Here's the step-by-step of prepping and applying finish, staining, and varnish—all according to a professional restorer.
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Credit: Kirsten Francis

Your wood furniture is brimming with design opportunity; sometimes, it just takes a little refinishing. "Finishing a piece of wood is not only an aesthetic choice, but it also protects wood, which is susceptible to the effects of moisture, and other environmental changes," says Jane Henry of Jane Henry Studios, a full-service antique conservation and restoration shop based in New York City. Before you set out to refinish a beloved piece of wooden furniture, Henry says to double check that the piece actually warrants it. "First you need to determine that a piece should be refinished, rather than cleaned and spot-repaired," she says. "This involves assessing how much damage the current finish has sustained; whether refinishing would diminish the value (such as if the piece predates the mid-19th century); also, if it would do more harm than good, such as if the piece is a veneered laminate rather than solid wood."

Looking for more advice about how to properly refinish wood? We asked Henry for her top tips on refinishing wood like a pro.

Take care of all your prep work.

Henry says the first step to successfully refinishing wood is to do all of your prep work ahead of time. "You have to decide if you will be using a chemical stripper, or skip straight to sanding," she says. "Once your finish has been removed, you should wipe the surface down with a rag lightly soaked with mineral spirits or other solvent. This will show you the 'wet color,' and will also indicate whether there are any trouble spots, such as areas of damaged grain, where the stain and finish might read as darker, or areas where there is still old finish, which may appear lighter. If you notice anything, you will probably have to give it an additional sanding once the spirits have evaporated."

Apply finish with finesse.

While some finishes are traditionally wiped on, Henry says other are applied with a brush. "It's wise to do a sample of your finish in a small out-of-the way area to make sure you are getting the intended effect," she says. "If you are brushing, invest in a good quality brush specific to the finish you decide to apply; and if you are wiping, make sure to use a non-lint-producing material, like a clean rag or fine cheesecloth. Sanding in between coats may be necessary if nits and dust have settled on the surface during drying."

Use water-based finishes for a natural look.

According to Henry, different finishes have different functions, so you should always consider how you are going to use the piece before refinishing it. "Take into account how high traffic the piece is, how durable you need the finish to be, and what look you want to achieve," she says. "In general, I'm not a fan of water-based finishes, which often dull the wood's depth and quality, but they're a good choice if you don't want to deepen the wood's color."

Try an oil-based finish for a deeper hue.

Searching for a foolproof finish that will darken the current color of your wood? Henry suggests employing something oil-based. "Oil-based penetrative finishes (such as tung or linseed oil, or Waterlox) or an oil-varnish blend (such as Watco brand) give a deeper and more yellow cast to wood and are the easiest to handle," she says. "Just wipe on, wait, and buff."

Be careful with varnish.

Although the results can beautiful, Henry says varnishes, including polyurethane, can often be tricky to apply. "They are a bit harder to work with, as they tend to get streaky and uneven if overworked, and can appear plastic-y if applied too thickly," she says. "Of these, a wipe-on poly is the easiest, and most user-friendly, but requires more coats."


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