DIY Tutorial-Refinishing Furniture

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My husband was in serious need of a new desk. Being the cheapskate thrifty chick that I am, I thought it would be a great idea to save money by re-finishing a desk for him. So I headed to the nearest thrift store. Found an awesome desk. It was dusty and dirty, but it was very solidly built. Very. I think it took four men to load it into our trailer.
It’s an “L” shaped desk, so it’s actually came in two pieces. Here it is before:
diy-refinish furniturediy-refinish furniture
When I showed it to my hubbie and told him I would be painting it black, he replied, “Oh, I thought you were going to re-stain it. I’m not sure if I want a black desk.” What the? Painting I’m comfortable with. Re-staining? Not so much. But I wanted him to be happy, and I figured it would be a good skill to learn.
I had no idea how much more work it is to re-stain a piece of furniture than it is to paint it! Holey moley! I think it took me five months. But in the end, his desk really did turn out beautiful. Thank goodness.
I learned a few tricks in the process, so I thought I’d pass them on to the rest of you. So here is my method for refinishing furniture. I am definitely not a professional, so if I can do it, you can too. 🙂

How to Refinish Furniture

What you will need: paint stripper, heavy duty gloves, a large cheap paintbrush, wire brushes, toothpicks, palm sander, sanding blocks, lots of paper towels, newspaper, baby wipes, tack cloth, a paint scraper, polyurethane, stain, and several soft cloths.

-Wipe desk down with slightly damp rag or baby wipes. You just want to remove dust, cobwebs, etc.

-Put down newspapers or a drop cloth to protect your floor.
diy-refinish furniture
-Put on some heavy duty gloves. Not the cheap kind, it will eventually eat through those. Yes, I learned that the hard way. Then I bought these:
diy-refinish furniture

-Open up your bottle of paint stripper. I tried two different kinds and I preferred Citri-Strip.   It is really thick so it doesn’t drip everywhere, and the smell isn’t quite as toxic. Not really pleasant, but not furniture-Apply the paint stripper using an old paintbrush.

diy-refinish furnitureIf paint stripper splashes on your skin, it burns. Not very fun. Be very careful, and make sure you have paper towels nearby just in case.

-Make sure you cover every inch of your piece of furniture:diy-refinish furniture-Let the paint stripper sit as long as directed on the bottle. Citristrip said you could leave it on for up to 24 hours. I tried that on one section to test it, and I don’t recommend it. It dried really hard and was difficult to remove. It worked much better for me just to leave it on for about an hour.

-It will start to turn white as it dries.
diy-refinish furniture

Don’t let it dry too long or it is harder to get off. Mine was actually ready before it turned white, so just keep checking to see how easily the varnish peels off.

-Use a paint scraper to start scraping off all the gunk. You can use a plastic one:diy-refinish furnitureBut I preferred a metal one.
diy-refinish furniture

Just make sure you work with the grain of the wood and apply even pressure so you don’t make any nicks in it.

Use paper towels to get the gunk off the scraper and into a garbage can.

-If you have an intricate piece that has little curves or molding, you will need to use a wire brush to scrape of all the varnish. I’m not going to lie, it is hard work and I was swearing at some points. You will need a few wire brushes, because they get all clogged up with gunk and stop working very well.
diy-refinish furniture

-Depending on the type of varnish used on your furniture, you may have to repeat the whole process. I did. 🙁

-When you are finished, you will have residue leftover from the Citristrip:
diy-refinish furniture

-Use a piece of fine steel wool and mineral spirits to rub as much of it off as you can:diy-refinish furnitureI had some residue that was really stubborn, and I had to use my paint scraper to carefully scrape it off.

-Now you are ready to sand.

-You are going to need an electric sander. I use this one:
diy-refinish furniture
You could try sanding everything by hand, but it will probably take ten years. So buy or borrow an electric sander. I found that it was best to start with fine grit (150), then extra fine (220). Go over the entire piece with fine grit. For the spaces that are too small to fit the sander, use a sanding block. Make sure you always sand with the grain of the wood!

