How to refinish mid-century modern furniture as a beginner (2023)

The lacquer was chipping away from my mid-century modern dining chairs — one of which also had a wobbly leg — when I contacted two refinishers to inquire about a makeover. The estimates they gave were so high that I considered giving up and buying something new. But then I wondered: Could I do it myself? These chairs were not fine antiques after all.

When I asked pros whether refinishing wood mid-century furniture was doable for a novice, I got mixed replies. “Anyone who is willing to put in the time to learn about the process, and practice and perfect the techniques can get a good result,” said Mary Duffy, who runs Maine Mid Century in York County, Maine. Still others cautioned about the delicate skills and toxic chemicals involved: “I would recommend people pay someone else to do it,” Nicole Gendron, who runs a Massachusetts business refinishing and selling mid-century pieces, said in an email.

But just as these responses varied, so, too, does the complexity of refinishing jobs. Some repairs are straightforward, while others are much more intensive. So, based on guidance from vintage furniture experts, here’s what is — and is not — worth trying yourself.

When to call a pro

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There are some refinishing projects for which you will always want to tap an expert. Anything with issues beyond the finish, such as heavy water damage, missing veneer or significant deterioration — for instance, if a dog chewed off a portion of a leg — should be handled by a pro, said Bob Kennedy, who teaches refinishing techniques via a subscription Facebook group and co-owns Atomic Age Modern in Mesa, Ariz.

Professional help may also be worthwhile if the piece is an heirloom. “If you want the best possible job and it really means a lot to you, then I would hire a professional,” Kennedy said. Likewise if you’re dealing with something rare by a well-known designer — say, an Eames molded plywood lounge chair.

The type and style of wood will also determine how beginner-friendly the project is. Kennedy said that American-made walnut pieces are easy to work on, while Danish teak is more delicate, so you’ll need to be extra careful not to sand through the veneer. Staining maple, Duffy said, is “a nightmare” — which was my cue to take my maple dining chairs to a professional.

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If you’re embarking on your first project, you’ll also want to avoid pieces with a lot of tiny corners. While a spindle chair might seem less daunting than a dresser, the large, flat surfaces of a dresser will be easier to tackle than the nooks and crannies of the chair.


When it’s possible to DIY

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Get rid of watermarks

If watermarks are your only problem, Gendron suggests Mohawk’s Super Blush Retarder aerosol spray as a quick fix, calling it “the industry secret everyone who owns wood furniture needs to know.”

(Video) Midcentury Modern Furniture Flip | How to Restore Wood Veneer to a Natural Wood Finish!

Move your piece to a well-ventilated space, such as the garage, and apply a few light coats of the spray to remove the white moisture marks — no additional finishing required. While there are many tricks and hacks out there for taking care of water rings, Kennedy advises avoiding “home remedies.”

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Revive a tired finish

If you have a piece with a slightly failing finish (think dull coloring and only the lightest scuffs and scratches), you might not need a full refinishing. Instead, try the “scuff and spray” method: Sand lightly with a high-grit sandpaper (at least 400 grit) or a green Scotch-Brite scour pad, then spray on a layer of professional-grade lacquer. The pros I spoke to recommend the aerosol products sold by Mohawk — more on those below. Remember to always work in a well-ventilated space. “See how it looks,” Duffy said. “If it comes out looking cleaner, it’s perfectly acceptable to stop there.”

Tackle a full refinish

If you can see bare wood or your piece has deep scratches, many water stains or ink marks, you’ll need a full refinish. You’ll strip, sand and potentially address color with stain, glaze, toner or a combination of all three, before finishing with multiple coats of lacquer.

Because both the stripping products and the finishes are harsh, you’ll need a well-ventilated space for your project — not just a room with the windows open, Duffy said. “When I say ‘well ventilated,’ I really mean well ventilated, like with a powerful fan,” she said. “And you still need a 3M respirator mask with P100 cartridges.” A garage is ideal, but a covered porch or pop-up tent can work. You’ll also need this space for a while: Kennedy estimates that a standard dresser will take a beginner about 20 hours to refinish.

