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if you are a professional, semi-professional, or wanna-be professional woodworker, I suggest that you study the detailed tutorials starting with the finishing introduction, or at least this quick summary for finishing indoor furniture. But for my friends, who are just trying to refinish a piece of used furniture, with minimal equipment and locally purchased materials, this is for you
Often the first project (for the new home or apartment) is a table. The first assumption is, if it appears to be cheap, that the wood is pine. In practice it may be many other types of wood, often oak. Or it may be particle board with only a veneer of real wood on the surface. If it is pine, that is a very soft wood (especially in the last 100 years since all the old-growth pine is gone), so you can expect dings, and need a repairable finish.
If you are going to repair the existing finish, it probably has been waxed, or worse, sprayed with products like Pledge. These often contain silicone, which interferes with applying the new finish. Wash the surface well with paint thinner (mineral spirits) to remove the contamination (more than just a light wipe with a damp rag). If you are going to sand off the old finish, do the same cleaning, since the sanding mixes the wax with the sanding dust and rubs it back into the bare wood.
If the old finish is really bad, you need to remove it. If the surface is smooth and even, careful sanding can be used, but if you are unsure, then a chemical paint remover is your best bet. Gel or thick removers have the advantage of staying where applied while the chemistry works, without just running off. They need to be kept wet with more remover while the chemical is working - do the project (or at least one portion of the project) to completion - don't leave it for another day, while the old finish re-hardens. "Environmentally friendly" removers tend to be much slower than the more aggressive chemicals. Some removers can be removed and cleaned with water.
If you don't have a "Random Orbital Sander" or ROS, I recommend you buy one. They start about $50, but you can get a very good one, Bosch ROS20VSC Random Orbit Sander, for about $60 on Amazon - I have two of them. Buy some 80 grit paper if you are removing old finish, 150-180 grit paper for fine sanding, and 320 grit for between coats of finish if required.
Pine and mystery wood may really need to be stained, but there are many other woods that people stain, simply because God made stain, so everyone has to stain everything. I rarely stain things any more, taking advantage of the natural color of the wood where possible. When you have bare wood, moisten it with water, alcohol, or paint thinner, and you can see what the color will be like under a clear finish.
Some wood is naturally easy to stain, but other wood tends to absorb the stain unevenly, giving a blotchy color. If you aren't sure, a "pre-stain conditioner" can be used. The conditioner simply fills the areas that soak up too much stain, so the result is more even. Lots of things can be used for a conditioner - you don't need a special product. I use the sanding sealer that I will use in the next step, but the conditioner is thinned drastically - perhaps 50%. You don't want a film finish during conditioning, just to fill the areas that would suck up too much stain. After this coat, I usually sand "back to wood" with an orbital sander. By going back to wood, you leave plenty of wood to absorb the stain but the deep pores that would absorb too much remain filled.
Shellac can be used as a conditioner, a sanding sealer, and as a barrier between a mystery finish and your new finish - it sticks to almost anything, and almost everything sticks to it. Most home improvement stores offer either "Zinsser Sealcoat" or "Zinsser Clear Shellac" (they are basically the same thing). As a conditioner. the Seal Coat is diluted 50% with denatured alcohol, the "Clear Shellac" is 2/3 denatured alcohol. If you haven't removed all the old finish, you don't need a conditioner, but apply a coat of either, full strength, as a barrier.
If you insist on staining, MinWax (made by Sherwin Williams, but widely available) is a combo of stain and dye. Brush it on, and before it dries, wipe off any that hasn't soaked in. Apply more for darker, wipe more for lighter. Why a combo of stain and dye? Dye colors the wood fibers, stain colors the space between the fibers. When you stir a can of MinWax notice the stir stick is immediately colored (dye is liquid) and the color at the bottom (stain) has to be stirred into, and suspended in, the rest of the liquid.
I do not recommend an oil finish (tung oil, linseed oil, etc) - since that soaks into the wood, and does not leave much or anything on the surface for protection. Okay for fine furniture, but not for most tables or surfaces that will get wear. Oiled furniture requires far more maintenance, removing the dirt collected in the oil, and refinishing.
I prefer a film finish on the surface that protects the wood. Any of these can be brushed on - a premium quality brush is a worthwhile investment.
Sheen. Decide whether you want gloss, semi gloss, or satin (or one of the other intermediate marketing names). If you buy a satin varnish, for example, it is gloss varnish with some fine mineral included that is suspended in the finish (stirred in) that diffracts the light. Semi-gloss has less of the mineral grunge. Personally I do all my work with gloss, and if I want a softer finish, after it is dry but before it is fully hardened, I use steel wool or very fine sandpaper to soften the gloss finish.
For the semi-pro or frequent user I suggest water based finishes from Target Coatings in New Jersey. Yes, mail order. Yes, primarily a spray finish, but oh so easy and good. But you cannot buy it at Home Depot (or even the local Target discount store). Target uses emulsion technology to suspend conventional finishes in a water carrier rather than in a solvent, so they dry fast, without toxic or flammable vapors. There are lots of suggestions on the primary web pages (and as a pro you were supposed to be reading a different intro) but simply I recommend
I welcome your questions (which represent points that I need to clarify)
Back to the index of woodworking tips
Go to the introduction to finishing
Go to the use of Lacquer as a furniture finish
Go to the page on sheen and rubbing out the finish
Go to the details of spraying
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