6 Steps to Refinishing Old Trim and Woodwork

Refinishing woodwork
FILE PHOTO: Lockwood-Matthews Mansion (Photo by Denise Lockwood)

An older home filled with fine woods is both venerable and valuable. When performing an update and refinishing old trim, it’s important to know how to properly restore old woodwork. Done correctly, this is a fun way to bring new life to your home.

Refinishing woodwork

Step 1: Scrub the Wood

The first step in refinishing old trim is to clean the wood to remove grime. Scrub the wood to create a clean, contaminant-free surface for the new finish. For a low-cost, do-it-yourself cleaning solution, add 1 part vinegar to 9 parts water—using this will also bring back shine to your floors or trim.

You can also substitute dish-soap for the vinegar if you want a milder solution. Rinse off with clean
water and wipe off the wood with a dry rag.

Step 2: Strip Away

Using a natural-bristle brush, paint on a plentiful coat of a commercial stripper, such as Back To Nature Multi-Strip. Let this sit for 10–15 minutes. During this time, the once-glossy surface will turn dull. Air out the room to let fumes escape.

Step 3: Scrape and Sand

The next step is to remove the stripper by scraping and sanding. Use a dull scraper and a dental pick to get at those hard-to-reach places. Most importantly, scrape at the finish, not at the wood; you don’t want to gouge it. When sanding, do so lightly, like you’re brushing away dirt from furniture.

Sanding smooths grainy areas and removes sharp edges. Afterward, use fine steel wool to wash the wood with the vinegar/dish soap solution. This will stabilize any remaining chemicals.

Step 4: Shellac Seal

After the wood is dry, apply a coat of de-waxed shellac, which works with most finishes. Quickly pat on the seal with a cheesecloth-wrapped cotton rag, and dispense the seal as needed. Refinishing old trim works best when a seal is applied to the wood before a glaze is applied.

Step 5: Spread the Glaze

To level out the wood’s splotchy color, spread out the finishing glaze. If you need to put on multiple coats, make sure to apply a barrier of 1 part gloss varnish diluted with 2 parts thinner. This ensures that the two coats don’t smear. If the wood is maple, cherry, or pine, use aniline dyes, since these woods don’t take in stains evenly. Aniline dyes will give them a uniform color.

Step 6: Save the Stain

Once you have your color right and your glaze is dry, rub the wood with two additional coats of thinned gloss varnish. Steer clear of polyurethanes, since they can remove the underlying seal. If the sheen is too much for your taste, soften it with a final coat of satin varnish. After that, you’re all set.

Now you know how to restore old woodwork!


Check out our real estate page.