How to restore wood 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
We show you how to restore old wooden furniture back to its greater glory.
(Image credit: Colin Poole)

Looking for practical advice on how to restore wood furniture? You've come to the right place. Neglected old 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 old wood furniture (often much treasured pieces) to their former glory. 

Thankfully, restoring wood furniture is quite easily done and we've created this easy to follow guide so that when you come to restore furniture, you'll know what to do for ultimate success. What's more, with restoration furniture seemingly always at the forefront of home trends – in both period and contemporary properties – and therefore, more costly to purchase, now you can save on something beautiful by simply creating your own.

  • See our guide on caring for, cleaning and polishing wood furniture if you've more modern pieces around the home. 
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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 on antique furniture restoration perhaps, 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, but key to wood restoration, 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 

For a good result when refinishing wood, leave the stripper on 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

Refinishing wood furniture may seem like an art but is easily done.

 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 and your wood restoration may not go to plan. 

 4. Clean off the rest of the table: 

The next step to refinish furniture is to 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

When you restore furniture, you'll notice that every piece is different to tackle. Here for instance, for many years the table was sited beneath a window and the sun has bleached part of the wood, so 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

Restoration furniture is a the perfect way to introduce something timeless to both period and modern properties.

 7. Improve the sheen and finish when refinishing wood

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 with wood restorer

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 

There are a couple more tricks you can use to restore furniture at home. 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 which works when refinishing wood furniture is:

  • 1 part linseed oil
  • 2 parts meths
  • 2 parts turps
  • 2 parts distilled vinegar

Finally, refinish furniture with some beeswax polish and that should bring it back to life.