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  • Writer's pictureMatt Weber

Mistakes to Avoid When Refinishing Wood

Trends in interior design have made refinishing furniture and using reclaimed architectural items more popular than ever. A budget-minded DIY’er can take an old table, door, vanity or desk and make it look new again. The applications are limitless, but refinishing wood isn’t as simple as just sanding, staining, then top-coating. Make the wrong move, and you’ll find you now have a lot more repair work than you ever expected. Here are six common DIY errors and how to avoid them.

1. Don’t Sand Plywood Too Much

If you want to change the color or tone of the wood’s finish, your best bet is to remove the old coatings and start fresh. When working with solid wood, a random orbital sander can work well to remove the old finish. However, if you’re working with veneered plywood, be very careful. It might be wise to remove a plywood finish with a chemical stripper, because aggressive sanding can penetrate the veneer, expose the lower-grade layer laminated beneath it, and ruin the look of the workpiece (as shown in our lead photo).

Look closely at the edge of the plywood in the photo below. See how thin the “beauty” layers of the sanded veneer are? If you sand through that veneer, you won’t be happy with the result.

2. Don’t Forget That Trim is an Option

The ragged edges of this old wood desk (below) have chipped out and flaked. There’s no way to convincingly repair this on stain-grade furniture, because a liquid product such as wood filler or epoxy will not absorb the stain at the same rate as the wood, leaving the repairs ugly and noticeable. It is more likely to repair this damage with a filler product when painting the item. However, even when cured and sanded, liquid repairs can be difficult to blend with the surrounding surface texture, and the repair is often still visible when painted.

Rather than hassle with filler products, consider installing new trim to conceal damaged areas around edges or joints, or anywhere you see the opportunity. Adding new trim can be easier than making repairs, it can be stained or painted your color of choice, and you can even get creative and apply your own decorative enhancements to the workpiece.

3. Fillers Only Work Well with Paint

In my humble opinion, wood fillers don’t work well with wood stain. You might find a wood filler labeled “stainable,” but the problem lies with the extent to which the filler absorbs the stain, and from my experience this is always different than the wood’s absorption rate. For example, the wood might drink up lots of stain and turn a warm chocolate color while the wood-filler only absorbs a little stain and remains a light blond color, which leaves you with a visible repair patch.

For dents and dings in wood, you can sometimes make modest repairs by applying a little water to the damaged wood surface, then place a soft cloth over the moistened dent and heat it with an iron. The idea is to use moisture and heat to swell the woodgrain and decompress the fibers to smooth the dent.

4. Improper Finish Sanding

Those random orbital sanders with circular disks are popular among DIY’ers, but don’t let that be the last tool you use before applying your stain. The circular action of the sander cuts across the grain, which leaves tiny swirl marks on the wood surface. Those tiny marks might be difficult to see with the naked eye, until you add stain and the contrast makes them pop out on your workpiece. That’ll ruin your day.

Remove swirl marks in your project by finish-sanding the surface in the same direction as the woodgrain. Use a sanding block or quarter-sheet finish sander equipped with progressively finer abrasive sandpaper, going from 120- or 150-grit to 220-grit, etc. Pro woodworkers might suggest sanding with even finer grits before applying a stain or sealer.

5. Don’t Leave Dust

Once you’ve finish-sanded the surface glassy smooth, you should completely clean the surface of dust. Sweeping or dry-wiping alone is not adequate. The very fine dust generated by the finish-sanding will leave a residue that is difficult to see, but a quick wipe over the surface with your hand will show dust that remains stuck to the surface. If this remains on the surface, it can get into your stain, sealer, applicator, etc. and cause problems with your finish coat.

DO NOT use a damp towel or any sort of water to wipe away the dust. Water will raise the woodgrain, and you’ll be stuck sanding again to smooth it out. Instead, spring for some Tack Cloth at your local hardware store. This product is literally a “tacky” cloth that the wood dust adheres to without the use of water.

Don't Expect All Wood to Stain the Same

Here’s the deal: Different wood species absorb stains at different rates. Hardwoods have tighter grain and less stain permeability than soft woods, and even within the categories of hard and soft woods, the varying wood species retain colors differently. So, when testing wood stains, experiment with whatever wood species you’ll be using on your project. If you’ll be refinishing oak, test your stain on scrap pieces of oak. If working with pine, test your stain on scraps of pine, etc. Otherwise, the color tone you expected to achieve, based on your samples, might look dramatically different on your finished project.

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