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#7: Why Prep Is So Important & How To Do It Effectively

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Welcome welcome WELCOME my friends and fellow busybees. I hope you have been having a great week full of inspiration and hopefully, if you’re lucky, a bit of furniture painting and refinishing. But if not, that’s okay too, and if you’re new to the furniture upcycling world, then let me provide you with a mantra to live by as you move forward in your refinishing journey: PREP IS EVERYTHING. Let me repeat that louder for those in the back, prep work is everything!!

It’s so important, in fact, that I thought it would be fitting to have a full episode dedicated to it, its importance, and how to do it properly to ensure you end up with a beautiful, lasting finish for your furniture pieces. Because after all the time and care and effort you put into making over a piece of furniture, I would absolutely hate for you to find out that it turned out looking less than desirable as a result of incorrectly addressing the FIRST step you did in the whole process. Because in those instances, it either means you’re gonna suck it up and pretend it’s fine and you didn’t notice it and everything is peachy keen and move on with your life… or you’re going to have to completely restart the whole thing.

And don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely here for it if you choose the blissfully unaware approach if you’re keeping the piece for yourself to use in your home - there is nothing that can’t be fixed by turning a table around so the imperfect sides are facing the wall or by moving some carefully-placed décor around to hide the spot you blew through the veneer. However, if you are someone who is selling your furniture pieces to others who will be using it in their home, there really is a certain standard that you should be meeting - at least if you want satisfied, and hopefully repeat, customers. You want the pieces to have the best finish possible, and also to have the proper level of durability to be able to keep up with your regular wear ‘n’ tear in a home. As best as possible at least - sometimes there’s nothing that will fullllly withstand our furry friends or little ones when they set their minds on absolutely destroying a piece. But, you know, we do what we can.

Okay, so regardless what kind of furniture piece you are working on, whether it’s a dresser or side table or bed frame or chairs or buffet or bench or even a mirror, something that you wouldn’t think would necessarily need it because it doesn’t get a whole lot of hands on use, you always always always need proper cleaning and prep for the products you will be using on the piece. This will help the process go smoother, help the products perform their best and how they were intended to when they were made, and ensures you have a clean slate to begin your transformation on. If you’re familiar with painting, like on a canvas, you do the same thing when you’re painting a coat of white paint over it to ensure that you have a clean, even base to begin working on- think of it the same way when working on furniture. Except, it requires a few extra steps on furniture.

First off, you want to disassemble the piece properly so that you can get at all of the nooks and crannies properly for cleaning. So if there is any hardware on the piece, you want to remove that, and if there’s any doors on the piece you may want to remove those too, depending on how much you’re able to access all of the parts. As a reminder, I always caution that if you are going to be removing doors off of a piece and taking hinges off, make sure you’re marking which ones are coming off of which side and storing them in a ziploc bag or something like that accordingly. That way, when you go to put it back together, you’ll know exactly where it came from and so, in theory, it should go back into place perfectly and be well-aligned.

At this point I also recommend pulling out any drawers that may be in the piece and just opening it all up so that you know what you’re working with. And because I have gotten stumped a time or two on this piece, let’s talk about the different ways drawers can be released from a piece. Because yes, some of them just have simple drawer glides and will slide right out when you pull on them, but some of them have different mechanisms or stoppers to keep them from being able to be pulled all of the way out, I’m assuming as a safety piece so kids don’t pull them out onto themselves.

The simple answer is, if you come across one that appears to have something stopping it from being able to be pulled out completely, get down and inspect it a bit. Sometimes there will be something along the side of the drawer sitting in the glide that you need to push in so it can slide past a bar, sometimes there will be a screw that you need to remove to accomplish the same thing, and I’ve also seen it where there’s a screw you need to take out from the bottom underneath the drawer itself on the runner. If you can’t seem to see anything on the glides or underneath, it could be that you just need to angle the drawer up a bit while pulling it out to bypass the end of the slide on the side.

