Knowing the ins and outs of refinishing antique furniture can help you restore beautiful pieces you find at estate sales, tag sales and thrift shops to their former glory. Whether you’re looking to update or completely refinish a piece of furniture, the Real Milk Paint Co. can help you add shine, color, and character to your wood furniture restoration project.

refinishing antique furniture

Refinishing Antique Furniture With a Modern Twist

Matching antique wood furniture with your home’s modern aesthetic is simple when you have the Real Milk Paint Co. products on your side. No matter if the furniture needs restoring or just repairing, we can help. With finishing oils like our Pure Tung Oil that showcase the beauty of wood grain, paste waxes like our Soft Wax that restore the shine to dull surfaces, and 56 colors of Real Milk Paint® suitable for almost any furniture flipping project. We also offer products to prep and clean surfaces, protect your clothing, and apply finish and color to your antique furniture.

Determining If Antique Furniture Is Worth Refinishing

When you find a piece of old furniture you love, consider if it’s worth refinishing before you decide to purchase or pick it up off the curb. Painted antiques are sometimes notoriously hard to strip — especially if you’re at a beginner skill level and it has multiple layers in its existing finish. If you decide a piece is worth refinishing, consider using Soy-Gel Professional Paint Remover to eliminate the old finish. This high-quality product from the Real Milk Paint Co. not only quickly strips wood furniture down to its original finish, but also traps debris and lead for safer furniture restoration projects.

Overall Furniture Quality and Current State

refinish wood furniture bench

A piece of furniture’s quality and overall state is something to consider when deciding to refinish it. Higher-quality antiques made from wood like oak, cherry and walnut typically have the structural integrity to handle refinishing furniture, so pieces made prior to 1950 usually work best for furniture restoration projects. Modern furnishings are more likely to have particleboard or plywood elements, so be sure to look the old furniture over a bit before you decide on restoration.

Additionally, some antiques may look good from the outside but have internal issues that make repairing and restoring them difficult. With that in mind, be sure to access any drawers or hidden spaces to ensure components haven’t incurred internal damage and been reglued.

Keep in mind that you may have to make some necessary repairs before you begin your furniture refinishing project. If the piece is made from a solid wood like oak, it should be simple to bring it back to its original luster, and small dents in the wood grain shouldn’t be difficult to fill with a top-notch product like Real Wood Filler by the Real Milk Paint Co. Likewise, pieces with metal stains can be quickly restored with a thorough cleaning and application of our Oxalic Acid Wood Bleach. If you decide on a piece made with plywood or laminate, you can usually make minor repairs with something like epoxy putty, though the results may not live up to your expectations or may be difficult to maintain.

Other factors go into determining if antiques are worth repairing and restoring as well. Some things to look for before you decide on refinishing antique furniture include:

  • Inscriptions and manufacturer’s stamps: Antiques with inscriptions and manufacturer’s stamps make it quite a bit easier to trace down the provenance and determine the value before you purchase. Sometimes, these marks may be as simple as a note inside a wood drawer, though pieces from the 20th century usually have paper or brass labels or even stamps on the wood.
  • Dovetail or mortise-and-tenon joinery: Drawers made with dovetail joinery usually indicate an antique is of high quality. Older furnishings may have irregular cuts in these joints due to the handmade nature of the construction, but more modern pieces usually have uniform cuts as they were generally built in factories. Block-cut mortise-and-tenon joinery also indicates age and quality due to the strength added to the piece in question.
  • Original hardware and unique details: Antiques with the original brass hardware sometimes have more value than those that have had knobs and pulls replaced with contemporary choices, and cleaning away the patina isn’t always the best option. Likewise, pieces with hand carvings and unique moldings may be a little more work to repair and restore, but the finished results are typically worth it.

Special Concerns When Refinishing Antiques

In the case of some antiques, you may not want to refinish wood furniture at all due to the value of the piece. Antiques like this generally lose value if refinished with an invasive method, making conservation a better option than restoration. If you suspect the antique you have may have substantial value, consider seeking help from a professional appraiser before you put it at the front of your repairing and restoring project line. This small pause to check things out could very well make a huge difference in the value of your antique, so researching beforehand makes sense in the long run.

Ways to Restore and Refinish Antique Furniture

Antique drawers with white finishWhile there are special considerations to take when repairing and restoring antiques, common pieces usually benefit from the basics. With that in mind, the steps to refinishing antique furniture are deciding on a finish, gathering supplies, stripping the old finish, making repairs and then completing the restoration project.

Decide on a Wood Finish

If you wish to maintain a traditional look, consider the original finish of your wood furniture piece. For example, simple yet elegant styles like William and Mary, Victorian, Revival and Federal don’t need a quick coat of paint but rather gel stains or finishing glazes that enhance the original styling. Likewise, Shaker and Mission pieces often look good refinished with Pure Tung Oil or a paste wax like our Wood Wax. More ornate antiques such as an Empire-style table with carvings and moldings may benefit from two-tone coverage with Real Milk Paint if you want to add a modern twist to the design.

