Renovating furniture can be difficult but rewarding

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This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

That’s good advice, but I have to admit it’s not advice I usually follow. In fact, if I try something and don’t have immediate success, I’ll probably forget about it forever.

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But when it comes to refinishing furniture, that hasn’t been the case.

I don’t know if it’s because of stubbornness, or maybe the hundreds of dollars I invested in materials for a previous project, but regardless, I once again tried refinishing furniture. And I’m so glad I did.

There is a "Tess" Bennet

You may have read about my failing furniture in my last column, but if not, here’s a quick recap: After a week of trying to finish a dining table that has ended up looking almost exactly like it did when I pulled out of someone’s trash, I swore never to try it again.

But lately, a cabinet I’ve had in my kitchen for years is staring at me, or so I feel. I bought it as a place to hide our garbage cans and recycling bins, and while it was a nice piece, it also had many flaws. It was painted a strange pale yellow color resembling wood, and the paint was peeling furiously on top. Its color, paired with the blue-gray tiles in my kitchen (which I’m also not a fan of), has become so off-putting over the years that I finally decided I had to do something about it.

This is the wardrobe before it was restored.  Not too exciting, right?

After oscillating for months between painting it, applying it to contact paper, or staining it, I decided to go for the simpler look – which, unfortunately, was also the hardest to achieve.

Finishing wood furniture with stain requires removing all of the existing finish on the wood, whether paint or stain. This can be done either by sanding (which if you’ve read my reviews you know I find painfully tedious) or with a paint stripper. I tried using paint stripper on my last refinishing project, and it basically resulted in a smoke-filled chemical mess that I didn’t want to recreate. So I opted for sanding.

To my pleasant surprise, this time it’s much smoother (cue the rimshot). I used a random orbital sander instead of a sheet sander for this project, and I think that made all the difference.

The top of the wood had water spots, which I made a singular attempt to clear up with hydrogen peroxide before deciding to leave them. This was a major blocker with my last project, and after trying to lighten the spots with several different products – including oxalic acid, a pretty harsh chemical – I was left with spots that were as black as before, more lighter areas around the spots. In other words, it wasn’t worth it. Also, the stains on my current project fit the more primitive look I was going for this time around (partly for my own sanity).

So after sanding all the parts, I gave it a good clean and finally started applying my stain. It may have been one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done in my life. Watching the stain seep into the grain after hours and hours of sanding, giving the wood a whole new look, has brought me so much joy.

Finishing a cabinet was difficult but satisfying.

One thing I wish I had done differently was to apply the stain to a test area on the furniture before applying it to the whole thing. Although I’ve used this stain for several other projects, it looked different on this cabinet for some reason.

Still, I knew I was on the right track when I checked out the project and felt the excitement. Compared to the disappointment I felt every time I checked on my table that I had previously attempted to touch up, this felt like a major win.

After two coats of stain, I applied polyurethane, sanded, then applied another coat. The sanding in the middle really made all the difference, and in the end I ended up with a smooth cabinet that looked brand new.

OK, maybe “brand new” is a bit of hyperbole. It definitely has its flaws – the finish is a bit uneven and there are a few small areas where I haven’t completely removed the old paint. One of the biggest imperfections is the placement of old hardware. While I was filling the holes with wood filler, they didn’t pick up the color of the stain and were obvious when looking at the doors, but I was able to hide them relatively well with the new hardware.

Overall, this project was challenging yet satisfying and gave me newfound faith to try and try again.

Email your questions to Theresa “Tess” Bennett at [email protected] and follow Tess on Instagram @homewithtess.

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