-When you complete the first sanding, wipe the entire piece with baby wipes to remove all the dust.
diy-refinish furniture

-Repeat the entire sanding process with the 220 grit sandpaper, and wipe it off again. Yes, I know, this is an insane amount of work!
diy-refinish furniture
-When you are satisfied that your project is totally smooth, wipe it off with tack cloth. This stuff is super sticky and will remove all the dust, even in the cracks and crevices.

-Hooray, now you are ready to apply stain. I saw several bloggers who recommended gel stain, so I decided to try it:

It is really thick, like chocolate pudding. Stir it up really well first, and then you are ready to apply it.-Use a soft cloth (I used an old t-shirt that I cut into pieces). Dip your cloth into the jar and get out some of the stain. Start rubbing it on:

I had to use a q-tip to get into some of the tiny crevices.

-I found that it worked best to start at the bottom and work up. Try to apply the stain evenly. After a minute or two, use another larger cloth to wipe off the excess stain.

-Continue till you have covered the entire surface of your furniture. Mine looked like this when I was done:

It had some uneven splotches, and it wasn’t quite as dark as I wanted, so after it was dry I gave it another coat. Actually a total of 3 coats.

-After it is totally dry, you will probably want to apply some polyurethane to protect the surface. Because you don’t want all that hard work to be wasted, do you?

-I used Minwax wipe on Poly.

I was so excited that I was so close to being finished after months of working on this project, that I forgot to take photos. But basically it is like applying furniture polish. You just put some on a soft rag and rub it in. It says on the jar to sand it down with fine grit sandpaper between each coat, but I only did that on the top of the desk and it seemed to work just fine without the extra sanding.
When you are all finished, make sure you let it cure for at least a couple of days before you use it. More is probably better. I waited a week.

You will probably want to buy new hardware to match the new style of the furniture. It makes a huge difference!!

Are you ready to see the finished result?
Here is the before again:
And here is the after:

It was a lot of work, but it really is a gorgeous desk now. We both love it!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.


  1. I LOVE this! It looks awesome. I just acquired a desk for my husband and was googling ideas on how to refinish and found your post. My question is… what type of wood was this and what is the color of stain you used? I pretty much want to do this exact thing to it, but want to get the same color stain as you. Thanks!

  2. Amanda @ Every Crafty Endeavor says

    I love that you were so honest with this project. Sometimes I see things on blogs and they make it look so easy but really it isn’t so I am glad you were just straight up with us! It looks wonderful and you did an amazing job! I need a dresser for my babies room and now I am thinking about refinishing it instead of painting it – that will make my hubby happy too!

  3. Just to let you know, I linked your wonderful tutorial on my post today. Still haven’t gotten Citra-Solv yet, but I will soon!

  4. Stephanie Cameron says

    Great job! I have had to use stripper for a few projects…but mine was different than yours. I have tried two types, a 30 minute one and a 15 minute one. I like the 15 minute best 🙂 Anyway, you did a great job. Sometimes it pays to do things the right way!!

  5. It looks beautiful – but SO much work.
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  6. Kara@ Creations by Kara says

    You asked the color of the stain I used. It is Mahogany 605. Hope that helps!

  7. Oh man, I feel for you. I've used paint stripper before and it SUCKS. I'd rather sit there for hours and just sand the whole entire piece. Lovely work. It looks so much better!

    I have a question though. The minwax wipe on stuff… is that just for use on things that have been stained or can you use that on painted pieces also? I've been wondering about this for a while..

  8. Oh, I know the work you're went through! I just refinished a dining table for a client…not as much fun as repainting! But…it does look beautiful! You guys did a fabulous job! -shaunna 🙂

  9. You're right – that is an INSANE amount of work, but it looks amazing! You did a great job! It's nice to see someone staining a piece of wood furniture. My grandpa was a carpenter and I'm sure he'd be sickened by how often we slap a coat of paint on something that would be so beautiful if someone put in the time & effort to strip & stain. Great job!

  10. Love the look of the desk!! I am about to jump into staining my family's solid oak table that has been around about 30 years!! I inherited it, b/c no one else had room for it!!