To strip off the old finish, Duffy recommends a product called Stripwell QCS. Strippers by the Klean Strip brand, she says, are also cheap and effective. After allowing the stripper to do its work, use a putty knife to scrape away the residue. (In its how-to videos, Stripwell recommends using a plastic version instead of metal as a precaution against damaging the veneer.)

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Once you’ve removed the finish, follow the product’s directions for cleaning the stripper from the wood, then let it dry completely before sanding. Kennedy and Duffy both recommend investing in a random orbital sander, a tool designed for ultra-smooth sanding that costs less than $100. One of the most common mistakes beginners make is sanding through veneer, so go slowly, the pros say.

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Now you’ll apply the new finish to your piece. People often assume that all mid-century furniture was finished with teak oil, Kennedy said, but most was finished with sprayed, toned lacquer. Therefore, you likely won’t want to use teak or Danish oil. “It’s like putting olive oil on a car finish,” Duffy said, adding that if you strip and sand a piece, then put teak oil on it, you haven’t really established a surface durable enough for everyday use. When trying to achieve a certain color with your new finish, she recommends practicing first on a spare piece of wood. (If you’re unsure which products are right for your item, Kennedy offers free advice in his Facebook group the Mid Century Modern Furniture Refinishing Resource.)

The pros I spoke to advised avoiding the finishes available at hardware and big-box stores in favor of professional-grade options. There are many brands, but for beginners, they recommend those by Mohawk, which offers many of its products in aerosol format, so you won’t need to invest in a sprayer.

When applying the finish, Duffy said, “you need to build up five or six coats to create a really beautiful surface that is strong enough for daily use and will preserve the furniture for another 50 or 60 years.” Let each application dry according to the package directions; in between coats, you’ll need to lightly scuff the surface with high-grit sandpaper.


When to walk away

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If your piece is painted, it might not be worth the trouble. Stripping away paint is tedious and time-consuming, especially for a novice. Even Kennedy says he will no longer refinish a painted piece unless it’s a particularly hot seller. If you’re considering attempting it, he advises asking yourself, “What’s underneath the paint? Did they paint it to hide something?” You could put in hours of work only to discover damage.

On the flip side, if you’re planning to paint a mid-century piece yourself, the experts would encourage you to reconsider. “That trend has irreparably ruined many fine pieces of mid-century furniture,” said Duffy, who points out that most items people think are “beyond repair” and must be painted can, in fact, be refinished successfully.

(Video) Mid-Century Modern Dresser Makeover | Furniture Restoration and Painting

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What stain to use for mid century? ›

When I want to stain a mid century piece, I always sand down to the raw veneer. That can be tricky though as lots of those beautiful veneers are super thin. In this case, I usually use Minwax Wood Finish (oil-based stains). I prefer the oil based stains over the water-based stains because they produce a richer color.

How to make furniture look mid century modern? ›

To affordably achieve a mid-century modern look, swap out furniture legs with hairpin or peg ones. Shop for reproductions of mid-century pieces at more affordable retailers like Ikea and Target. Use small accents like pillows, blankets, lights, and clocks to get the look.

Is refinishing furniture easy? ›

Refinishing is an easy, low-cost way to bring out natural beauty in wood furniture and make fine details shine. After clear coating, let your finished piece fully cure in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area for 24 hours before use. Your options for staining are limitless.

What is the easiest stain to apply? ›

Oil-Based Stains

Oil-based interior stain is what most people think of when it comes to wood stain. They are readily available and the easiest to use. They usually have a linseed oil binder that allows plenty of time to remove the excess before the stain dries.

What stain color does Joanna Gaines use? ›

Magnolia Home by Joanna Gaines® Wood Stain delivers oil-like performance without the odor in a thick, fast-drying water-based formula. This product is available in a curated palette, hand-picked by Joanna Gaines to enhance the natural beauty of your interior wood surfaces.

Is it OK to paint mid-century modern furniture? ›

Lightening the wood finish on MCM furniture is one of my favorite looks. #2 Paint and Stain- Leaving original wood on these pieces keeps the mid-century feel while adding color with paint brings it into the 21st century. Painting the body and leaving the drawers wood or vice-versa is a beautiful look.

What wood tone is mid-century modern? ›

Oak. Oak is widely used in mid-century modern furniture and is still hugely popular today.

