Wood Furniture - Upcycling Tips to Give a New Lease on Life

Upcycling an old stool - sanding to remove old finish

When you next fancy a change of furniture, take another look at your chairs, tables and chests before heading out to the furniture store. With a few simple steps, you can transform old wood furniture and create new decor based on trending distressed styling. With a touch of creativity and the right techniques, upcycling furniture has never been easier.

Stripping and Staining Old Wood Furniture

To refinish small items such as side tables or chairs, start by spraying or painting on stripper to remove old paint or varnish. Leave it for up to 10 minutes until the old finish starts lifting away from the wood, and help it on its way with a scraper tool. When the surface is clear, wipe it with a cloth soaked in mineral spirits, and let the wood dry before sanding it with a palm sander. Use medium-grit sandpaper to reach bare wood. Next, fine-sand to create a beautiful, smooth finish. Remove all sanding dust with a tack cloth, and apply your chosen stain.

After the first stain application, wipe away any excess with a clean cloth, working in the direction of the grain. Let the stain dry, and apply a second coat, wiping away any excess. Continue this process until you reach the desired color. When the final coat is dry, protect the wood by spraying it with two clear coats of an oil-based finish, smoothing it with 200-grit sandpaper in between coats. Make sure you wear a protective mask during spraying, and keep the room well ventilated.

Refinishing Furniture without Stripping

To restore wood furniture without using a chemical stripper, clean the item thoroughly with dish soap. Fix any white rings by rubbing in petroleum jelly and leaving it on overnight or by applying a remover. Scrape off any paint spots with a straight-edge razor, using masking tape around each edge. Use wood filler to repair any holes or chips, and sand down the repair when dry.

Stain the repair to match the surrounding wood. Fill in any cracks with wax repair sticks, and repair small dents by applying water to the area to make the wood swell back into shape. Make a few cuts across the grain with a razor blade to help the water soak in. Restore the entire wood surface with gel stain, and apply a wipe-on finishing coat for protection.

Painting Wood Furniture

If you prefer to paint wood furniture, prepare the surface by cleaning and sanding it thoroughly. Use coarse-grit sandpaper for rough surfaces, working with the wood grain. Next, move to a finer grit, or start with the finer grit if the surface is already fairly smooth. After sanding, remove all dust by wiping with a tack or damp microfiber cloth. If the surface is varnished, you might need to use a chemical stripper. Alternatively, some primers adhere directly to varnished surfaces that have been lightly sanded to create texture. Apply primer, let it dry, sand lightly to remove any drips or ripples, and wipe it down with a damp cloth. Apply paint. If you're short on time, keep in mind that some chalk paints can be painted directly onto any surface without primer or rubbing down, though you should always sand down any old, flaking paint. Prepping a stool to be painted by hand sanding to remove old finish

Achieving a Shabby-Chic Effect

To achieve the distressed paint finish associated with shabby-chic furniture, apply a second coat of paint in a contrasting color. When it's dry, apply a natural wax. Let the wax dry, apply another wax coating, and let the second coat dry before sanding key areas with 100-120-grit sandpaper. For best results, choose areas such as edges and corners that you expect to experience natural wear and tear. Use a dark wax to create an even more aged appearance. Finish with a coat of clear wax, and buff with a cloth.


Once you've experienced the fun of upcycling your own furniture, you can scour thrift shops looking for new projects. Leave anything pre-1850 to the experts. Instead, look out for furniture made prior to the 1960s as it's most likely to be sturdy, solid wood that's ripe for refinishing.