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Restoring The Beauty | Fall 2005 Out Here Magazine

Underneath the paint was a beautiful solid oak treasure.

With a little sandpaper and lots of elbow grease, you just might discover a hidden treasure 

By Carol Davis 

Photography by Donnie Beauchamp


At first glance, the odd little table rescued from flea market clutter looked to be better suited for the woodpile. Painted a garish, faded red and scarred by gouges, the table appeared to be made of wood.


But who could tell under the layers of paint?


Ed Liden recognizes the little treasure in disguise. "You've got yourself a 1920s school desk there," he says.


Liden, who owns and operates Cedarberry Furniture Restoration in Nolensville, TN, knows a treasure when he sees it — and that sometimes you have to use a little elbow grease to unlock its beauty.


If you're new to furniture restoring, Liden suggests that you tackle your first project on a simple, inexpensive piece of furniture — a small table, bookcase, or chair.

The flea market find didn't look to have much potential at first.

Here's What You'll Need:


  • Rubber (not leather) gloves
  • Sandpaper
  • Tack cloths (or damp lint-free rags)
  • Stain
  • Foam brushes
  • Cotton lint-free rags
  • Plastic tarp or newspapers
  • Polyurethane sealant
  • Steel wool


Restoring or refinishing a piece of furniture consists of four steps — strip, sand, stain, and seal.


Plan on stripping the furniture one day, sanding and staining it the next day, and sealing it the next.


Scrape off stripping in the direction of the wood grain.

First, make sure your work area is well ventilated.


"It's best to do it outside and in fresh air," says Ian King, one of Liden's grandsons who have joined him in the family business. If you prefer to work indoors, such as in a garage, open doors and windows and use a fan to draw the fumes away from you.


Use a paintbrush to thickly apply stripper to the wood. Apply the stripper to about a 2-foot square, rather than to the entire piece of furniture.


"That's so you can start and stop when you want to," Liden says. "Most people overreach, and then they get tired and disinterested. It's better to do a little patch at a time."


After you've applied stripping, let it sit for 15 minutes.


Scrape the stripping and previous finish off using a tool such as a drywall knife. "Scrape it with the grain, to the original wood," Liden says.


After you've stripped the entire piece of furniture, remove the previous finish or paint out of the grain by rubbing it gently with very coarse steel wool. Again, work the direction of the grain.


Then, wipe down the furniture with a rag.


"You want to get it as clean as possible before sanding," he says. Otherwise, "It will clog up the sandpaper and you'll work against yourself."


Let the stripped furniture dry for at least 12 hours.


Wrap sandpaper around a foam block for a better grip.

Sanding prepares the wood surface for staining. Liden recommends using 220-grit sandpaper. "If it's too coarse, it will make all kinds of lines," he says.


Sand with the grain until the wood is smooth. "If there are any particles of paint in the grain, a lot of times, it will come out with this process," Liden says.


If the furniture has scarring, you may choose to leave it — the school desk has initials carved into it — or get rid of it by sanding down until the marks are gone.


"You might want to use a power sander if you have a lot of sanding to do," Liden suggests.


After sanding is completed, wipe with a tack cloth, which is designed to remove particulates.


Then, take a close look at the piece, he says. "If there's a lot of paint residue no matter how much you've sanded — where the paint refuses to come out of the grain — you can put a slightly darker stain on it to hide that."


Make sure the stain complements the wood correctly.

Most home centers offer samples showing how stain colors appear on various types of wood so you can choose the right look for you. Stain containers also provide color guidelines, so follow those suggestions.


"If you're not certain what color to stain it, turn (the piece) upside down and put the stain on the bottom to see what it looks like," Liden advises.


You can't make any wood any color, Liden cautions. "Every wood has its limitations as to color change," he says. "The wood is what it is."


When you've chosen a stain color, brush or rub it on lightly and evenly to avoid drips. "One coat will probably do you, but you can put it on to your liking," he says.


Use a foam brush, synthetic bristled brush, lint-free cloth, or a nylon stocking to apply stain to the wood. Avoid a sponge brush, because it may leave bubbles.


If you want a deeper color, apply additional coats of stain. Just wait about two hours between applications and repeat the process.


Allow the stain to dry at least 8 hours before you seal it.


Take extra care and time to apply the seal evenly.

Finish your project by sealing the stain with polyurethane, which is available in a range from matte to high gloss.


Apply with a brush for a flat, even coat, Ian King says. If you want a less shiny finish, apply lightly; if you want a high-gloss finish, brush on several coats, allowing each to dry between applications.


"One coat will probably do you, but put it on to your liking," King says.


After sealing, allow the piece to dry for 12 hours, he says.


Then, if you want to soften the finish, use a fine steel wool and gently rub with the grain.


Carol Davis is editor of Out Here.