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#4: Refinishing Your First Furniture Piece

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Welcome welcome WELCOME my friends. I am so looking forward to today’s episode, because we are going back to basics and starting from scratch for those who have never taken on a furniture makeover or refinishing project before. If you are a seasoned flipper, I hope there will still be some goodies for you in here too that you’ve maybe never thought about, or can at least pass on to someone in your life, so make sure you stick around!

And if this is your first time ever taking on a furniture piece, let me just pump you up a bit first. Because I know for some people, it can seem intimidating, or you might be worried that you’ll screw it up, or that it won’t look good, or that you won’t know what to do…. Let’s just say adios to those thoughts right now. Leave ‘em at the door. Positive thoughts and intentions ONLY, and, truly, you don’t need to worry about it. It’s not a huge deal, and, worst case scenario it turns out HORRENDOUS.. You can always just strip it back to bare bones again and try another approach. No biggie, you got this.

I also want to put a disclaimer here, because as much as I love doing furniture refinishing and have been doing it for over 2 years now, I’m not a quote on quote “expert”, I'm not professionally taught, and I know everything I know from things I’ve learned from people on the internet, and some trial and error. So grain of salt, do your own research where you feel you’d like to do so, and always read the instructions for proper use of any product you’re using in a furniture makeover. But, also use that as motivation, because it wasn’t that long ago that I took on my first project and had 0 clue what I was doing. If you haven’t yet heard that story, head over to Episode 1 after you’re done here to hear the Origin Story of MelDidItHerself.

Alright, so let’s tackle your first, ever, furniture, flip. You excited?!?!

Step 1: Acquire your piece. Next week’s episode will be discussing where and how to do this in more detail, but whenever possible when you’re first starting out, start with something free, or at least very inexpensive. Think curbside finds on garbage day, posts on your local Buy Nothing group on Facebook, free postings on FB Marketplace, or even something you have sitting around in the storage room of your basement that you’ve been meaning to get rid of.

I also recommend starting with a small piece in terms of size, so a side table, a small chest, small coffee table, whatever. This way, the project won’t be a big investment to try out because you got it for free or very little money, you won’t have to invest in a large quantity of products that are required to finish the project, and it won’t seem as overwhelming to tackle in terms of size, or the amount of time you’ll have to invest to finish it and get that quick win and immediate gratification of being like, “yeah, I can do this!”.

So once you have your piece, step 2 is to remove any hardware like knobs or pulls slash handles that might be on it, and then clean the whole piece thoroughly. You can use anything with degreasing agents to clean a piece, I typically use a product called TSP that’s a heavy duty degreasing solution that I get from Home Depot, but even using Dawn dish soap with warm water and a microfiber cloth works great. You want to clean the entire piece thoroughly, and once you wipe off the cleaner with a cloth, go back in with a clean, damp cloth with just water on it, and wipe the whole piece again to get rid of any residue that might be leftover on it.

The cleaning step is also a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the piece in a way you may not have been when you were first picking it up or choosing it for this project. You flip it upside down, pull out any drawers, and take a really thorough look at the piece and will determine if there’s any damage that needs to be addressed or fixed. For your first piece, do your best to choose something that doesn’t have any damage or has very minimal, because again, that’s just one more added step that could add resistance to you successfully completing the project, and enjoying yourself while doing it. It’s best to try to avoid having to do repairs at first unless you like a challenge. But if you find any, this is the stage where you would fix whatever it is.

Step 3: Plan out your design and don’t be scared about trying out something that you might not be able to do - remember you can always take it off and start from scratch if it doesn’t turn out as you had envisioned. Again, nothing is permanent and this is why we start with a small, inexpensive piece so you don’t go into it with fear and dreading failure. Sometimes you also might not know right away what direction you want to take with a piece, so sometimes getting into this cleaning and prep stage allows you to spend more time with the piece before having to make those decisions to get a feel for it. However, I do know that some people like to do this designing stage before they start doing anything on a piece, so you can work this in wherever feels best for you.

But essentially in this design phase you’re going to want to think about things like: do I want to paint this piece? If so, what colour? Do I want to stain this piece? If so, what colour? And will the wood and any damage that may be present allow for that, or should I do a painted and stained combo? Do I want to keep the existing hardware as is, or do I want to update the existing hardware to a different colour, or do I want to switch it out all together? If I want to switch it out all together, am I going to have to patch the existing holes? All of these things are important to think about before you dive into the project, but also, sometimes I don’t know what direction I want to take with the hardware until everything else is done so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know exactly what you want to do right off the bat.