What is the difference between mid-century and modern furniture? ›

Mid-century modern refers to the movement that became popular post World War Two in 1945, while Mid-century is a style that developed earlier in the 1930s. While the two are similar in terms of shapes and styles, the main difference can be found in the use of color.

How do you refinish furniture for beginners? ›

Just follow these steps.
  1. Clean the furniture thoroughly. If it's an older piece of furniture, there's a good chance it's built up some dust, dirt, and grime. ...
  2. Strip the wood. ...
  3. Sand it down. ...
  4. Seal the wood. ...
  5. Apply your paint or stain. ...
  6. Finish your piece.
May 18, 2022

What furniture should not be refinished? ›

If it's a cheap mass-manufactured piece made of particleboard or MDF with a foil or laminate finish, don't bother refinishing, as it won't be worth your time, and even paint won't adhere well to the smooth, plastic-like surface (and is akin to putting lipstick on a pig).

Is it better to sand or strip wood furniture? ›

It's almost always better to strip than to sand. To begin with, except in cases where the old finish is flaking off, it's a lot more work to sand than to strip using a paint-and-varnish remover.

Does refinishing furniture decrease value? ›

Refinishing valuable American masterpieces can diminish the value, or painting over or removing hand-painted techniques can reduce the integrity of an antique. However, in general, cleaning and restoring old furniture can add value and help bring it back to life.

How do I know if my furniture is sanded enough? ›

The best way to know when you're done sanding is to scribble a light pencil line across your wood before you start. Once the line is gone, move up to the next grit. Repeat up to the highest grit sandpaper, then wet your wood with mineral spirits to confirm there are no remaining marks.

Is it better to stain with a brush or rag? ›

Brushing is the slowest method of applying stain. So not only might you get blotching or lap marks, you're also wasting time. It's more efficient to wipe stain than to brush it, and you're less likely to have color problems.

What is Joanna Gaines favorite white? ›

Joanna's favorite color for trim is the "True White" hue. Pair it with neutrals, bright colors, or dark hues—it literally goes with everything.

What is Joanna Gaines favorite GREY color? ›

Joanna loves using grays in her homes for the main living spaces. Some of her favorites are Sherwin Williams Mindful gray, Oyster Pearl, and Passive Gray. Repose Gray is one shade lighter than Mindful and would look fabulous for an open living space.

What paint color do Tarek and Christina use? ›

They use a lot of black, white, and gray. These colors make their flips look chic and modern while providing buyers with a clean look almost anyone will love. You'll find them using black and white tile in almost every episode (whether it be the kitchen, the bathroom, or both), and they love choosing gray paint colors.

What are the best colors for mid-century modern furniture? ›

Ochre, orange, brown and mustard yellow are all classic midcentury modern paint colors. Whether paired with other colors or used for a clean, monochromatic look, these earthy hues reflect the handcrafted, organic nature of midcentury modern design.

Is Grey a mid-century modern color? ›

Light gray, like other colors that fall on the mid-century modern color wheel, goes well with numerous styles that can add a unique nuance to a room.

What color floors are mid-century modern? ›

A high gloss, white vinyl tile floor is probably the most popular look for the mid-century style. It's a simple, retro-futuristic backdrop for bold furniture and decor. Sometimes the tile is all white, and sometimes you'll find gray or subtle color speckles.

What is the most common wood in mid-century modern? ›

Teak. According to Livingetc, one of the most common wood types used in mid-century designs is teak which is a dark, durable, and high-quality material. It pairs well with bold colors like red, yellow, and orange, and its sturdy nature lends well to stately desks, tables, and storage cabinets.

What wood tone is timeless? ›

If you want a timeless look, I recommend sticking to woods with less grain pattern like a maple or a medium-grained wood like walnut or mahogany.

Is most mid century furniture veneer? ›

Most mid-century Danish teak furniture which still exists today is made with veneer surfaces on plywood, secured with solid wood edges and frames. A true testament to the quality of well-made veneered furniture.

Why do people like mid-century modern furniture? ›

"Midcentury modern design is rooted in functionality, clean lines, and simplicity, which reflected the world at that time," designer Amanda Thompson explains. "Homes were more linear, focused on maintaining a nuclear family unit and as such, the furniture design echoed this environment."

