How to restore old wooden furniture: clean, repair and refinish

DIY expert Helaine Clare demonstrates how to restore the original finish of old wood furniture, allowing the patina of the timber to shine out again. In this easy-to-follow step-by-step guide, she gives new life to a charming table

TODO alt text

Neglected wooden furniture often suffers from a build-up of dirt and grime, and the diminished colour and lustre result in a dull appearance. The mahogany writing desk in this project had ugly watermarks that marred the top that also needed attention. It’s easy to restore old wooden furniture on a DIY basis, but ensure you use the correct products.

You will need:

1. Prepare for stripping back 

Stripping furniture is messy, so work outside if possible. If working indoors, protect the floors and any furniture nearby and ensure good ventilation. To avoid damaging the finish on the body of the table, cover it in a plastic sheet so that only the top is exposed. Apply stripper liberally with an old brush.

 2. Allow layers to dissolve 

Leave for between five and 30 minutes until the finish – a mix of old varnish and polish – has dissolved. The length of time will depend on the composition and thickness of the coating. If the stripper hasn’t removed all the layers just re-spread the paste and it will continue to work. 


 3. Neutralise the chemical stripper

Neutralise the wood with a pad of steel wool soaked in white spirit or proprietary wax and polish remover, following the grain of the wood. Before using any chemical always read the label carefully as different strippers require different neutralisers. Failure to neutralise stripper can allow it to reactivate. 

 4. Clean off the rest of the table: 

Wipe away residues with cotton rags and leave for 24 hours. Meanwhile clean away dirt and old polish elsewhere by applying wax remover to a steel wool pad or coarse cloth and working in small areas at a time. Leave for a few minutes to soften the wax and wipe away with a clean cloth before it solidifies.


 5. Return to the tabletop

24 hours after stripping the tabletop, use a sanding block and very fine glasspaper to smooth over the wood fibres raised during the stripping process – work with the grain. Shake and vacuum the protective sheet to get rid of dust that could spoil the finished piece. Finally wipe the top with a tack cloth.

 6. Tackle areas of bleached wood

For many years the table was sited beneath a window and the sun has bleached part of the wood. Applying a mahogany wood dye will make the top a uniform colour. Apply generously with a brush and allow stain to penetrate; wipe away excess with a cloth. Ensure an even finish by working in a good light. 


 7. Improve the sheen and finish

 Once dry, apply a coat of finishing oil using a brush or lint-free cloth. Allow oil to penetrate for 10 minutes and wipe away the surplus before it goes sticky. Wait for at least five hours and gently rub with 0000 gauge steel wool before applying a further coat; repeat again – the more coats the greater the durability and sheen.

 8. The final spruce up

Finally, sparingly apply a thin coat of good furniture wax over the whole table. Leave for an hour at least and polish with a lint-free cloth. To avoid warping caused by drying out of the wood, position furniture away from radiators and fires. Sunlight will bleach the wood, so ensure it’s not placed beneath a window 

 Home remedies for restoring wooden furniture 

Subscribe to Period Living

A subscription to the UK's best-selling period homes magazine makes the perfect treat for yourself or a Christmas gift for a friend. Plus, for a limited time, save 42%.

You can remove surface dirt and old layers of wax polish with a home-made mix of four parts white spirit to one part of linseed oil. If the finish is still looking a bit lifeless, pour some proprietary wood reviver onto a cotton cloth and buff vigorously. One such remedy is 1 part linseed oil; 2 parts meths; 2 parts turps and 2 parts distilled vinegar. Finally some beeswax polish should bring it back to life.

Read more: