My Refinishing Process, From Start to Finish

My Refinishing Process, From Start to Finish

Dresser before and after

How do I take a piece of furniture from dingy and dilapidated to spiffy and sparkling? I’m so glad you asked! I have a process and I’m happy to share it with you. The steps below are what I use for most every project.

The key word there is “most”. These are not hard and fast rules, but guidelines. I am a rule follower, most of the time[wink], but not every piece needs every step on this list. As I go through them, I’ll try to point out some exceptions.

The most important thing is to know what kind of look you want to achieve. Having a style goal in mind will help you know which steps must be followed and which can be skipped. For example, a distressed, vintage piece can often be more forgiving in the prep department because it will retain its old, well-loved look. But if you want a more modern, full coverage look, good prep is the key to success. For a more in-depth look at prep work click HERE.



Step 1: Take “before” pictures/video

 Before and after pics of dresser

Even if you’re not going to sell your piece, it’s fun to be able to look back at where you started. Make sure you have good lighting so you can see all the flaws, er potential.

Before pics of small table


Step 2: Remove Hardware, drawer liners, etc

For most hardware, it’s easier to remove them than to try not to get paint on them. Exception include hinges, which can be tricky to get them lined up again and crooked doors won’t look right. Just tape the hinges well before painting.



Step 3: Clean!

This is one step you can’t skip. I don’t care it this piece was pulled out of a barn or if it lived in Aunt Trudy’s spic and span home, it needs cleaning. Years of dusting sprays, pets, cooking vapors, cigarettes all will be deposited on furniture and they can prevent your new finish from adhering properly.

Cleaning furniture with a sponge 

Start by vacuuming out loose dust and spider webs. Then clean inside and out with a degreasing product. There are lots of products out there and everyone seems to have a favorite. I like to keep things environmentally friendly, so I often just use Dawn dish soap and water. Don’t forget underneath where the crawlies like to hide!

It may take a couple of rounds to get it all off. You’ll know when you’re done when your rinse water or sponge/cloth stays clean.


Step 4: Test for lead

Reworking old finishes comes with a responsibility for doing so safely. Old paints often contained lead and that can be hazardous to your health and those who own the piece in the future. Luckily, testing for lead and safely managing it are not that difficult, but precautions must be taken. After some research, I purchased test swabs by 3M that are available in most hardware and home improvement stores. They are easy to use, but you must follow the directions carefully to ensure accuracy. If your piece tests positive, you can encapsulate it so it is no longer exposed. I'll do a more in-depth look at lead in a future blog, as it is an important topic.


Step 5: Strip and Sand

If you want to remove all previous finishes down to bare wood, you’ll need to strip it. You can sand it off, but if there are several layers it would be more efficient to use a chemical stripper. There are many products on the market, and I haven’t really used them (yet), so I don’t feel comfortable recommending any here. Sounds like a topic for a future blog!

For painting, you don’t need to remove it all, but sanding will help your new finish adhere. How much to sand depends on the look you’re trying to achieve. If you’re going for a rustic, distressed look, you only need to scuff-sand the surface enough to give it a little “tooth” for the paint to hold onto. A sandpaper with a 120 grit works nicely here (more on grits below).

If you want a chippy look, you may not need to sand at all, allowing the paint to flake away in some places to give it an aged, antique look.Sanding furniture using an orbital sander

However, if you want full coverage and a smooth, sleek finish, you’ll want to sand it more thoroughly. If you will be staining or using a paint wash, you’ll want to remove every bit of the previous finish, even in the crevices. You can make this process easier if you know a little about sandpaper grits.

Sandpaper comes in different grits. The higher the number, the lighter the texture. I was taught to use several grits, starting with a lower number and stepping up several times during the process. The lower numbers are best for removing old finishes, but will leave sanding marks behind. So start with a low number such as 60 to do the bulk of the removal, then following with 90 to smooth it out more, then 120, and so until you reach 220 for a final smooth finish.

Always practice safety first! Always wear eye protection and a mask when sanding, even if outdoors. Be aware that some old finishes contain lead. Even if yours doesn’t, you don’t want to inhale any particles whatsoever.


Step 6: Make repairsMaking repairs using a hammer and pry bar

Make any structural repairs and ensure all moving parts such as drawers and doors are working properly.




Step 7: Fill holes, dents and scratches, then sand againPatches of wood filler on furniture

 Most blemishes can be smoothed with wood patch, also known as wood filler, plastic wood, or bondo. Apply it and scrape off the excess. After it has dried thoroughly, sand it smooth. Hint: close your eyes as you run your fingers over it. If you can feel it, either apply more patch or sand it until it is smooth.


Step 8: Clean again

That’s right! You want to make sure all the sanding dust is gone and it is clean so the paint will adhere. A light cleaning with a damp sponge or lint-free cloth is all it should need.


Step 9: PrimePrimer coat applied to furniture

Skip this step if you are doing a vintage or antique look with some of the wood showing through. But it you want your paint smooth and sleek with no bleed-through, using a primer first will help ensure you get the finish you want. If you project has knots or previously had an orange-y stain, you’ll be glad you took the time to apply a primer. Two coats are recommended for good stain blockage.


Step 10: Paint!

Yay! We’re finally painting! It sure feels good to put that first swipe of a gorgeous color on your project! If you’re doing a paint wash, one coat may be enough to get the depth of color you want.

Paint being applied to furniture 

For most projects, two coats are recommended. The first (often called the ugly coat) will look patchy and streaking. That’s normal. The second coat will look a whole lot better. Once in a while, a third coat may be needed. Keep it mind you’ll be applying a topcoat. Topcoats will not fix a patchy paint job, so take your time and get the paint the way you like.


Step 11: Smooth sand or distress

For a smooth, velvety finish, sand it all over with a 220 grit or higher using a VERY light touch, being careful to keep the sandpaper flat and not rounding the corners that might remove too much paint. Wipe it down with a damp cloth before adding a topcoat.

Distressing the finish with sandpaper For a distressed look, use a 180 or higher grit sandpaper to rub paint away in high impact areas such as corners, edges, around knobs and to accentuate raised areas. You could even try wet sanding usng hemp oil. Either way, it’s up to you how much to take off. Could be a little, could be a lot. That’s the fun part! Wipe it down with a damp cloth before adding a topcoat.


Step 12: Apply topcoat to enhance and protectApplying hemp oil to furniture

Milk paint finishes need a top coat the seal and protect the finish and to tailor the look to the style you want. There are lots of options for topcoats. See my blog HERE to help you decide which you want to use.



Step 13: [OPTIONAL] Apply transfers, decoupage, stencils, etc.

These embellishments are very popular and can add a lot of personality and interest to your project. They range from subtle to outrageous and everything in between. Some go on before the topcoat and others after. Maybe give them a try!

 Floral transfer applied to dresser


Step 14: Stage and photographFinished table staged with accessories

Time to immortalize your hard work with some photos or video of your finished piece. Take the time to place your piece in a setting that won’t distract from it and add a few accent pieces to complete the look. Be sure to have good lighting to really show off your accomplishment.

 Finished sideboard staged with accessories

I hope you find this information helpful. It may even raise more questions than it answers, but that’s a good thing! The more you plan for what you want to do, the better your chances of success. Feel free to send me your questions using the form at the bottom of this page. And send me pictures of your projects! I love to see what you’re working on.

Thank you for visitng Fresh Coat Finishes, and happy painting!

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