Basic Tools for Refinishing Furniture

chest before refinishingI go through three stages to refinish furniture.

1. Strip and Repair

2. Prime and Paint

3. Apply a Protective Finish

Here’s a rundown on the tools I use regularly for each.


close up bubbling paint blue white desk drawer front stripping

This is the process of removing the old finish from a piece of furniture. Since I usually plan to paint it, I want a clean, smooth surface that will easily accept new primer, paint, and finish.

Circa 1850 with small glass jar

I use Circa 1850 Furniture Stripper. I have tried many others but always return to it. It lasts forever in its container, it is fairly watery so slops into all sorts of corners and crevices, and it is powerful. Plus… it goes a long, long way. Made in Montreal, Canada, it may not be available everywhere. However, there are many options in your local hardware store so buy small containers, try out a few, and find the one that works best for you.

glass jam jarsPour a small amount of the stripper into a glass jar that closes tightly when not in use. I have used this particular type of glass jam jar for many, many projects. I especially like its shape because it is wider at the top than at the bottom. When it gets a bit gunky, I just use a rag to wipe it out before I refill it.

tools cleaned up day 2Basic Tools: This photo shows the 4 tools I use almost exclusively for furniture preparation – two cheap scrapers for removing goop from flat areas (and from each other over the garbage pail), a seam ripper for getting into corners and detailing (with a wonderfully sharp point and a nice handle, available in any fabric store or department), and an ultracheap bristle paintbrush. With Circa, this brush MUST be made of natural bristles since the solution is not water-soluble. Polyester bristles melt. The transformation in a foam brush is hilarious to see – like time lapse photography, it stretches into a useless blob while you watch.

The bristle brush can be used over and over again, despite getting fairly grungy. When left out at the end of the day, its stripper-covered bristles quickly dry into a rock-hard mass. You need only pop it back in the jar to see the bristles soften.

coarse sandpaper foldedsteel wool

Coarse Sandpaper or Coarse Steel Wool: Either of these helps with stripping. Cut each piece of sandpaper into quarters, then fold it into quarters again, for use in tight corners and across flat surfaces. Cut the steel wool with an old pair of scissors or wire cutters or simply pull it apart into smaller pieces.

inferior green sandpaper1 inferior green sandpaper2I tried using this green sandpaper, advertised somewhere as being great for removing paint. Nope. It just tore apart in my hands as I worked.

You’ll notice that I don’t mention power sanders of any type. Too noisy and w.a.a.a.a.y too dusty. And not really any faster. AND… unpleasant on my lungs.

bin of cotton socks bin of ragsCotton Sports Socks: The world can’t have too many worn-out cotton sports socks… to wipe up loosened paint, varnish, and stripper goo. I outline my own crazy sock technique here. Rags: To wipe up messes now, and later on to damp-wipe prepared wood, freshly sanded wood, and between paint layers.

glovesGloves: To protect hands from stripper solution. To protect hands from stain. I use lightweight cotton gloves or simple garden gloves.  I find rubber gloves too hot and sweaty for comfort.  I often don’t wear gloves at all. They annoy me. Clothes Protection: You have two options here. Wear old clothes that you don’t mind ruining, or cover them up with a protective apron.  I opt for the former.  I use my pant legs for wiping paint brushes and my sleeves for wiping all sorts of things, so it’s fairly obvious I don’t worry about their condition. Foot Protection: Same thing.  Don’t wear nice shoes.  You WILL get a glop of paint on them. You’re better off in bare feet – at least you can wash them!


Shop-Vac: Stripped varnish hardens quickly into blobs that are easy to vacuum up.  Continuous, repeated sanding produces a dust that’s nice to remove every few minutes.

old bowl for stripper solutionjar lidhardware containerContainers: To keep track of hardware. To hold stripper solution to dip hardware in. My examples include lids, old kitchen bowls, plastic mushroom containers.


tool boxscrewdrivers plastic clamps

Almost all repairs can be completed using basic tools most of us keep in our home tool box. I keep a few of the more commonly used ones in a coffee tin right on my work top – screwdrivers, a small crowbar, pliers.  I also keep a utility knife, hammer, and various clamps nearby.

 Clamps are really useful. They needn’t be expensive. I have half a dozen or so very inexpensive plastic ones that I use to hold pieces in place while glue dries.  The vise grip has its place too when you need a bit more strength.

                                       plastic clamps at work   metal clamp at work

wood fillerwater preserves wood fillerdrier wood filler at bin edgesKeep wood filler close by. Since I expect to paint repairs made with it, its colour does not matter. I prefer the small tubs that are available instead of the “toothpaste” tubes, since squeezing filler out of the tubes is annoying, and the product hardens very quickly near the spout. I use either a paint scraper or my moistened fingers to scratch the putty out of its little tub. Although it also hardens, it does so more slowly, and I find the slightly harder spots near the edges to be perfect for filling holes. I usually add a very thin layer of water to the tub to keep everything moist.  I can pour it off before I use it but oftentimes, when trying to produce a smooth surface, I like it watery anyway.

wood glueFinally, you need wood glue, for gluing wood, of course! For tightening up legs and dowels, for reapplying bits of veneer that have come loose, for rejoining plywood layers.


I have tried several types of primers.  Those that work well on walls don’t necessarily work for furniture.  You need something that covers knots, stains, and repairs, allowing any top colour you wish. My favourite  is Zinsser BIN Shellac Based Primer. I have written a general post on primers here. I use an inexpensive brush to apply it. primer brush

You also need paint! A subject for another post. The tools that you need however include a GOOD paintbrush.  Don’t go cheap here. I use a polyester bristle brush with tapered edge.  I am unusual in that I like a smaller, 1-inch brush. Although I don’t buy top of the line, I do make sure that I get decent quality for my money.latex brushWhen I’m doing detail work or working close to edges, I keep an assortment of smaller brushes that I find in the artist’s sections of craft stores. I can pay an arm and a leg for these but I don’t. I gravitate to the middle sections. Again, they last a very long time with good care.  set of brushes

skewers as stir sticksI use little pots of paint.  So I need little stir sticks! (And I really hate to waste all the ones the paint stores keep giving away.) I use wooden barbecue skewers, which can be purchased by the bag inexpensively, and last forever. They just get slightly fatter! I store them in an old plastic cup to dry.

pyramidswood blocksI love my plastic pyramids. I bought them at Lee Valley Tools, designed specifically for raising projects off the work surface for painting. But I also use blocks of wood to position pieces.

Fine grain sandpaper is useful for light sanding between coats. 


Once you get to the finishing stage, the most important requirement is a spot where the dust doesn’t fly before, during, and after applying a coat of finish (in my case, Varathane).

foam brush 2 tack clothApart from the finish itself, you really only need an application brush (I like foam) and a tack cloth to wipe down the piece before each coat. A tack cloth is coated in a resinous material to make it a bit sticky (tacky) and better able to pick up errant flecks of dust and dirt.

There you have it.  Lots of tools to make your refinishing life easier, but not a lot of expense. Who could ask for anything more?


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