Home & Decor

Tips for Refinishing Antique Furniture

tips for refinishing old furniture

by guest contributor Paisley Hansen

Vintage and antique furniture often work well with items from other periods and and modern decades. Built using quality lumber and fasteners, they are a good investment. However, those treasures from the past might look a little tired and faded. Refinishing can bring back their beauty or add a new spin on an old style. How much work is involved depends on your particular piece of furniture.

Here are some tried and true tips to help you refinish your old or antique furniture for a brand new look!

Preliminary Cleaning

refinishing old furniture-painting a dresser

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Sometimes the best refinishing is no refinishing. A piece of furniture that is in good shape and that still has a nice smooth finish may require nothing more than a good cleaning to make it look like new. An oil-based cleaner will usually remove the sticky build-up that is usually found on old furniture. More stubborn grime can be removed using small amounts of dishwashing detergent and water. Use water sparingly and dry off the furniture to avoid hazing of the finish.


Test the piece for soundness and stability before refinishing it. Rock it back and forth on its legs. If it seems wobbly, you may have to reglue its joints. After the troublesome bits are taken apart, remove the old glue from the joints, clean off any remaining residue and then reglue the entire piece. While you are disassembling the furniture, protect the wood from gouges by wrapping metal tools in a few layers of soft cloth. Work gently to avoid splintering the wood or damaging dovetail joints.


If you are going to strip and refinish a wooden item, preview the result by applying stain or varnish to a hidden area such as the bottom of a table. Discreet testing in an unseen spot will save you a lot of time and effort if you do not like the result. Older pieces made of pine were often painted rather than stained or varnished. If the paint is badly chipped, strip the old paint, wipe down the surfaces with mineral spirits, sand any rough spots, fill dings and dents that you do not want and then repaint the item. Think twice about fixing dings, dents and scratches because they often add character to old furniture.

Take it All Off

refinishing wood furniture

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Refinishing an ornately carved cabinet or table will require more time and care than a barn door needs. A piece of furniture with lots of carved curlicues will require wrapping a small pointed tool in a piece of cloth and laboriously ferreting out all traces of ancient varnish and shellac.

Preparation and planning will help you choose the right way to refinish your cherished antique. It may not be possible to make it look good as new, but sometimes less is more. Treat your treasure gently as you breathe new life into it.

Tung Oil

tung oil

Photo: Unfinished Oak, Jacobean Stain, Garnet Shellac, Tinted Waterlox, Tung Oil

If you really like the grain of the wood, a few coats of tung oil will preserve and protect it without hiding its beauty. While it has to be reapplied from time to time, tung oil does not become sticky like linseed oil does. Apply the oil with a soft cloth until the wood cannot absorb anymore. Now you are ready for the labor-intensive part: hand-rubbing the oiled surface to give it a gloss. The best way is to literally rub in the oil with the heel of your hand. It may take 15 minutes or more of rubbing in one spot to raise the shine.


painting old furniture

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Pine seldom has an interesting grain, so painting pine furniture can make it more visually interesting. On really old items, a milk-based paint enhances the timeless appeal of their clean lines. Milk paint gives a softer sheen, while a modern enamel is glossier. Enamel may protect the wood better against stains, water marks and dings.

turquoise dresser

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refinishing old furniture painting dressers

Photo Credit: jmilb via Compfight cc

Adding new hardware can also change the look and bring your freshly painted pieces a classic, modern, eclectic, or antique feeling.

Metal Effects

metal refinishing

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A bucket of warm water, dishwashing liquid, a soft rag and some elbow grease work wonders on painted metal items. Stripping the old finish, removing spots of rust and applying a rustproof paint is a good strategy. Rustproof paints protect against further damage and are available in a wide range of colors.

Happy Refinishing!

Just because an item doesn’t fit with your present decor doesn’t mean it can’t, and with a few little upgrades, you’ve got a unique piece for a fraction of the cost of buying new and have given back to the environment by recycling. It’s a win win!

Maegan Tintari

LA native & lifestyle blogger Maegan Tintari writes daily at ...love Maegan.com sharing beauty & style secrets, including fashion DIYs, how-to nail art manicures, hair tutorials, recipes & home decorating ideas, as well as a look into her personal life, her journey & battle with infertility & recent relocation to the mountains by a lake in search of a better life with her adorable French Bulldog brothers, Trevor and Randy.

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