Sometimes if I really can’t visualize in my head how a piece is going to look with a certain design I have in my head, I will use Canva or something similar to create a mood board type of thing with a Before photo of the furniture piece, a swatch I find online of the paint colour I’m thinking of, and a photo of the hardware I’m thinking of. This helps to get a visual representation of what it will all look like when it comes together - sort of, at least, because usually the colours differ a bit in person as compared to how they look online. But it’s handy if you’re more of a visual person like me!

Step 4 involves prepping the piece. If you are planning on painting the piece,youwill need to scuff sand with high grit sandpaper. If you don’t know what high grit means, basically the numbers that you see on sandpaper packaging refers to the grit level - the lower the number, the rougher the grit so the more it really eats away at the finish and the higher the grit, the smoother it is and the more it just kind of evens out the top surface of the finish to smooth it out. For scuff sanding, I usually choose around 220 grit - and the goal here is not to fully strip the piece down to its naked or bare state, but you want to get rid of any glossy finish or topcoat that might be on there to get to the layer beneath it. You can do this by hand or with an electric sander if you have one, either will work, one will just require more effort. But honestly, it’s a great arm workout.

I personally recommend scuff sanding any piece you plan on painting just to be on the safe side as it helps the paint you will be putting on the piece to adhere better, though I know for marketing purposes some paints say that no prep is required... just do it. It can’t hurt, and if you decide not to and then find that your finish isn’t looking how you want it to or sticking the way you want it to, you’re going to wish you had just done it so just do it.

If you want to sand and stain your piece, however, you’re going to want to strip the piece back to its bare wood so you will want to start out using a lower grit sandpaper, like 80 or 100ish, and get whatever you can with that and then gradually continue to switch out the sandpaper to a higher grit, so you might do 100 and then 150 and then 180 and then 220 and then 300. Definitely more work to go this route and do it so that it ends up with a really nice finish… but if you want to just do it quick and dirty, I would say do 100 then 200 then call it a day. Just know that, with more time, you can finesse this a bit. And if you’re wanting to go down to bare wood, you CAN do it by hand but if it’s a big piece especially, I recommend relying on some technology to help you out by grabbing a cheap orbital sander.

During this step, you may also choose to prime your piece, again, typically it’s better just to do it and not have to worry about the possibility of getting to the end of the project and realizing you needed to prime, didn’t, and now need to start again from scratch. What priming does, especially primers that have stain blocking properties, is help to work as a protective layer between the wood or whatever you are painting, and the paint. When you are painting wood, especially wood that has recently been freshly sanded, it can release what is called wood tannins, which come up to the surface over time and especially if you paint with a light colour, they can seep through the paint and it almost looks like a grease stain or mark. Super annoying when it happens, I’ve made the mistake many times, so again, I just recommend doing it from the beginning to avoid that frustration. And, as an aside, for whatever products you choose to use for your furniture makeover, make sure to read the directions for the proper prep and use of them because the directions will always let you know how to make the product perform to its fullest.

The next step, step 5, is either staining or painting your piece. We will discuss more in detail how to hand paint effectively in upcoming podcasts but multiple thin, light coats are generally the way to go instead of trying to get full converge right away. Also, if you are painting wood or something made to emulate the look of wood, always paint in the direction of the wood grain and it will give you the best finish. And, if you are staining, it’s always best to use a wood conditioner prior to staining to get the best, most even finish. Again, I will discuss more in depth in upcoming episodes how to stain, the different types out there, and all that fun stuff.

As you tackle this part of the process, I want to remind you that it doesn’t have to be perfect and the only way you’ll get closer to it being perfect, is by practicing and being open to learning. So read the directions, if it makes you feel better, look up some tutorials on YouTube, and just jump into it. Taking on this first project will give you an idea of what the process is like, which steps need to be done and in what order, and then in time you can start researching specific things within each step to help you fine tune, for example, how to get the smoothest looking finish when you’re hand painting.

So after you let it dry, make sure you take a look at the directions on the product you’re using and read what the ideal re-coating time is. Some products have very specific instructions depending on their properties, so you might be able to add a second coat after 2 hours, or you might have to add a second within an hour or only after 48 hours. It can vary so much, so use those directions as a map leading you through the project. So add on as many coats as you need until you get the desired look or level of opaqueness.

