Common Refinishing Mistakes - I've made them ALL!

Written by: Sara

I began refinishing furniture about 12 years ago. Pinterest hadn’t  caught on yet, and the farmhouse frenzy hadn’t yet been born. Craigslist was still the place to go for a good deal on old furniture, and bold accent colors were trending. Does anyone else secretly miss Red? 

When I first started refinishing furniture, there weren’t piles of blogs on the subject to guide me through the process. Most of my wisdom on the subject has been earned through making mistakes, sometimes costly ones. Below are some of the biggest mistakes to watch for if you decide to tackle a refinishing project. 

MISTAKE 1: Sanding Through a Veneer

There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re working with a solid wood piece of furniture, only to sand a little too energetically, straight down into a plywood (or worse, particle board) substrate. The truth is that even high quality furniture can have a veneer. The veneer may be nice and thick and made of good quality wood, but it’s still a veneer, which means there’s a limit to how much sanding it can take. Avoid ruining your project by checking the back of a casegood piece or the bottom of a table top. A chest or dresser back will expose where the veneer is glued to the substrate. If you see a thin slice of wood on top of something thicker, you’re looking at a veneer.

This doesn’t mean your piece isn’t a good quality. It just means sand with caution! The vast majority of mass produced furniture manufactured after the start of the 20th century will have wood veneers. What’s underneath that veneer is anyone’s guess, so be gentle with that sander. Once you oversand, the piece is destined to be painted for life. 

MISTAKE 2: Painting Over Laminate 

You can truly create some beautiful, one of a kind pieces with all  the refinishing products on the market today. However, no amount of product will elevate the quality of the piece. Painting and refinishing furniture takes time and patience, and in order to get paint to stick to slick laminate surfaces, there are additional steps involved. Laminate surfaces also limit  the customization that can be done. It’s hard to get a lightly rubbed finish on plastic. Unless the project serves a very specific purpose, I strongly suggest donating worn laminate veneer pieces and opting instead for quality wood furniture. You’ll get a much more attractive end result and an heirloom quality piece. 

MISTAKE 3: Not Making Repairs

I’ll be the first to admit that I often lack patience in my refinishing processes. I like the gratification of finishing a project. However, it’s short lived if I don’t take time to make the necessary repairs to the piece prior to refinishing. Even the nicest furniture can end up with broken drawer tracks, chipped or lifting veneers, and loose drawer joints. All of these can be easily fixed with little effort or expense. Measure your drawer tracks and order replacements from the internet. In most cases, it’s as simple as unscrewing the old and replacing with the new. Veneers that have lifted just need a little wood glue and an overnight date with a wood clamp. If you’re short on clamps, a stack of heavy books can do the trick just as well. Chipped veneers can be filled with stainable/paintable wood filler. Once it’s dried, sand the edges until smooth and finish accordingly. Drawer joints should all be glued or brad nailed back into place. By taking the time to make some simple repairs, your piece will have a higher quality finished result. 

With all of the different furniture paints and finishing products on the market, it can be confusing about what to use and when. There’s nothing more disheartening than slaving over a refinishing project and then watching it soak up grape juice and stain because you didn’t seal it properly. (Of course, I learned this one the hard way.) Sealing your piece is your insurance policy against those unsightly stains and cup rings. But what do you seal it with? Poly? Wax? Tears? The type of sealant you use depends on the function of your piece. A table top for example, requires a more heavy duty product. Let’s say you’ve just sanded and stained a dining table. Once that stain is dry, you’ll need to coat it with several coats of polyurethane. This seals up all the pores of the wood and prevents liquid from penetrating. I prefer using a wipe on poly to avoid streaking. Wipe on a good coat and then sand between layers with a high grit sanding sponge (The higher the better! 320 is lovely!) If you’re sealing the base of a table that will see less use, you can simply buff it with a little furniture wax. It’s also worth noting, that chalk paint and genuine milk paint must ALWAYS be sealed and acrylic based paints should be sealed for high traffic surfaces. I prefer polyurethane on stained surfaces and polycrylic or wax on painted surfaces as polyurethane will yellow slightly over time. 

And if only this was an exhaustive list of refinishing mistakes. It’s not. With each new project comes new surprises and little tidbits of unwanted but valuable wisdom. Hopefully these basics will get you going in the right direction for your project. Happy refinishing!

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