Repairing and painting furniture

Old brown furniture can often be bought inexpensively at auction and easily made over into something much more desirable. Helaine Clare shows how to transform a cupboard with her step-by-step guide. Includes a full list of tools and equipment you will need

A lacklustre, brown wood corner cupboard, lined with sticky-backed plastic, turned up at our local auction recently. My friend Georgina West, who runs Practically Perfect Interiors in Suffolk, was able to see beyond the dilapidation to the Georgian inspired design. Having a practical nature, I was more concerned about the work required to transform it but felt I could cope with it.

But Georgina’s approach is right: try to ignore the cosmetic defects of furniture and appraise the shape and proportions because there can be some real bargains to be found. When a piece is in need of repair, dealers will often not enter into the bidding, realising the extra costs involved. If you are not able to tackle the work yourself, you will need to estimate the cost of this and take it into account before deciding whether to buy.

If you can, it is best to view what’s on offer the day before the auction takes place. That way you will have more time and can inspect the items at your leisure so you are fully aware of any damage or defects. Check the catalogue to see the anticipated price and whether there is a reserve figure. You can then decide how high you are going to bid for the piece and be less likely to get caught up in the heat of the moment.

There are some points to consider when transporting furniture home. Dragging it along the ground rather than lifting it can pull off the plinth, snap off castors or break the feet; a sack barrow is ideal for carrying furniture, if you have one. Always lock cupboard doors before moving too, or they will probably swing open and rip off the hinge screws. As there was no lock, or bolt or knobs even, I tied a piece of rope around the body of the cupboard to keep it safe from damage.

You will need…

  • Hot water and detergent or stripper NB-510 (for removing sticky residue)
  • Chisel
  • Pincers
  • Hammer
  • Screwdriver
  • 5/8 in pins
  • Wood glue
  • Plywood
  • Wood filler
  • Primer
  • Sugar soap
  • Acrylic eggshell paint
  • Paint brushes
  • Tack cloth
  • Wax polish
  • Medium and fine glasspaper
  • Drill
  • New cupboard knobs


1. Remove sticky back plastic: Start by pulling off the stickybacked plastic inside the cupboard which was very much in vogue when doing up furniture in the 1960s. As the plastic was removed it soon became apparent that it was holding the plywood back panels together, so they would need repair as well. There was some water damage too.

2. Dissolve the sticky residue: Next job is to remove the residue left behind by the sticky-backed plastic – try a strong detergent, very hot water and a plastic scourer first. If the stickiness proves resilient, use NB-510 (, which dissolves the paint as well as the adhesive. Scrape off and then wash down with hot water.


3. Replace damaged back panels: If the plywood panels on the back are damaged beyond repair, use a chisel to ease them free, working evenly. It’s quicker to wrench them away but this risks bending the nails and ripping the frame. Buy a sheet of 1?8 in plywood and measure and saw the new panels yourself or have them cut to size at a DIY store.

4. Attach new panels into place: Each panel may be a different size so before removing them mark their positions on masking tape and transfer the labels to the new panels after they are cut. Glue and pin each panel into place. Panel pins can be tricky, so push the nail through a piece of card or hold in the teeth of a comb while you tap it in.


5. Make good the damaged veneer: If I was planning a natural finish I’d suggest patching the damaged veneer but as it will be painted, wood-filler is less complicated. Apply filler flush with the surface, and reapply if the area of damage is deep, allowing time for the filler to firm in between applications. Once hard, sand smooth if required.

6. Rub down and prepare to paint: To remove shiny varnish and create a good key for the paint, rub down with a medium grade glasspaper. Wash with warm water and sugar soap to remove grease and dirt, then wipe over with clean water and dry with an old towel. Brush on a coat of primer followed by two coats of acrylic eggshell paint.


7. Gently distress the finish: Once the paint is dry take some fine glasspaper to age the finish a little and add depth and interest. Just rub over where wear would naturally occur – around the knobs or handles and along the edges and corners of the cupboard. Wipe over with a tack cloth to remove dust and rub in a good quality wax polish.

8. Attach a pair of new doorknobs: These knobs are from Dartington Steel Design ( Drill a hole for the machine screw into the front of the door. To avoid splitting the wood, hold a piece of scrap wood hard against the exit hole. When it breaks the surface, withdraw the drill bit and complete the hole from the other side.