And, if all of those things don’t seem to be an issue but you still can’t get it out, I’ve also had a piece before that required just a little added yank on it when it got to the end of the slide to pull it off. So feel free to take out a little bit of frustration on it and it might just end up working if all else fails. And, for the record, yes, I am equally as confused when talking about these pieces because all of the parts sound so similar - glides, guides, slides, why wouldn’t they call them things a little more drastically different? Anyways.

The next step is thoroughly cleaning the piece. Sometimes we like to think that we can sneakily skip this step, because you can see it and you have two eyes and it looks clean, or because it was just a piece coming from your own home so how dirty could it be, right?? Wrong. Clean it, clean it everytime. Sometimes there’s dust, sometimes there’s grime, sometimes there’s grease, and sometimes it could just benefit from a nice refresh. Like you know when you have a shower it somehow just turns you into a brand new human ready to take on the world? Same thing. Well, same same but different.

In terms of the actual cleaning, something as simple as some Dawn dish soap mixed with warm water and using a microfiber cloth to wipe it all down can work wonders. The main thing you are looking for is a soap with degreasing agents, so something like a good quality dish soap should ideally have those properties in it. There are also various types of cleaners you can use specifically for this, I typically use something called TSP, or trisodium phosphate if you fancy. It’s a heavy duty cleaner and degreaser that I get from Home Depot typically. It’s made specifically to remove wax, residue and grease from surfaces and honestly, when I started watching people refinishing furniture online years ago, I always heard them talking about this product and I saw it in store once, tried it and it did the trick, so I’ve just continued to use it and I usually wipe it in and off with a microfiber cloth or a shop towel and it gets the piece nicely cleaned.

But do use some discretion for sure, because if the piece is noticeably dirty or caked with dirt and grime, you might need to use something like a scrubby brush to really work into it to clean it thoroughly. And once you wipe the piece with whatever cleaner you’re using, grab a clean damp cloth and wipe the surface thoroughly again, just to make sure you’re getting rid of any residue.

I HAVE seen some people hose off pieces that are really dirty and while it is definitely an option if needed, that is introducing a lotttt of water and moisture into the piece unnecessarily which can alter the way the piece sits or warp it in some instances, similarly to how wood furniture can shift the way it sits after it goes through harsh weather changes, so I recommend trying to avoid that if possible. If you absolutely have to, definitely ensure that you do it early on a sunny day and let it sit out to thoroughly dry the inside and outside before you start doing anything else to it.

The cleaning process is important for the cleaning aspect of course, but I also find that it’s a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the piece in a way that you maybe didn’t do as thoroughly when you first found the piece or picked it up. While taking apart all of the components and wiping everything down, it’s your chance to look for any knicks and dings that might need to be filled, to discover any repairs that might be needed, assess any veneer to see if it feels like it may be lifting in any areas, and take a whiff to see if there are any smells that will need to be masked that didn’t disappear from a simple cleaning. That will help you to determine the next steps, because now that we have it all squeaky clean and dried out, we can move over to any repairs that are needed.

I try to shy away from any pieces that will require any huge repairs, especially more structural ones, because a) it will require added time and effort and products and b) just for the liability of it if I’m going to be selling the piece. However, I will say that that is one of the best ways to learn something new or acquire a new skill, so you can determine for yourself what feels right.

Also, there are some types of repairs that I’ve come across that looked like they might be complicated and it was just a matter of getting the right tool to get able to get the job done, so Google is absolutely your friend in these types of situations and you will be very surprised with how accurately it can figure out what your problem is, and the associated solution, by you just trying to describe it into the Google search bar. And once you have the proper terms for the items you’re trying to tackle, head over to YouTube because there is likely a visual tutorial that you can follow - the world of YouTube has been an absolute godsend and is essentially the reason I ended up getting into this kind of work.

