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

If you're looking to restore old wooden furniture and allow the patina of the timber to shine out again, you'll need these step-by-step instructions from DIY expert Helaine Clare

How to restore old wooden furniture: Georgian style sideboard with decanter and globe
(Image credit: Colin Poole)

Looking for practical advice on how to restore old wooden furniture? You've come to the right place. Neglected wooden furniture often suffers from a build-up of dirt and grime, with the diminished colour and lustre resulting in a dull appearance. With this in mind, owners of antique furniture are often left wondering how to restore treasured pieces to their former glory.

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The mahogany writing desk in this project below had ugly watermarks that marred the top that also needed attention. While it’s easy to restore old wooden furniture on a DIY basis, we'd always recommend ensuring you use the correct products. Our guide below talks you through furniture renovation and cleaning done professionally.

Once you're done, see all our cleaning buys, how-tos and hacks to help keep the rest of your home sparkling. Looking for more expert advice and all things period properties – both interior and exterior? Head over to our Period Living hub page.

Everything you will need to restore old wooden furniture:

How to restore old wooden furniture: step-by-step instructions

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.

How to restore old wooden furniture: first step to restoration

 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. 

How to restore old wooden furniture: second step to restoration

 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.

How to restore old wooden furniture: steps to restoration

 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. 

How to restore old wooden furniture: steps to restoration

 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 old wooden furniture 

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
  • 2 parts distilled vinegar

Finally, some beeswax polish should bring it back to life.

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