How to Refinish Furniture – A Beginners Guide

Hey all, Cody here! I recently decided that it was time to upgrade my home office setup, and began looking for a desk to refinish. As anybody close to me knows, I find a profound sense of satisfaction when I can get something that I need for free or dirt cheap. And so the hunting begins!

Furniture with Good Bones

As I browsed around Craigslist, Facebook for-sale groups, and secondhand stores, there was one thing that really drove my search. Since I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, whatever I ended up with was going to need a little bit of love. Easily 90% or more of the furniture I saw was made of laminated or painted particle board – which essentially means that it can’t be “fixed” or changed. I needed something with good bones that would stand up to a little work and refinishing.

I really didn’t have a particular style in mind, but I definitely was looking for a smaller, sleeker desk. I work 100% on my computer for my job, and knew I needed space for my 2-3 monitor setup. Yes, I’m the guy that has the starship Enterprise command center sitting in his office. I need the screen real estate though, so I can deal with fitting the nerdy computer programmer stereotype a bit!

The Desk (Before Refinish)

The desk I ended up choosing was a free find on Craigslist, from a family moving out of town. The top was fairly beat up, with some deep gouges, but it was structurally sound and made completely of solid wood and had good quality hardware holding it together. I was so happy to see that I would actually be able to disassemble the desk a bit, and not have to worry about stapling or gluing things back together! That eased one of my biggest concerns, which was that I would completely take apart the desk, refinish it and love the look, but FAIL to put it back together…

The Plan

I didn’t fully know what I was getting myself into when I bought this desk, to be completely honest. I knew that I wanted to at least make it look less beat up, but I didn’t know what that would mean for sure.

Beat Up Desk (Before Refinish)I started off buying a matching stain and a pack of sandpaper, thinking that the most reasonable thing to do was to clean up the top and simply re-stain it to match the existing color on the rest of the desk. Simple right?

I sanded down the desktop only to decide that the natural woodgrain was too pretty to cover up with such a dark stain… So what do I decide to do? I’ll just refinish the entire desk, no sweat right? I’ve seen people do this on HGTV shows and it just looks so simple! I decided to scrap the plan of fixing the top, and opt for the complete overhaul method. Dusty and Disassembled Desk (During Refinish)I drive back to Home Depot and grab some matte-finish Poly for the top and to seal the whole desk. I also get a small paint roller with a dense foam roller to use with a can of grey paint we already had here at our place from when we (somewhat foolishly) decided to repaint an entire 1600 sq ft townhouse before settling in… But that’s a different story!

The Process

Who would have thought that sanding down an entire desk would take more than 5 or 10 minutes? After probably 3 hours of sanding (by hand, mind you, because I was NOT about to invest in an electric sander if I didn’t know this was going to turn out!), I was ready to start finishing the desk. After some googling, I found what I thought was the best plan to follow. For the bottom of the desk, which I wanted solid grey, I would:

  • Sand until smooth
  • Paint the areas I wouldn’t be able to reach with a roller
  • Roll  a layer of paint on the entire frame
  • Let it dry (at least 2-3 hours with fans blowing to help)
  • Sand, and repeat!

For the top, I just sanded until smooth and then sealed with 4 (yes, FOUR) coats of the matte Polyurethane. It took about an hour to dry between coats, and I didn’t sand since the poly soaks right in and doesn’t clump up like the paint sometimes can.

The Results!

Refinished Desk with Computer

Refinished Desk View 2

Refinished Desk Close-UpI am SO happy with how the desk turned out! I have been using it now for a few weeks, and it is working so well. I have plenty of desk space for my computer and dual monitors (yes, I’ve added a third screen to the mix now that I have the space for it!). Overall, I think the project went very smoothly, and turned out much better than I expected. I have already started thinking about what to do next, and am hoping to find a nice solid wood dresser for cheap or free, and refinish that next. What kinds of projects have you worked on? What tips and tricks would you share to make refinishing fun and easy?