Then, you might decide to just end there, or you might want too as some sort of a topcoat to your piece.

Which brings us to Step 6, top coating and protecting. There are a few different finishes the you might decide to use, and we can dive deeper into these in a later episode but you are typically looking at either using a wax or a polyurethane - sometimes people will opt for a resin or an epoxy too, but the first two are what I personally use and see most commonly, and are easier options to start out with for a beginner. For protecting high traffic areas and pieces that will get a lot of use, such as table tops, dresser tops, and nightstands, I recommend using a polyurethane, or a poly as it’s commonly referred to, because it provides a more protective layer than just a wax would. Again, read the directions on your product because there are different considerations in terms of recoat times and clean up depending on if it’s a water-based poly or an oil-based poly. Once cured, a wax does offer durability as well, but I don’t typically recommend it for those high traffic areas… just in case.

Once you are done with however many layers of topcoat you want on the piece, you’re going to want to reassemble it, so if you have drawers that you took out, put them back in, and if you took off any hardware, put it back on or add on the new hardware if you decided to switch it out.

Once you have finished with the makeover, even if everything is dry to the touch and you fee like it’s good to go, make sure that you are gentle with the piece for the next 3 weeks as the paint and/or topcoat will require about 21-30 days to fully cure. During this time, don’t be dragging any décor across it or placing glasses on it without a coaster and other *reckless* behaviour, or else you might damage it. And you just worked really hard on it so… don’t do that. After the 30 day mark, you can be a little more footloose and fancy free with it, but I still always recommend using a coaster for drinks, adding soft pads under décor sitting on the piece that might get moved around frequently, and avoid using chemical cleaners on the piece. A lightly dampened microfiber cloth should do the trick for cleaning and removing dust.

And then… take a step back and really appreciate the work you have done. You just completed your first furniture makeover!! The staging and photographing stage really does this for me, because I get to see the finished product in good lighting, maybe with décor on it, and see it from new angles. If this isn’t a necessary step and you’re just doing the project to put into your space, take the time to stop and take a look at it in your home and be like “fuck yeah, I did that all by myself!”. Believe me when I say, it is a great feeling and you will continue to feel that pride when you look at that piece moving forward.

And as a reminder, if you find yourself getting frustrated or tired during the process, allow yourself to take breaks if you need to step away to clear your mind> The best part of furniture refinishing is that you can work on it for just 5 minutes a day and still see progress in your pieces, so don’t overwhelm yourself with the expectation that you need to sit down and whip through the whole thing in one sitting. Another great thing about these projects is that there are mandated breaks during drying times, so unless you have multiple projects you’re working on at once, you can go back to doing another task or project while you wait for the stain, paint, or topcoat to fully dry according to the directions.

I hope this was helpful to you if you have never explored taking on a furniture makeover of your own. Remember to not sweat the small stuff, you will get better in time, and we all had to start somewhere. If you are feeling inspired to take on your first project, come let me know what it is and what your plan for it is! I always love when my community shares their projects and the process with me, and I’m always amazed and SO proud of them when they show me the final, amazing product. And if you are someone who has already tackled a makeover before, I want to know…What was your first furniture project, how did it honestly go, and how great did you feel afterwards? Head on over to my Instagram @MelDidItHerself and find the post for Episode #4:Refinishing Your First Furniture Piece and let me know in the comments! Like I mentioned earlier, I talk about the questionable approach I took for my first project, that ended up working out in the end in Episode 1, which I will link in the show notes below.

And something you may not know about me… I love little motivational messages. They literally always get me fired up, and I keep a running list of ones that are especially catchy or speak to me in the Notes app on my phone. So I’m going to end every podcast episode with one of those that I have noted down over the years, in hopes that you leave our time here each week feeling inspired, motivated, and ready to take on whatever comes your way that week.

So this week’s Mel’s motivational message is: You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start, to be great. So remember that as you head into the next week, that starting and taking that first step is the only thing you need to tackle. As long as you decide to start and just take the next right step, you will eventually walk yourself into the greatness that I just know you have within you. Even if you can’t see it right now, I see it, I’m here, and I’m cheering you on, my friend.

Alright, that’s it for now, I appreciate your time, and I’ll catch you guys next week!

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