Ground Zero - First steps in refinishing a piece of furniture

>> 2.03.2014

A few disclaimers: There's a lot of information here. I hope I end up educating you and not under or overwhelming you, but this is really only scratching the surface of refinishing furniture. Scratching. That's punny. Anyway, this is just information that I have gathered from many years of refinishing furniture. I am NOT an expert.

Also, get ready to see a load of really ugly "before" pictures.

And lastly, you are going to hear the word "stripper" more times in one blog post than you've ever heard before.

OK! Shall we start?

You've found a piece of furniture and you have an idea of what you want to do with it.

So now what?

PART I - Know your materials

The very first thing you need to do is get your piece of furniture to a point where it is ready to paint, or "ground zero" as I like to call it. Ground zero is different for every piece of furniture. It could mean stripping old paint completely down to the bare wood, or sanding it down so that new paint is able to adhere to furniture, or it could also mean priming it to allow proper adhesion. But in order to figure out what route to take to get to "ground zero" you need to analyze what kind of material you are working with. It is important to do this because sanding and/or stripping can be ineffective or even hurt certain materials.

The main types of materials used in furniture are solid wood, wood veneer and laminate ( including particle board/MDF) Sometimes its difficult to determine what type of material you are working with, but there are some tricks to help you figure it out.

1. Look for wood grain on a section of the furniture. Now try to find the backside of that same piece of wood. Is the grain the same as the front side? If so, you're pretty much safe in assuming it is a solid piece of wood. If you can't see the backside, look at the ends of the piece of wood, like the bottom of the sides, or legs. Do you see what looks like a solid piece of wood and a consistent grain? If so, it's probably wood.

2. Check for chips or dents. You can often tell if it is wood or layers of wood (veneer) by looking at chips or dents on the sides. Does the top layer splinter off revealing another layer of (oftentimes less desirable) wood? Then it most likely has a veneer top layer, like this old family heirloom of mine had.  

Do the chips or dents reveal what looks like cardboard? Then you would be looking at laminate/MDF/particle board material. If you ever have exposed particle board, do not sand it. It will flake off and ruin any chances of you saving that section of the piece. It would be best to prime over this section. (If you really wanted to fill in those holes, you can too, but that's for another blog post.)

3. Texture. Veneer and solid wood have a grain to them, which is an easy way to tell what you're working with. Laminate tops are usually very smooth, with what looks like a glossy film over it. And laminate also has a different feel to it than wood. Also be aware that many pieces, especially those made in the 60's and on, will do a combination of wood with a laminate top. This piece is an example of that. With laminate and wood right next to each other, it's pretty easy to tell what is what. Do you notice the sheen on the top? Do you see the way the sides of the top come together? It looks like the edges of a laminate counter top, whereas the drawers and the sides of the dresser have the texture and feel of wood. Also, with age, you will see little dents and chips in the wood, as seen here. But the laminate wears down differently. You would not be able to strip down and re-stain the top of this piece because it's laminate, but you could always re-stain the rest of it and paint the top, or just leave it as-is.

**If there is a layer of paint in the way of finding out if you have wood or some other form, and it's really important to you to find out what material you are working with, then sometimes you just have to sand or strip part of it down to find out. (Yay!) But if you are okay with not knowing, and don't plan on re-staining the bare wood, then there are a few choices you have in getting to ground zero.

PART II - Sanding vs. priming vs. stripping

So you've figured out what type of material you are working with, now it's time to decide how to prepare it for painting. There are three traditional ways of prepping a piece of furniture; stripping, sanding and priming.

First let's talk about STRIPPING

A common misconception is that you have to completely strip down a piece of furniture in order to get it to ground zero, which is not true, but there are times when it would be best to do so.

Consider what the current finish looks like. Are there lots of thick gloppy layers, like this piece? This dresser had two layers of paint and it absolutely would have been a train wreck if I had tried to paint over it. So I stripped this down to the bare wood. I stained this piece of furniture, but I would have done the same thing if I intended on repainting it, because the layers of paint were so thick and flaky.

If your piece of furniture is laminate with a factory finish, it will do you no good to strip it. If it is a laminate that has been painted and you want to remove that layer of paint, then stripping would be okay. You can also strip solid wood and wood veneer furniture.

