December 5, 2022

How to breathe new life into old wooden furniture

Is your dining room table showing the wear and tear of family use? Or is your antique dresser showing its age, but not in a good way? Don’t go shopping or log on to buy something new; instead, refresh it, restore it, or reimagine it.

Water rings, scratches, and general wear and tear can make you think your wood furniture can’t be kept. But good parts are worth restoring, and it’s easier than you think.

But first, clean up

Before stripping or sanding – and we’ll get to that – avoid aerosol furniture polish – it’s just for a quick cleaning – and instead clean it deep. Use a lemon or orange cleanser, or Murphy’s trusty old oil soap. Apply as directed, let sit for 10 minutes, then wipe off. You may need to do this two or three times, allowing the wood to dry thoroughly between applications. In many cases, removing years of accumulated dirt is enough to reveal the original beauty beneath.

Start by thoroughly cleaning your furniture. (Muse/Shutterstock)

Dyed and dried wood

Water stains are an inevitable part of owning wooden furniture. The white rings are the result of the wood absorbing excess moisture from a coffee mug or water glass.

Get out that bottle of mayonnaise you bought for your famous summer potato salad and lightly dab a little on the ring. Let it sit for 30 minutes, then wipe it off. In most cases, that’s all you need to do.

While you have the pantry open, you may want to remove extra virgin olive oil and distilled white vinegar if your furniture is stained or dried out from being stored in an attic or basement. Mix 3/4 cup oil and 1/4 cup vinegar, dip a cloth in the mixture and apply lightly. The acetic acid in vinegar cleans without scrubbing, while olive oil conditions wood, plumps fibers and deepens color. This can also take care of light scratches.


Woodworkers have been repairing scratches in finished and unfinished wood with walnuts for centuries and enjoying a great snack in the process. Find a nut that matches the color of your wood, usually a walnut, pecan, or hazelnut. Rub the area with the soft flesh of the nut; this fills in the scratched area, while nut oils act as a substitute fine finish.

Some people prefer java for very shallow scratches, applying fresh, brewed coffee to a cotton ball and working it into the stain. Other alternatives are, depending on the color of the wood, rubbing in a tiny bit of cooking oil, shoe polish, crayons and, of course, if you have one, a furniture filler crayon.

Note that if your furniture is painted, none of this will work and you will need to use wood filler and touch up paint.


When it comes to bumps, steam them. Wet a washcloth, wring it out thoroughly, and place it over the affected area. Take your flat iron, set it to the highest setting and apply it back and forth and in circles to the bump. Press firmly until the washcloth is dry. Repeat as needed; it may take 3-4 times. Be careful not to apply the iron directly to the wood, otherwise you will have to make a new repair.

If this method does not raise the dent enough, get the appropriate color wood putty. An 8 ounce can will allow you to do many repairs. For large bumps, apply with a putty knife and smooth. Shallow bumps dry in about 30 minutes, while deep bumps can take two hours. Then you can stain or paint it – more info below.

Complete restoration

Restoring furniture and giving it new life is easier than you think. However, before working with a genuine antique or high-value item, you may want to contact a professional to determine if it requires special care. You may even find that it shouldn’t be refurbished at all and is more valuable as is. If you’ve decided to go ahead, you’ll need to clear the room first, if you haven’t already. For finishing projects, dish soap and warm water are fine. Let it dry completely.

To the wood

Remove any existing stains, finishes or paint using a chemical stripper as directed. Work in a well-ventilated area and wear appropriate safety equipment. Thoroughly clean the piece again after this step, then sand the surface. Not only does this remove any remaining finish etc, but it also smoothes the surface to allow the new finish to carry on evenly. For small parts, fine grit sandpaper is sufficient. For bigger jobs, break out the random orbital sander; the random orbital motion is designed to reduce the risk of it leaving sanding marks in the wood, although you still want to keep it moving through the work area. Remove any excess dust with a dust cloth.

Seal and finish

Before rushing into the new finish, apply a sanding sealer to prevent the wood underneath from absorbing excess or uneven stain. Apply a primer if painting. Then apply the finish or paint of your choice according to the instructions and enjoy your “new” piece of furniture for many years to come.

When it’s not real wood

Don’t throw away your medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or particleboard furniture, you can breathe new life into it too.

Water bubbles and rings

Raised areas on MDF and particleboard cannot be sanded and stained like traditional wood. Fortunately, they can be sanded and painted. The key is to use an oil-based or shellac primer first, as these will not swell the substrate any further as a water-based primer would.


The laminate coverings of this type of furniture are durable, but they can scratch. Use a polish specifically designed to remove scratches, rub a nut or matching colored pencil over it, or for a black finish, tape the area, then use a Sharpie, wiping off any excess immediately.

Peel Plating

Gently pull the loose laminate away from the particleboard until you feel slight resistance. Apply contact cement to the veneer and particle board. Tighten the pieces together. If you don’t have a clamp, a heavyweight should work just as well.