    What is the color of the stain you used? My table looks about like your "Before" picture, and I love the darker look. Thanks for sharing!!

  11. Thanks for the great tutorial. The desk looks FANTASTIC!!!

  12. You are definitely a brave soul! I know that refinishing isn't easy. I've done it many times, along with refinishing my own hardwood floors. (tops my list of things I'd never do again) The desk turned out fabulous! Great job.

    Come on by for my blogiversary giveaway. A sterling/gem necklace is up for grabs. Would love to see you there.


  13. I know that is a lot of work. It turned out great! I saw your post over at Reinvented and thought I would stop by!

  14. Colleen @ MuralMaker&More says

    Such great instructions! I usually dread stripping, but you've inspired me. Gotta try the CitriStrip too.

    Love the new drawer pulls. Perfect!

  15. Keep Calm and Decorate says

    Wow! I'm not going to lie I was scared when you mentioned "staining" it.:) Staining is a lot of work but you got a beautiful desk out of it.

  16. {All Thingz Related} says

    LOOKS GREAT! You did a super job! Thanks for sharing at Anything Related!

  17. That sounds like an awful lot of work, but clearly it was worth it! Well done. It looks gorgeous!

  18. Amy @ says

    Great tips, it really turned out pretty.

  19. That looks amazing, great job.

    I just gave you a blog award, go to my blog for instructions.

  20. That is gorgeous! Love the new hardware especially. 🙂

  21. It looks amazing, like a brand new desk. Great job!

  22. Alyssa Barnett says

    Holy cow.
    It looks beautiful – but SO much work.
    What a great wife!

    Thanks for all of the good tips.
    Now I'm ready to tackle my own stain project!


  23. Nikki@KreativeKnack says

    Oh how gorgeous! I bet your hubby is proud of you! What a wonderful job!

  24. Heather at Happy Chippy Junk says

    Woah!! Beautiful!!

  25. Ooooo…that is pretty, I mean handsome! 😉 You did a good good!

  26. Le Chateau des fleurs says

    Looks great! Come say hi!

  27. I know that paint adds a new life a lot of times but sometimes a good stain works out great! Nice job

  28. concretenprimroses says

    Incredible job. Its just beautiful!

  29. Sandy@Life Began In A Garden says

    Wow, it looks fantastic! The changing of the drawer pulls really updates it.

  30. Marilyn Holeman says

    Beautiful job, Kara!

  31. Infarrantly Creative says

    I stumbled you! This is awesome! You did a freakin rocking job! The only thing I would add is that before you stain it you apply a pre-wood conditioner. No splotchiness if you use that, it evens it out and it goes on smooth. I have refinished a ton of furniture so I know how long it took you. You deserve a huge pat on the back, a feet rub, a spa day, etc. etc. You rock Kara!

  32. BLJ Graves Studio says

    It's beautiful!!! You did an amazing job. 🙂

  33. The Nielsen Family says

    Swearing at some points huh?! LOL. It looks great!

  34. painty (Melinda) says

    That looks awesome!

  35. The Neglected Nest says

    Wow! I know it was hard work, but it sure paid off!

  36. The Thriftress says

    Thanks so much for the wonderful tutorial! The desk is beautiful now.

  37. Rory from Tools Are For Women Too! says

    You are one amazing Modern Craftswoman! I know he must love this desk. Thanks for joining the party , and hope you'll participate next week. Rory

  38. Jennifer says


  39. Wow Kara, it looks wonderful! I can know what you mean about a lot of work! In my first house I tried to do this on my kitchen cabinets but it was a total nightmare. Ended up painting them. It's great to see a positive outcome using stain, I may just have to try this again!

  40. Holy Guacamole! It's beautiful!
    I really admire your tenacity. All that hard work~and you definitely have something to show off now.

  41. Anonymous says

    Great job! No, it is not easy to re-stain furniture and it is VERY time consuming. I applauded your tenacity, in the end it paid off and you can say you did it yourself!

  42. It looks great!

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