop it open and then apply wood glue to the area with a stir stick. Then remove the toothpick and use paint tape or clamps to hold the area together while it dries.

Restoring missing color

There are a couple options for recoloring your furniture piece. You can use gel stain or wood stain.

Gel stain

Gel stain is wonderful for restoring furniture color. It’s a bit of a miracle product, honestly, because you don’t even have to strip the finish first. You can apply gel stain by following these steps:
  1. Wipe on the gel stain with a lint-free cloth.
  2. Wipe with a clean, dry cloth to remove the excess stain.
  3. Let it dry overnight.
  4. Seal it with finish.

If you don’t like the result of the gel stain, you can use mineral spirits to wipe it away before it dries.

Wood stain

Wood stain is nice and easy to apply. You simply wipe it on as described here:
  1. Sand the piece down.
  2. Use a tack cloth to remove the sanding dust.
  3. Stir the wood stain and apply it with a clean, dry rag.
  4. Wipe the area with a clean rag to remove the excess stain.
  5. Add more layers as necessary.
  6. Finish with sealant.
It’s hard to remove stain once it’s on (unless you sand it down again), so it’s best to start with light layers and build up to your desired color.

Refinishing antique furniture

Sometimes hands-on experience is the best teacher. If you want to follow along with the process step by step, here’s an example of how to refinish a vintage dining room chair:
  • Find a piece to refinish. I found a vintage chair at a thrift shop. With its solid wood construction and a Made in Czechoslovakia stamp on the underside, this piece had great bones, but it was definitely ready for some TLC.
  • Clean the piece. After a solid cleaning, it was evident that this chair had significant water damage. The photo below shows the condition of the piece.
Photo of water damage on an antique chair

©John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Cleaning revealed the water damage.

  • Sand the flaws away. Based on my assessment, it seemed most effective to sand the piece down to remove the damage. For a job like this, start with a medium-grit sandpaper and work down to a fine grit.
  • Clean up the dust. A tack cloth is perfect for removing the sanding dust so the debris doesn’t get stuck in your new finish. The photo below shows the tack cloth in action.
Photo showing the use of tack cloth to remove dust from a chair after sanding

©John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Use a tack cloth to remove sanding dust.

  • Stain the wood. Pick a stain that matches the color of the wood. Wipe it on with a clean, dry cloth. Start with a light coat and build up to your desired color. The photo below shows the staining process.
Photo showing applying new stain on an antique chair

©John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Staining the wood brings it back to its former glory, without the damage.

  • After the stain has dried, give it a light hand sand with a fine-grit sandpaper to smooth the piece and prepare it for finishing. Seal in all that magic with a finish of your choice. I used wipe-on poly here. See the finished frame stained, sealed and fabulous in the photo below.
  • Finish to perfection.
Reassemble your piece and add the finishing touches. In this case, I reupholstered the seat.

To learn how to reupholster, check out my book Upcycling Furniture & Home Decor For Dummies.

Photo of chair after completing sanding, staining, and sealing ©John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Glorious and gleaming, the chair is sanded, stained, and sealed.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Judy Rom runs Upcycle That, a website dedicated to everything upcycling. Judy aims to inspire readers to reuse items to enable a more beautiful, sustainable, and rich lifestyle.

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