Furniture repair, refinishing, and revitalization can be an intimidating and frustrating process. But a fantastic piece can be pulled off with a little planning and foresight. With very little experience, you can refinish that old dresser, that 2nd hand chair, or even that piece of trash you might find somewhere along the road. Just look for something interesting. The only furniture that I steer clear of are the fake wood pieces, the so called "all wood" box-store furniture, and anything that looks too clunky to spend the time on. After all, our time is important, right?
Many of the pieces of furniture in my house are home-made, rustic, and refinished salvaged pieces. The oak mission style desk featured in this instrucable was purchased at a flee market for $10, and came in 3 broken pieces. I saw the potential in it and scooped it up to restore at home. Now it is used as a sturdy writing and drawing desk for my boys... And a convenient landing pad for various papers, books, and outdoor clothing.
Anyone with access to tools and basic knowledge on how to use them can accomplish this basic refinishing project successfully. The only warnings that I would like to express before we get started are:
Don't cut off your fingers, wear gloves when using chemicals and colorants, and make sure that you are not experimenting on a priceless antique, or just don't care if it's a priceless antique...
Step 1: Set Up a Place to Work
Set up a place that you can make dirty and dusty. I use my garage, but I started out in the extra bedroom in an apartment, later moving to a small, uninsulated shed. Now my garage is mostly insulated, has light and electrical outlets, and I can keep it heated (but remember extra heat costs extra money at utility time).
Stock it with basic tools, or borrow the ones needed for this project. You can always borrow tools, a mom and dad, perhaps a handy neighbor, or a friend in the construction business is generally the go to in this . I like to buy mine, but I have borrowed tools to get a project done.
You can also collect the tools you need from local construction suppliers, big box stores, pawn shops, and the Internet.
Tools and supplies for this job:
Sand paper or sanding sponge
Large Spring clamps
3 foot bar clamps
Hand held drill
Appropriate drill bits
Rubber or latex gloves
Glue (I use a small paint brush to spread it)
Fine steel wool #0000
*Some other tools not necessary but useful
Plastic drop clothes
Step 2: Assess Your Project
Getting to know your project is simple. Dust off the piece and give it an inspection, give the parts a jiggle and check the solidity of the connecting joints. Look at the loose joints that you might have to clean and glue. Look to see that measurements are consistent, and that things are straight. Look at any broken pieces that need gluing and dry-fit them back together. Check out what kind of screws and fasteners you will need to have drill bits for, and look closely at the finish. There are tests to determine what kind of finish you have, but we will not be adding any finishes in this tutorial, but please look forward to more tutorials about finishing and faux painting.
Write all of this information down if you wish, or simply begin moving through the small project, thinking about what needs to be done as you go. Writing notes on the project helps you organize the details in a logical order. I find that on small projects, writing notes rarely happens for me. But the world is a lot more simple with a plan.
Step 3: Prepare the Pieces to Be Glued
On this desk, the two front legs were broken in the mortices. One of the mortices were broken in three spots. There was also an old attempt at repairing, which was not aesthetically pleasing, nor did it hold up well. Gluing doesn't have to be the precision of rocket science, but it is important to prepare the piece properly before gluing, and clean off the glue when finished with repairs.
Before gluing, carefully use a chisel to clean off old glue and splintered wood. Hold the piece down that you are working on with a clamp, or with a hand in back of the direction in which you are chiseling. Avoid cutting your hands. Sand a little of the surfaces to rough them up. After cleaning up the surfaces that will go back together, dry fit the pieces, and make sure that they go back together to your standards. Get out a few clamps of the appropriate size and lay them out for easy accessibility (don't make the mistake of holding pieces together and trying to reach a clamp with your toes.)
Glue both surfaces that will go together, and using your finger, or a small artist's brush, work the glue into the surfaces. Put the pieces together, and clamp them. Sometimes clamping takes a bit of resourcefulness, and can lead to some frustration. You can use tape, string, straps, scraps of wood, and other methods to assist you in clamping your piece together. Sometimes, you need to clamp from several different angles. This is where dry fitting is important, and can inform you on whether or not you can clamp all pieces in one shot, or if you have to wait for piece 1 and 2 to dry together before adding a 3rd. Dry fitting helps you find solutions to awkward challenges without wet glue interfering.
A side note:
I once glued together a few chairs that were part of a dining set. Somewhere along the way, the set had been passed to a drunk grandchild, who did not take care of it. The way he "repaired" some of the chairs made me wonder in amazement. Old, hard glue dripping down from several joints, large spaces in between the joints, and on one of the chairs, fingernail polish had been used to hide some of his hideous joint work.
Step 4: After Gluing, Assemble Your Piece.
Now that everything has been glued and squeezed together, let it dry. Cleaning up from the first phase of the project is important. Vacuum or sweep the area, organize your tools that you will want for assembling your project, and have a bite to eat. Glue usually dries in a few hours- read the instructions on the product that you wish to use, and follow them. When you come back from your lunch break, root canal procedure, or a second trip to the flee market, check to see that the glue has dried.
Clean up any hard glue drips with your chisel, being careful not to scratch your furniture piece. Then use a rag with mineral spirits/paint thinner to remove the rest of the glue residue. After cleaning up the glue, organize the pieces to be assembled in a logical order. Sometimes the order of assembly is specific, and you may find yourself backtracking several steps after assembling in order to put in a spacer block, or a bolt and washer. Of course paying attention as you take things apart greatly reduces mistakes like this. But if a piece comes to you without instruction, and in several parts, you may have to rely on trial and error to see your project through.
After assembling, you might find places on your piece where wood is warped, or where things just don't stay together, you can use a well placed finish screw to remedy this. Be sure to use a drill bit a size smaller than your screw to make a pilot hole. This is necessary on edges of wood to avoid cracking and splitting the wood parts on your project. You can also use oil based putty to fill these holes, or you can use sandable putty that can be stained and finished.
Because I am just revitalizing this desk, I am using oil based putty.
Step 5: Clean and Revitalize
As a finish, I have chosen to use Howard's restore-a-finish of the appropriate color, and the wax finish that goes with it. To get the piece ready for a little color and wax, put your gloves on and grab a rag wet with mineral spirits/paint thinner. Use the steel wool on the stubborn areas. Give it a good wipe down, taking care of any little paint splotches, dust, grime, marks, and food residue. Let it dry for a few minutes and then, with a new rag saturated with the Howard's restore-a-finish, wipe the color onto the piece and let it sit for several minutes, making sure that the colorant has soaked into all cracks, dings, and bare wood areas.
Wipe it down with a clean rag. Usually I reuse this rag when I apply the wax. Apply a heavy coat of wax all over the surface, and let it stand for awhile. I usually come back to the project after a break. Using a clean rag, buff the piece in small circles. After this process, your new piece of furniture is ready for use!
Step 6: Enjoy!
A new piece of furniture always brings new inspiration into the home.