Is mid-century modern considered vintage? ›

Mid-century modern furniture, also referred to as 'modernist', can also be classed as retro or vintage as they too fall into the same period.

Is mid-century modern still in style? ›

Midcentury modern style design is still alive and well in 2022, but there are right and wrong ways to decorate with MCM pieces, according to the pros. We've asked three experts to weigh in on commonly made mid-century modern design mistakes, as well as how to fix them.

How do you refinish a dresser for beginners? ›

How to Refinish a Dresser
  1. Step 1: Choose a Stain. Staining beautifies wood and helps reduce the contrast between the different types of grains in different pieces of furniture. ...
  2. Step 2: Remove Hardware, Drawers and Clean Surfaces. ...
  3. Safety Alert! ...
  4. Step 3: Remove Old Finish. ...
  5. Step 4: Apply Sanding Sealer. ...
  6. Step 6: Finish It.

Do you sand or clean furniture first? ›

It's best to clean furniture before sanding to remove the grease and grime and then clean again after sanding just to remove the sanding dust.

Do you have to sand furniture before restaining? ›

If you want the new finish to look great and last for years, you'll need to prep it before breaking out the paintbrush. Before painting wooden furniture, you need to remove the paint and finish already coating it and sand it down to make it ready for a new coat.

What wood to avoid in furniture? ›

No plywood, particle board, MDF, veneers, engineered woods or other composite wood products allowed anywhere in our furniture, because they can pollute indoor air quality, including with high levels of formaldehyde (a human carcinogen).

How do I know if my furniture is worth refinishing? ›

“The basic rule of thumb is, if the piece was made before 1850, you want to do some homework on whether it should be conserved rather than restored — meaning to preserve and stabilize the piece as it is now,” she says. “If it's been in the family a while, it's worth finding out before you do some damage.”

What is the best wood for refinishing furniture? ›

For a refined, smooth finish, choose poplar or soft maple. These wood species are generally less expensive than other hardwoods, but are smooth and take paint well.

What grit is best for refinishing furniture? ›

The grades of sandpaper used most for furniture finishing fall in the fine and very fine categories - that is from 120 grit through 220 grit; with 320, 400 and 600 grit used for special purposes. For "hard to stain" woods, finish sanding with 120 grit will usually accommodate the problem.

Can you sand furniture too much? ›

If wood gets over-sanded in one spot, it starts to become uneven, with a distorted sort of appearance. This can happen to even the most experienced woodworker. Usually this starts simply by attempting to sand out a discoloration, defect, scratch or gouge.

What grit sandpaper to remove varnish from wood? ›

All you need to do is start with 150-grit sandpaper and sand the entire surface. Once you've done that, move onto 220-grit sandpaper and repeat. This should remove the varnish. An orbital sander will make this job much easier and quicker if you're removing varnish from a flat surface.

How to make furniture look expensive? ›

How can I make my outdoor furniture look expensive? 8 ideas for a luxurious backyard without spending a fortune
  1. Give furniture a lick of paint. ...
  2. Bring soft furnishings outside. ...
  3. Supplement your furniture with other side pieces. ...
  4. Align the color palette. ...
  5. Consider where you place your furniture. ...
  6. Re-finish your wooden furniture.
May 24, 2023

Is it better to use a brush or roller when painting furniture? ›

Rollers are a great option for painting furniture because they can help you paint a large surface faster than if you use a paintbrush. But, on the other hand, they can leave some unwanted texture or bumps behind, and you'll probably have to use a paintbrush for the corners, details, and crevices.

Can you make good money refinishing furniture? ›

And you'll be doing your part to keep all that unwanted furniture out of the landfills! It takes time, but you can earn a good deal of money from refinishing and selling furniture. It's not the quickest way to earn cash, but if you enjoy doing projects, it can be very profitable.

What is the difference between refinishing and refurbishing furniture? ›

Refinishing involves removing the existing finish--which may involve use of a chemical stripper, sanding, then staining, painting, and finishing. Restoration, on the other hand, refers to light cleaning to remove grime and some cosmetic repairs. The structural integrity of the piece is retained.

