wood doors with special finish
Steps // How to Refinish Woodwork
1 ×

Test the finish

 
Step One // How to Refinish Woodwork

Test the finish

John Thomas tests the finish on the door edge
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Thomas assesses the finish on an inconspicuous area, such as a door edge (below), by rubbing it with denatured alcohol. Shellac will come right off. But if the finish softens and doesn't come off, it's a water-based polyurethane. If nothing comes up, it's an oil-based polyurethane or varnish.

 
2 ×

Strip the old finish

 
Step Two // How to Refinish Woodwork

Strip the old finish

John Thomas paints a thick coat of commercial stripper on wood
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Using a wide natural-bristle brush, Thomas paints on a thick coat of commercial stripper, then lets it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, waiting for the surface to turn from glossy to dull. (Dull means the finish underneath has liquefied.) He keeps all the windows open to allow any fumes to escape.

 
3 ×

Scrape down to the wood

 
Step Three // How to Refinish Woodwork

Scrape down to the wood

A dull scraper is the best tool for removing stripper-softened finish from flat panels
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

A dull scraper is the best tool for removing stripper-softened finish from flat panels. But when Thomas comes to the tiny curves and crevices around the panels, he reaches for his pull scrapers, dental tools, toothbrushes—anything that can get into the hard-to-reach places. He's careful not to apply too much pressure: "Remove the finish, not the wood," he says.

 
4 ×

Seal with shellac

 
Step Four // How to Refinish Woodwork

Seal with shellac

John Thomas rubs the stripped wood with fine steel wool and denatured alcohol
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Thomas rubs the stripped wood with fine steel wool and denatured alcohol to dissolve any shellac residue.Then, after a thorough vacuuming, he applies a coat of de-waxed shellac—sold in cans as Seal Cote—which is compatible with most finishes. He rapidly pads on the finish using a wad of cotton rag wrapped in cheesecloth, replenishing the shellac from a dispenser as needed.

 
5 ×

Add color

 
Step Five // How to Refinish Woodwork

Add color

John Thomas brushes on very thin coats of a water-based glaze
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

To even out the maple's blotchy color, Thomas brushes on very thin coats of a water-based glaze that he mixed himself using dyes and pigments. The wood gets darker with each coat he applies; in this case, it takes two glaze coats for Thomas to approximate the original mahogany stain. But he can't just apply a glaze over a glaze, because the two would dissolve into each other and smear. So after the first coat of glaze, he wipes on a barrier of 1 part gloss spar varnish diluted with 2 parts thinner.

The invention of modern penetrating stains in the 1960s made it easy for homeowners to get a consistent color, but those stains work best if a clear sealer of lacquer or shellac is applied to the wood first.

Pro Tip: Maple, cherry, and pine don't absorb stains evenly, but you can give these woods a uniform color with aniline dyes.

 
6 ×

Top-coat the color

 
Step Six // How to Refinish Woodwork

Top-coat the color

John Thomas brushes on a final coat of satin spar varnish
Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Once the color is right, Thomas wipes the dry glaze with two more coats of the thinned gloss varnish, which forms a tougher film than satin or matte sheens. (He shuns polyurethanes, which get so hard that they can pull off the underlying shellac.) To soften the sheen, he brushes on a final coat of satin spar varnish (left). A brush lets him apply this finish full strength so that it can form a rich, deep film.

 

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