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I must’ve rewrote the title of this blog post ten times before settling on “how to update a wood finish without stripping.” I originally was going to go with the title I have on the pinnable graphic – update furniture easily with gel stain – but decided it sounded too much like a sponsored post (which it’s not) and too generic- I mean, you can’t update any furniture (like a couch) with it, obviously. Sigh. Such are the trials of bloggers and writers everywhere, I assume (cue the tiny violins now…).
Anyway, what I really want to share with you is that you can buy a piece of wood furniture from a secondhand shop (or inherit, find by the side of the road, etc.) that you like the style of and easily change the color of the wood without totally refinishing. That’s the easy part. And it’s even easier than painting, which I originally thought I’d do with this armoire we bought a few years ago from a thrift store. But, oh, the thought of taking everything out, removing all the hardware (those handles are nailed in, by the way!), and the coats needed even with easier chalk paint just made me SO not want to do it. It’s huge, in case you couldn’t get that from the pictures. Besides, I couldn’t decide what color I’d want for this huge thing. So there it sat.
Now, you may be thinking, “what’s the big deal? It doesn’t look that bad before OR that different after.” And here’s where I tell you that pictures don’t tell the whole story. I just couldn’t get a before photo that adequately conveyed the off-putting yellowness of this pine finish. And while I’m a fan of mixing wood finishes in our decor, this finish literally didn’t play nicely with anything else we have. It just seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. Plus, it was gouged in places and the glued-on carved pieces that were lighter than the finish really bugged me.
Then I remembered reading about gel stain years ago – I think it may have been in regards to using on laminate cabinets or something – so I went looking for inspiration and found it here. That’s what I needed – just to darken the existing finish!
Here’s How to Update a Wood Finish Without Stripping
1. Remove any hardware and doors that you need to to apply the stain easily. I left the knobs (nailed on, remember…) rather than take them off. The large doors do slide in, so I removed those, but the lower doors had regular hinges that I could just wipe the stain around.
2. Sand the surface lightly – maybe. I think if it’s a shiny surface this would be required, but this pine piece had a minimal topcoat (if at all?) and the light sanding I gave the whole armoire actually left marks that the gel stain highlighted. I wouldn’t sand at all on a piece like this in the future, so be careful and test an area first if you’re not sure.
3. Protect surfaces like floors with paper or painters drop cloths.
4. Apply a light coat of gel stain, according to the directions – applying a section and then wiping off with a clean rag (it dries quickly, so I found it best to apply 1-2 foot sections only before wiping with the clean rag). I used Minwax Gel Stain in Walnut and applied it using the trick I read in the article linked above- by layering a disposable glove and an old sock on my hand and rubbing/wiping the gel stain on with it. This made it go pretty quickly and I was able to just work around the hinges and knobs easily with the flexible sock.
The first coat won’t look like much, but you still want 2-3 light coats to give a nicer finish, so use a light hand. I was excited to see that it already looked better with a darker finish, though, and that it really did help cover the gouges and darken those lighter carved pieces.
5. Let dry at least 8-10 hours between coats. The finish will seem sticky for the first few hours, but when fully dried/cured, it will no longer be sticky.
6. Apply 1-2 more coats, depending on how the finish is looking. Or when you run out of stain, ha! I used 2 coats, though I might’ve applied a third coat if I thought I had enough stain, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to have to buy more – plus I was pretty happy with the outcome. The ‘after’ photo is with 2 coats and while it’s pretty subtle, I think you can see how much better it looks with our dark wood floors – it just seems to ‘go’ better, know what I mean?
7. Allow to dry/cure 24 hours and apply a topcoat finish of your choice. You can go the water-based polyurethane route, or the furniture wax route, or even oil-based varnish (not me though, ever – that’s just awful smelling in a house…), depending on the use of the wood you’re finishing. I have water-based poly I intended to use on this and I might in the future, but I actually left it uncoated for now since I may add that 3rd coat in the future – or not. And the finish is actually smooth and doesn’t scream for a finish. Ah, the perils of not making up my mind…
Here is how the updated armoire looks with the darker finish in our living room. It’s just enough that I feel it blends a lot better with everything we’ve got going on and definitely minimized the yellowness of the original finish as well as blended the gouges and carvings – all part of my goal.
And all it took was a $11 can of gel stain and a couple hours of my time. Now that’s the kind of easy, doable, and cheap project I love.
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