Is vintage furniture making a comeback? ›

The antique furniture market has already been booming in 2023, with homeowners sifting through catalogs, online auction bids, and even TikTok to get their vintage fix.

Is refurbishing furniture a good side hustle? ›

Yes, furniture flipping can be profitable. Your profits are determined by your ability to source inexpensive furniture to refinish, the time and materials it takes you to refinish, and how much those pieces can ultimately sell for.

Why is my wood not smooth after sanding? ›

Even after sanding, many of these woods will feel fuzzy or slightly rough after the first coat of paint or varnish has been applied. This is because the coating wets the grain and causes the fibers to swell slightly, ruining what seemed to be a perfectly smooth finish before you started.

What grit sandpaper to sand finish off furniture? ›

To remove the last bits of finish, use a palm sander with medium-grit sandpaper (about 150-grit) until you see the bare wood. Then switch to fine sandpaper (200+ grit) until the entire piece is uniform. To remove those last bits of finish, palm sand with medium sandpaper (150 grit) until you see the bare wood.

What color wood is mid-century furniture? ›

“The most popular types of wood in the midcentury were old growth teak and American black walnut,” says Ben. As a U.S.-based manufacturer, Copeland Furniture sources locally as part of their business model and relies on the American black walnut to recreate their midcentury designs.

What color is mid-century modern? ›

The Craft of Midcentury Modern Design

Ochre, orange, brown and mustard yellow are all classic midcentury modern paint colors. Whether paired with other colors or used for a clean, monochromatic look, these earthy hues reflect the handcrafted, organic nature of midcentury modern design.

What Colours for mid-century modern? ›

Mid-century colours

Look to bright, statement blues, pinks and yellows, alongside deep emerald or olive greens, and of course, mid-century signature brown tones.

What color wood furniture is timeless? ›

A popular search on this subject is, “What color wood is timeless?” My answer to that would be, nothing too red, nothing too orange, nothing too gray. Grayed wood tones are gorgeous and are what are “in” and most available to us right now.

What is the difference between mid-century and mid-century modern? ›

Mid-century and Mid-century modern are often used interchangeably in the interior design world, however, there is a slight difference. Mid-century modern refers to the movement that became popular post World War Two in 1945, while Mid-century is a style that developed earlier in the 1930s.

Is most mid-century furniture veneer? ›

Most mid-century Danish teak furniture which still exists today is made with veneer surfaces on plywood, secured with solid wood edges and frames. A true testament to the quality of well-made veneered furniture.

What is most mid-century furniture made of? ›

Most authentic midcentury modern furniture is made from teak. "Teak was preferred for its richness in color and durability," designer Rozit Arditi explains. "Rosewood and oak were the other commonly used woods, mostly in case pieces like tables, desks, and storage cabinets."

What color is most mid-century modern furniture? ›

Mid-Century Design Colors

Tones of gray, brown, and white are needed to ground the design, contrast any colorful accents, and cultivate MCMs signature style. Bright, bold colors contrasted with light and dark woods are a common theme of mid-century modern designs.

How do you add color in mid-century modern? ›

For a midcentury modern color palette that feels a touch tropical, try out blue and green. Pops of blue add fun color alongside the green of the sofa and houseplants. To boost that midcentury feeling even more, look for retro accessories like pots, trays, and vases.

What style can you mix with mid-century modern? ›

Because of its functionality, sleek lines, and no-frills designs, midcentury modern style pairs well with other styles. Scandinavian and industrial styles, in particular, are great matches, but mixing with rustic and farmhouse styles demands a certain confidence.

What patterns are mid-century modern? ›

Geometric patterns are prevalent in mid-century modern design, and curved, clean lines are the star of the show when it comes to furniture shapes - angular chairs with some curves, tulip tables, long and low couches. Mid-century furniture legs are often tapered and splayed. Hairpin legs are common, too.

What makes up mid-century modern style? ›

Midcentury modern style (also referred to as midmod and MCM) flourished during the mid-20th century when newly affluent post-War families began expanding into America's suburbs. “Midcentury homes are characterized by minimal fuss and ornamentation, along with sleek lines juxtaposed by organic shapes.


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