Gather Refinishing Supplies

Refinishing supplies you need for most restoration projects include:

  • Soft cloth or clean rag
  • Fine grit sandpaper
  • Masking tape
  • Wood filler and glue
  • Finish remover
  • Mineral spirits
  • Wax, paint, stain or oil
  • Paint brushes
  • Surface protection like drop cloths

Strip the Old Finish

When stripping away an existing finish with professional-grade removers, a well-ventilated area to work in is a must. Even all-natural products that melt multiple layers of gel stains, paints, shellacs and varnishes typically emit quite a bit of odor, making them potentially hazardous to work with in closed spaces. This also means you need to work quickly and wear protective gear, coating the surface area with gloved hands and a clean rag saturated with the product. With removers like Soy-Gel, you can also cover the area with plastic wrap after saturation to keep the surface moist and let the remover do its work.

When you complete the stripping process, thoroughly clean the surface with a cleaner like Tri-Sodium Phosphate to remove all chemical residue and ready the piece for repairs.

Make Necessary Repairs

Now that your piece is stripped and ready to go, make the necessary repairs. Fill small dents with a good wood filler, and smooth laminate or plywood surfaces by first sanding, wiping away the dust with a clean rag, then adding a coat of epoxy putty using a putty knife. Metal stains from damp hardware typically come off easily with products like Oxalic Wood Bleach. Once you finish with repairs, clean the entire piece with Tri-Sodium Phosphate, then allow it time to dry.

Refinish Wood Furniture

Restored antique drawer

Instructions for finishing antiques with various mediums typically follow the same format. You simply prepare your medium, then apply a first coat with a tool that suits its consistency. High-quality paintbrushes work well for applying everything from finishing oils to milk paints, while a wrung-out sponge makes a great choice for finishing glazes and creams. Oval brushes specifically designed for waxes work well with those mediums, and paste wax also applies easily with a soft cloth.

Once you apply the first coat, allow the surface to dry, then add a second coat when ready. If you’ve used finishing oils, you typically reapply the medium over and over again, letting it soak into the surface until it beings to pool on the top. You then wipe it away with a clean rag and let it cure for up to 30 days. Paints typically require just two coats, then sealing with your choice of wax or sealer.

Now that you understand what to look for in furniture refinishing projects, learn more about how professionals approach the restoration project by reading our interview with Karen from Sycamore + Pine.

Meet The Maker

To learn more about what custom wood refinishers can do for you, we’ve interviewed Karen from Sycamore + Pine to find out what she enjoys most about creating items for customers and the products she uses to make those items look their very best.

What is your business or online name?

Sycamore + Pine

If you had to give a 140 character summary of who you are and what you do, what would that be? (Don’t worry, you can cheat a bit on the character count!)

Giving new life to vintage and antique furniture brings me so much joy. In the process, it’s imperative that I use products that are eco friendly. I find such a connection between nature and my art, so it’s important that I protect the Earth when creating my pieces.

Could you explain your journey in how you came to be in the craft/trade that you are currently in?

I started painting furniture as a hobby while being a stay at home mom to my boys. It was a fun way to get creative and save money while furnishing my home.

What is your favorite part about your craft/trade?

Each piece of furniture is so one of a kind and unique after I complete it. Knowing no one else will have the same exact piece is so exciting to me. Having the ability to express my style on an existing piece of furniture is beyond exciting.

How did you find out about Real Milk Paint Co?

I spent a significant amount of time researching the best environmentally sound products and Real Milk Paint Co. was one of them. I’m really enjoying the waxes and oils especially these days.

What is your favorite project to do with our products?

When I make custom benches from reclaimed lumber, the Half & Half Tung Oil is a game changer. It let’s me nourish the wood while highlighting all the character. I also use the Clear Soft Wax on almost every painted piece.

Do you have a particularly favorite product of ours? If so, what would be one tip/trick to offer to others that you have found produced great results?

It’s definitely a tie between the Soft Waxes and the Half & Half Tung Oil. I use them so often. I like to apply the wax with a microfiber cloth and then buff it out with another clean one. The Tung Oil it’s really great for highlighting character in reclaimed wood.

If you had to give one tip to those looking to “follow in your footsteps” what would it be?

Be yourself! As soon as you start to follow someone else’s path, it’s no longer authentic. If you aren’t enjoying your work, stop and think about if you’re truly creating from your heart.

Where can people see your work or contact you?


Products Used:

Ebony Soft Wax, Clear Soft Wax, Half and Half Tung OilWood Wax