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April 4

Refinishing Wood: Part One

I bet you didn’t see this coming after all my sewing and knitting, did you?!

One of the first crafty things I learnt, was how to refinish wood.  Somewhere around a respective age of 17, I worked at a local framing shop/art gallery in my hometown.  Customers would come into the shop with a picture to frame or have something re-framed.  And in most of the re-framing instances, the old one was hideous and covered with paint.  So one day I came home with some 70’s color frame, and decided to strip it down and refinish it.  My mother taught me the basics, and I ran with it from there.  And it remains as one of my handiest skills today.

Sometime during the late fall in 2010, I took an ottoman-making class at my local fabric shop, The Needleshop.  We constructed an ottoman from scratch and sewed our covers up with some piping.  Since I didn’t have my legs shipped yet (via Midmodnest), I just took it home un-legged.  And sadly, it has remained that way since (but continues to be a good place to temporarily place my interfacing on).

Having some spring fever setting in, I decided to pick up this old project and move it to the front of the queue.  And how that I have this handy little blog, I thought I’d share with you some basics about staining/varnishing wood.

Here we go, peeps.

Step One:

Get on your grubbiest clothes, because wood-stain stains, and you don’t want your pretty clothes all messed up.

Yep, this is me.  This is one of my favorite shirts that I’ve had since I was about 7 (it has paint on it already, so it’s all good), pants from high school, shoes from who-knows-when.  Can you tell I’ve done some painting in the past?!  heh

Pull up your hair, if you have long hair.  This is a must also!  The last thing you want is your hair getting in your wood stain or varnish, or having bits of hair on your newly refinished furniture.

Okay, now that we’re all prepped, here’s the supplies you’ll need and what they’re for.

Tack Cloth:  This is really important to have on hand.  Tack Cloth is cheese cloth, that is covered in beeswax, so it’s quite sticky/tacky to the touch. You use it after sanding to remove all of the extra particles.

Stain: For my project, I’m using a 2 in 1 stain that also contains polyurethane.  So instead of varnishing your piece after staining, this is is an all in one product.  I generally don’t use all in one’s, but since I’m only using it on some legs and due to the fact that the finish I’ve chosen is almost black, this is the best way to go for this particular project.  *So all the steps I will show you apply to the clear varnish also.*

Wiping Cloths:  You don’t need these for this particular project since we won’t be wiping the stain off since I’m using stain that contains the polyurethane.  You really don’t need to buy these actually to do your project.  Any old t-shirts you have on hand will do the trick.

Brush:  I like to use these foam brushes (they’re only like 30 cents) for my varnishing.  You can brush on your varnish very evenly and neatly.  And once you’re done, you can throw it away.

Note: Refinishing is not very eco-friendly in it’s products.  It’s a mixed-bag really.  One one hand, you’re reworking something so that it doesn’t have to go to waste or worse, to the dump.  But on the other hand, you have to use harsh chemicals in order to do so which can’t be good for the environment either.

I do try to be good and re-use, but in this instance, it’s really not worth the trouble to try and clean your 30 cent brush, with an even harsher chemical in order to reuse it.  But I can say, that if you’re working on a lot of stuff at the same time, and just wish to take a break for lunch or whatever,  you can try to wrap your brushes in some plastic wrap to preserve it for when you go back again.  I do this for my paint brushes all the time and it works like a charm.

Okay, moving on to the rest of our supply list:

Gloves: A must!!! Unless you don’t care about getting stain on your hands.  The downside to gloves is that you smell like latex afterward.

Sand-paper or sand-brick.  I really love the new sanding bricks.  They’re foamy on the inside, so you can literally push them into small crevices and curves to get a nice even sanding job.  They’re expensive, but worth it to me.

Stirring stick: For mixing up your varnish and/or stain.

Steel wool:  This is really used more for stripping the wood, which I won’t be covered today.  So it’s really not quite necessary, but it can sometimes serve as a replacement for your sanding paper in a pinch, but only if you don’t have much to sand.

Denatured alcohol:  This is important to have on hand.  This opens up the pores of the wood so that your stain can really penetrate the wood, to get a nice even color.

Oh, I completely forgot to show you the legs I picked out.

I love the atomic legs in themselves, but I’ve actually picked these out in order to match the chair that the ottoman will be paired with.  Here you can see the grain of the wood quite clearly.  In all of our steps, we always work with the grain.  (It’s kinda like fabric, in that sense.)  You will always be working the wood, on grain.  That is to say the grain here is vertical (up and down) so that will be the same way you’ll be sanding, rubbing, staining, etc.

Okay, now that we’ve our covered all of our ingredients and spoke a bit about grain, let’s move on to the prep work.

Step One: Sanding.

My legs are already quite smooth, but you’ll want to really sand your piece thoroughly so that there aren’t any bumps or blemishes.  Any little bit of the wood fiber that isn’t sanded down, will only be accentuated by your varnish.  This is key to a nicely finished end-product.  See me sanding up and down with the grain.  You never, ever! want to sand against the grain (or side to side here).

