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Restoring Glory: How to Give Old Wood Furniture New Life

BY Sandy Lindsey TIMEJune 23, 2022 PRINT

Is your dining room table showing the wear and tear of family use? Or is your antique dresser showing its age, but not in a good way? Don’t go shopping or log on to buy something new; instead refresh, restore, or reimagine it.

Water rings, scratches, and general wear and tear may make you think your wood furniture is beyond saving. But good pieces are worth restoring, and it’s easier than you think.

But First, Clean

Before you strip or sand—and we’ll get to that—bypass the spray-on furniture polish—that’s just for a quick spiff up—and instead give it a thorough cleaning. Use a lemon or orange cleaner, or the old reliable Murphy’s Oil Soap. Apply as instructed, let it sit for 10 minutes, and then wipe it off. You may need to do this two or three times, allowing the wood to thoroughly dry between applications. In many cases, removing years of accumulated grime is all that’s needed to reveal the original beauty underneath.

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Start by giving your furniture a thorough cleaning. (Egeria/Shutterstock)

Stained and Dried-Out Wood

Water stains are an inevitable part of owning wood furniture. The white rings are the result of the wood absorbing excess moisture from a coffee mug or a water glass.

Get out that bottle of mayonnaise you bought for your famous summer potato salad and lightly dab a bit onto the ring. Let it sit for 30 minutes and then wipe it off. In most cases, this is all you’ll need to do.

While you’ve got the pantry open, you may want to pull out the extra-virgin olive oil and distilled white vinegar if your furniture is splotchy or dried out from being stored in an attic or basement. Mix 3/4 cup oil and 1/4 cup vinegar, dip a cloth in the mixture, and apply lightly. The acetic acid in vinegar cleans without scrubbing, while the olive oil conditions the wood, swelling the fibers and deepening the color. This may also take care of light scratches.

Scratches

Carpenters have been fixing scratches in finished and unfinished wood with nuts for centuries—and enjoying a nice snack in the process. Find a nut that matches the color of your wood, typically a walnut, pecan, or hazelnut. Rub the area with the soft meat of the nut; this fills the scratched area, while the nut oils act as a fine substitute finish.

Some people prefer java for very shallow scratches, applying fresh, dark-brewed coffee to a cotton ball and working it over the stain. Other alternatives are, depending on the wood’s color, rubbing in a tiny bit of cooking oil, shoe polish, crayons, and, of course, if you have one, a furniture filler crayon.

Note that if your furniture is painted, none of this will work, and you’ll need to use wood filler and touch-up paint.

Dents

When it comes to dents, steam them. Wet a washcloth, wring it out thoroughly, and place it over the affected area. Take your iron, set it to the highest setting, and apply it back and forth and in circles over the dent. Press down firmly until the washcloth is dry. Repeat as needed; it may take 3 to 4 times. Be careful to not apply the iron directly to the wood, or you’ll have a new repair to deal with.

If this method doesn’t raise the dent sufficiently, get some wood filler in the appropriate color. An 8-ounce can will see you through many repairs. For large dents, apply with a putty knife and smooth. Shallow dents dry in about 30 minutes, while deep ones may take two hours. Afterward, you can stain or paint it—more on that below.

Full Restoration

Restoring furniture and giving it a new lease on life is easier than you think. Before working with a genuine antique or high-value item, however, you may want to reach out to a professional to determine if it requires special care. You may even discover that it shouldn’t be refinished at all, and is more valuable as-is. If you decided to move forward, you’ll need to first clean the piece, if you haven’t already. For refinishing projects, dish soap and warm water are fine. Allow it to thoroughly dry.

Down to the Wood

Remove any existing stain, finish, or paint, using a chemical stripper as directed. Work in a well-ventilated area and wear proper safety gear. Clean the piece thoroughly again after this step, then sand the surface. This not only gets off any remaining finish, etc., but it also smooths the surface to allow the new finish to go on evenly. For small pieces, a fine-grit sandpaper is sufficient. For larger jobs, get out the random orbital sander; the random orbital motion is designed to lessen the chance it will leave sanding marks in the wood, though you still want to keep it moving around the work area. Remove any excess dust with a dust-catching tack cloth.

Seal and Finish

Before rushing into the new finish, apply a sanding sealant to keep the wood beneath from absorbing excess or uneven stain. Apply a primer in the case of painting. Next, apply the finish, or paint, of your choice as directed and enjoy your “new” furniture for many more years to come.

When It’s Not Real Wood

Don’t toss your medium density fiberboard (MDF) or particleboard furniture—you can breathe new life into it, too.

Bubbles and Water Rings

Raised areas on MDF and particleboard can’t be sanded and stained like traditional wood. Happily, they can be sanded and painted. The key is to use an oil or shellac-based primer first, as these won’t swell the substrate further, as a water-based primer would.

Scratches

The laminate coatings on this type of furniture are durable, but they can scratch. Use a polish specifically designed to remove scratches, rub a color-matched nut or crayon over it, or for a black finish, tape off the area, and then use a Sharpie, wiping off any excess immediately.

Peeling Veneer

Gently pull the loose laminate away from the particleboard until you feel a slight resistance. Apply contact cement to both the veneer and the particleboard. Clamp the pieces together. If you don’t have a clamp, a heavy weight should work equally well.

Sandy Lindsey is an award-winning writer who covers home, gardening, DIY projects, pets, and boating. She has two books with McGraw-Hill.
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