The products I typically use for the types of repairs that I commonly come across are Elmer’s wood filler or Elmer’s ProBond Max wood filler to fill any surface level scratches and knicks that need to be filled. There’s lots of types of wood filler out there that work well I’m sure, I like that this brand has different colours so you can choose one that’s lighter or darker to match with your piece as best as possible, which is helpful both when planning on staining or painting your piece. For repairs that need something a little more substantial of a product to fill a hole or repair an edge or something like that, I’ll often use Kwikwood. It has an incredibly bizarre scent but it’s more of a playdough consistency so it’s easier to build it up and shape it a bit, and then when it fully dries you can shape it more by sanding it as needed.

For larger or more structural repairs, people often use Bondo which is an auto body filler, so it’s super durable. I haven’t used it myself because like I said, I often try and avoid those bigger repairs at this point however I have seen so many use it regularly that I feel pretty confident recommending the product even without having tried it myself. But I have also heard that it has a very strong scent, so make sure you have an outdoor space you can use if you opt to give it a go.

And final note on the subject of repairs is to always look at your piece from all angles, including flipping it upside down (and that goes for cleaning too because you would be surprised how many spiderwebs can hang out under there). There have been so many times when I got a piece and it was wobbly and I thought it was going to be a big convoluted repair, and it was just a matter of tightening some screws underneath or something like that. So make sure all of the parts of the piece are sitting where they should, and that might help more than you would think!

And one more thing that I should mention, since I’m going through these steps in chronological order, is that it is at this step that I would recommend drilling new hardware holes if you plan on switching out the hardware for the piece. I tend to find it easier to do it at this stage rather than waiting til the very end, but it could be a matter of personal preference.

So now we are fully repaired, it depends what you plan to do with the piece, sand it down completely? Sand and stain? Sand and white wash? Just paint it? A bit of both? If you plan to be sanding it down fully and either leaving it as is, paint washing it or staining it, then technically your piece is now fully prepped because you can jump right into that stage.

But, if you plan on painting the piece, then we do have an added step or two still. First up, we want to scuff sand the entire piece to give the paint (and maybe the primer) some teeth to sink into to grip better to the piece. Will going straight in with paint allow you to paint the piece without scuff sanding? Yes, but the finish won’t last as long or as well and because we want it to be durable, which is the whole reason we are being thorough with our prep work, we aren’t going to start cutting corners now.

So to scuff sand your piece, your aim is to get past that first top layer of finish on the piece that might be a bit glossy or have any sort of finish left on it to uncover a bit of a rougher surface beneath. I usually scuff sand with anything between 150 to 220 grit sandpaper depending on the piece I’m working on, because it does a good job of roughing up that surface without completely trying to strip it back to the bare wood. So lightly sand the entire piece, and if it is a wood piece, make sure you’re sanding in the direction of the wood grain.

Then remove any dust that might be leftover on the piece when you’re done, I like to use an old dry big paintbrush from the dollar store that I use to get rid of dust and brush off whatever I can, then wipe the surface with a dry microfiber cloth and then go in with a damp microfiber to get any remaining dust and then let it dry. A product that people commonly use to remove the dust is a tack cloth, and while I have tried using one in the past, I don’t super love the feel of it and I find that it can leave some residue so I don’t often grab for it.

And finally is the priming stage. Now, this isn’t an absolute requirement for all pieces, some might be okay to just jump into painting after the scuff sanding. However, it never hurts to prime, so again, if you want to be thorough, it is good practice to just do it anyway. Ultimately, it will help you to get a more flawless and consistent finish, and it will definitely help with proper paint adhesion. And there are two instances when I would absolutely always recommend you do prime, which is when you have used wood filler or done any repairs with those types of products, and also if you are painting a dark wood piece like oak, cherry, walnut or mahogany, because those are the wood species that tend to have more bleed through.

The reason you want to prime if you have used wood filler or done any repairs with a similar product is because you now have two different materials that you will be painting over. Are you expecting the paint to look the same when you paint over those two, very different, materials? No, of course not, so we need something else to sandwich between them to even the playing field and level it all out, which is primer. When you put that layer over top of the materials, it evens everything out because that is what is was made for, and then when you apply your paint over the primer, you would never know that there was a repair done there, assuming you sanded all of the filler product down smooth before priming.