Step Two: Tack cloth-ing

Okay, I don’t think there’s any such thing called tack cloth-ing, but it’s all good.  This tack cloth.  It’s really just some cheese cloth that has been coated in beeswax.  So it’s really sticky, and well, tacky.  What it does is that it gets all of the little particles off of the wood surface from your sanding step.  This step is also important (as they all are).  But here it’s important because it prevents little chunks of sawdust under the varnish (polyurethane) which would result in a bumpy finish, that wouldn’t feel nice to the touch.  In a quick pinch, you could use a damp rag, but it won’t work nearly as well as the tack cloth.  If you’re doing a large project, make sure you have enough of this on hand.

The tack cloth will make your hands sticky too, so make sure to wash them before the next step.  You could wear gloves, but it will leave your gloves sticky which wouldn’t be good to work with.  So I just prefer to use my bare hands for this step.

Step Three: Denatured Alcohol

Carfully pour out some of the alcohol onto your (lint-free) rag, and rub your wood, on the grain.  You’ll have to keep pouring on some denatured alcohol, because it dries fast and the wood soaks it up quickly too.

Please note I now have one glove on, for the hand that is handling the alcohol.  While it’s not imperative at this point to wear a glove, I highly recommend it.  I’ve gotten this alcohol on my skin before and it turned it completely ash white.  I’ll explain.

The reason why it left my skin ashy-white, was that it removed all of the oil from my skin and dried it out. So while you don’t have to wear gloves, it’s just good practice and also prevents a moisturizing-fest later.

So the purpose of the denatured alcohol is first, and foremost, to open up the pores of the wood surface to allow the stain to penetrate the wood.  This enables you to get a nice uniform stain on your wood surface.  Secondly, it removes any of the beeswax that was left of the surface of the wood from step two.

As I stated earlier, I’m using a 2-in-1 product that has the stain mixed with the varnish.  So I’m sorry I won’t be covering ‘true’ staining today, but I hope to in the coming months.

Step 4: Staining (yay!)

Okay, get both gloves on now, peeps!!  And then what you’ll need to do is to stir your varnish/stain.

The key ingredients usually settle to the bottom, so make sure you give it a good stir.  But be gentle, the last thing you want is stain all over. (But that’s why I have bags covering my work surface and crappy clothes on.)

Let’s get our staining/varnishing on!

Dip the end of your brush into the stain and get rid of the excess.  See how far I go on my brush with the stain.  It’s not far, right?!  You don’t want to saturate your brush with this stuff, a little goes a long way.  Again, we’re working with the grain of the wood.  You’ll always move the brush with the grain (not against it).  I know I’m sounding like a broken record on this, but it is really important.  No matter what woodworking project you’re working on, you should always work with the grain.

I know it looks like I’m painting, but it’s not; it’s just that my stain is soo dark (almost black).  This mixture feels quite thin when you’re working with it too, not at all like paint.

So one thing to keep in mind, is that you want to be gentle with this stuff.  What I mean is that you want to run your brush smoothly over the surface, but you never want to press hard.  You just want to skim the surface, without leaving streaks.

What happens when you push too hard is that you get drips and bubbles.  Two things that are your enemy here.  Let me say that again.  You do not want bubbles or drips!

Here’s a picture of both bubbles and drips (aka the enemy):

Sorry for the camera flash…

First, can you see the drip on the left side, at the bottom.  It looks like pooling, doesn’t it.  This is what happens when you press too hard on the brush.  Even though this mixture is thin, you can also get drips, which you also don’t want.  If you don’t notice the drips, and it dries for 6-12 hours, you’re going to have to sand the surface all the way down again (to a pre-drip level) and start all over.  It’s a pain, and I’ve done it before.  So drips are preventable, so look out for these.  All you have to do to get rid of the drip, while your varnish is still wet of course, is to run over the area with your brush, which will naturally suck up the excess, since we’re using a foam brush here.

The second foe is the dreaded, mini-bubble, which I’m sure you see pretty clearly.  These bubbles will never pop, so you have to run your brush over them again, but gently, to get rid of them.  They’re caused by pressing down too hard on your brush but they’re also created when you pick your brush up from the surface, sometimes.

If you do have some bubbles that form on your piece and you didn’t catch them when they were wet what you have to do to get rid of them is to sand down the surface to the beginning and varnish again.  So watch out for these suckers.

Yes, I am working on my kitchen table…  But it’s okay, really.  If splatters happen (or not), I’m planning on re-painting my table this spring/summer.

*Phew* All done with round 1.

Okay, we’re all done with the first round of staining/varnishing.  They need to dry for at least 6 hours, and sometimes more if you’re in a humid climate.  Generally, I just leave it somewhere between overnight or 24 hrs.  And then I’ll come back to do a second round, and sometimes a third or fourth, depending on what I’m refinishing.  A piece that will be used every day may need more coats (3 or more) than something that is just for show.

Well, that’s all I have for you now.  Do stay tuned for part 2.  (But I do want to warn you, my 9-5 job is getting busy so I may not be able to get to the second part until next weekend.)

Thoughts? Questions? Do leave a comment with all of your questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

  1. Marty J. Christopher / Apr 4 2011

    This was a good tutorial! I’ve done a little bit of staining, but I’ve never refinished anything. It would be great to see you do a tutorial on that at some point. : O )

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