Stripping is messy and it takes a lot of time and patience, but it is very fulfilling once you have revealed the beautiful wood underneath and you have a completely clean palate to work with. The top frame shows what this bed looked like completely stripped down, the bottom frame is after (spray) priming.

If you choose to use stripper, may I suggest Citristrip? It is the only stripper I use, and although it takes a little longer than the other stuff, it works just as well, and it's safer and smells good too.

Here is a nice tutorial on how to properly strip a piece of furniture:

Next let's talk about SANDING

There are a few reasons why you need to sand. The first is to lightly sand an entire piece of furniture in order to roughen it up so that your next layers of primer or paint adhere to the piece. That's what I did with this piece. In fact, sanding was all I needed to get it to ground zero. No priming was necessary, although it would have been okay if I used it.

The second use for sanding is to smooth out rough areas, flaking paint or varnish. It is also useful after you have stripped a piece of furniture and you need to smooth the surface down completely and take away every last little piece of residual paint. As in the picture below, I had stripped off two layers of paint and was now at the point where I needed to get rid of a residual stain as well as some stubborn paint. This is when I broke out the sander.

The last use for sanding, and the least popular, is to remove all paint/stain by sanding down the entire piece and no other stripping methods. Maybe the closest I have come to doing this is when I have a piece of stained furniture that I want to sand down and restain. I don't completely remove the old stain though, I just sand it down and add to it. (It has worked for me, but I'm not sure that's the proper way to do it.) That's what I did with this dresser: 

Deglosser (liquid sander) is a very helpful solvent when you have a piece of furniture with a polyurethane or varnish finish, or a piece with lots of ornate detailing that you can't possibly sand by yourself. You could sand it all down with an electric sander, or you could go the faster route with deglosser. Deglosser dulls down smooth finishes, it does not remove anything and should not be used as a substitute for stripper. It is important to follow the directions on the bottle carefully in order to get the desired result.  

This old high chair got a layer of this stuff after I hand sanded down the seat (see all those scratches and rough wood?) and other rough areas. 

This is a great link with more information about deglosser:

Last, let's talk about PRIMING. 

You can prime basically ANY type of material, and that is why it is the most popular way to get furniture to ground zero. Primer has lots of benefits including sealing in old stains and smells, as well as creating a great foundation for your paint to adhere to. There are hundreds of tutorials online about how to paint a piece of furniture without having to sand it first, by using primer. I would trust most of those tutorials, but may I recommend that you always lightly sand the entire piece, and then clean it thoroughly before priming. (Just make sure you aren't working with particle board/MDF that will flake off when you sand.)

This is a good priming tutorial from Centsational Girl.

My choice for primer is Zinsser Oil Based Primer/Sealer and it works just as well in the spray version too.

This nightstand chest has a factory finish and nothing loose or bubbling that needs to be sanded down or stripped, so primer would be my choice to prep with. I will probably do a light sanding on this one because I know it's a combination of wood and laminate and can handle it. I will dedicated a whole post to this refinishing job soon.

I also primed this old mamma because she was laminate (and plastic!) all the way around. I did not sand this one down before, because I didn't think it would do a whole lot of good, and the primer did a great job creating a good foundation for the paint.

Lastly, many times a piece of furniture needs more than one way to get it prepped:

This high chair had gunky sections and a beat up, uneven finish, along with knobby legs and lots of creases and crevasses. I needed to use stripper for the junky sections that would not come off with sanding. I sanded the areas that had flaking and chipped stain, and then used liquid sand paper on the entire piece to guarantee that the paint would stick. I'll also do a future post of this piece as well.

Well that's about it for this little blog post. Hope you're still with me and haven't fallen asleep in our bowl of cheerios. I also hope that you learned something from this post. If you have any questions about a project you are working on, send me a message with pictures and I'll do my best to help you out!

Here's more information, in case you didn't get enough:


Amy 2/20/14, 10:57 PM  

Awesome info. Now just waiting for it to warm up so I can make a mess in the garage. I've been wanting to refinish my kitchen table and chairs for a while now.

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