And sometimes people are hesitant to use primer when they are planning on painting with a dark colour because they don’t want to bring the piece all the way up to a bright white when priming, just to have to try and make it pure black when painting and require a ton of layers of paint to achieve that colour. Or, they might be concerned that the white underneath will lighten the colour they are putting over it. The way to avoid either, or both, of these situations is to tint your primer. Similarly when you go to your hardware store and buy a can of paint for your walls, it comes white typically but then you take it to their paint people and they work some magic and tint it to the colour that you choose, the same can be done with primer. So keep an eye out when buying your primer because some will say “Tintable White” or “Tintable Clear” on the label and you can do it a darker colour or potentially even the same colour you will then be painting it, if they can colour match or you’re using a brand of paint that they also carry. Work smart not hard!

And if your piece is one of those wood species that I mentioned that tend to have a lot of bleed through, you’ll want to prime it and prime specifically with a primer that states that it is stain blocking in order to hold the bleed through from getting through the finish and affecting the look of your paint finish. Bleed through refers to the wood tannins that seep through the paint if they aren’t sealed in, and sometimes they won’t show up right away so you might not notice them peek through until after you have topcoated your piece and it is sitting and curing. Which is a bit of a nightmare, so make sure you are proactive and avoid this step by priming!

Bleed through looks like a bit of a stain that comes up through the paint, typically you see it when painting with lighter colours because they’re more noticeable but it definitely happens on dark and black pieces too, it’s just camouflaged a bit better. And also note that, depending on how stubborn the wood is, you might need multiple coats of primer to fully mask the bleed through so take the time at this step to let the primer fully dry and if you can swing it, let it sit for 24 hours once you think you have enough coats on it just to see if anything tries to peek through before you move on to painting. Also worth noting- if you find you have any pesky odours in or on your furniture piece, priming it can help to mask those odours, so that’s another time that I would definitely recommend doing this step!

Alright, now that the piece is fully primed, you have officially completed your thorough prep stage successfully, congratulations, and now you can move on to the fun stuff. Because I don’t think I’ve ever come across someone who says their favourite part of refinishing furniture is the prep work, some people hate it more than others and some find it kind of therapeutic because it is so procedural, but for the most part everyone loves the painting or designing or staging and photographing stage far more and that’s totally fine. It’s a necessary evil that, again, we won’t be skipping, right?? Because we want the most durable, most beautiful finishes possible? Okay great, I thought so.

And I’ve mentioned it in a previous episode but I want to reiterate it again- there ARE some paint companies or brands or lines of paint that market themselves as needing no prep or very little prep. And again, yes they will work but ultimately, my recommendation is to always be thorough in the prep stage and just go through these steps to help yourself out long-term. Those types of paints may perform better than your average paint line if you don’t do any cleaning or prepping, but I guarantee you that they will perform even better if you do. So I warned you!!

But have fun and enjoy the process and don’t feel the need to rush it - sometimes if you have multiple pieces, it’s a little more enjoyable to batch this work and do a few pieces as once when you’re cleaning and repairing and scuff sanding and priming then you’re getting it all out of the way at once, so that might be a tip that’s helpful to lessen the frustration or boredom that you might find yourself with at that point. Find a great playlist, throw on a podcast or audiobook, and just enjoy the ride!

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: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” That is an ode to avoiding proper prep work when doing a furniture makeover, or the closest thing I could find in my bank of quotes, but more so about life. Unhappy with the way something is going? Well, what have you done to try and shake it up and change it? The only way you’re going to get movement or transformation, in any area of your life or relationships, is by changing your approach to things and experimenting. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. I feel like it rolls off the tongue nicely too, don’t you think? So remember that as you go into the next week, take a step back and reevaluate what we can do a little bit differently next week and see if it has any impact!

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

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