Ah, it’s always the same with wood. You see a beautiful wooden piece in a woodwork shop, or at a furniture store, and you just have to have it. You get it home, and it looks just stunning in its chosen location. The right wood compliments everything around it, doesn’t it? But alas, after a few weeks of use — someone didn’t use a coaster here, someone spilled a bit there, and who knows who dinged it already — it looks rather…well…used. It’s safe to say that after a few months or even weeks of wear and tear, your lovely piece of wood furniture, be it a table, a chest of drawers, a nightstand, a desk, or what have you, won’t look the same as how you bought it in the shop. This is because wood furniture doesn’t always come with the “buyer beware” sign that it ought too: wood furniture requires maintenance every at a minimum of once a year, but if heavily used, at least every few months.
Luckily, polishing your wood piece is not as labor-intensive as it sounds. You’ll see below that it can be done with a few simple materials, in a few simple steps. When you do have to pay particular attention to, however, is when you purchase the materials. Buying the right wood finish is key to achieving and/or maintaining the look you’re after. Read on to understand just why that is.
Which wood finish to choose to get scuffs off your wood furniture
There are enough different types of wood furniture finishes to make your head spin. Do you want varnish, lacquer, wax, penetrating resin, shellac, or oil? Choosing your finish will basically be decided by how you want the final product to look, and how long you want the finish to last.
If you’re after a durable finish, you’ll want to consider a varnish, which offers the most durable finish of them all. Varnish works much like paint without color, providing protection and adding aesthetics to wood furniture, but it also fulfills another role: it forms a protective film over the surface of the wood. Most varnishes are polyurethane-based resins that are solvent-based (like oil paint). There is, however, a growing move towards acrylic varnishes, which are water-based, due to the fact that they provide more health and environmental benefits.
Varnish is made up of three main constituents: varnish oil, resin, and thinner/solvent. The oil is the part that hardens the liquid when it’s exposed to air, thereby forming a protective barrier. The amount of oil used in the varnish is key. Its ratio will determine whether the varnish is high gloss, hard and brittle, or soft, flexible and weather resistant. It also affects the look of the varnish, in terms of tint and shine properties.
The resin portion of the varnish can be made of anything from tree resins to insect secretions, to polymers and plastic. Ideally, the resin won’t affect the color of the varnish, but be warned that some do.
The thinner/solvent is made of white spirit or turpentine and thins the varnish, making it easier to apply. Once the varnish is applied, the solvent evaporates — this is what is meant when someone says the varnish needs to “cure”. That said, be warned: some varnishes offer gradual hardening, which means that it continues to cure even after the solvent has evaporated, due to ongoing reactions between the oils and resins.
Choose your wood finish wisely, and you’ll bring out the best in your wood furniture.
Of all the wood finish products, lacquer has become the most popular. This is likely because of its two most attractive features: it dries fast, and it lasts a long time. Lacquer dries at room temperature in just 15 minutes, whereas other finishing products can take hours or even days to dry! Lacquer also tends to last far longer than other wood finishes without chipping, flaking or fading. In addition to that, it retains its clarity for years without yellowing. Because it tends to be thinner than other finishes, it penetrates deeper into the wood, making it more effective, too. If all these weren’t enough reasons to use it, lacquer is easy to use, and inexpensive as well.
However, there are a few disadvantages to using lacquer. If the room you’re lacquering in is not properly ventilated, or is too humid, moisture can become trapped inside the lacquer and will form a milky-white blotch when the seal is dry. There is also the danger of a fish-eye, which occurs when oil, wood cleaner, or other product is trapped in the wood and interacts with the lacquer. The result is often crater-like formations in the lacquer once it’s dry. Finally, if the room you’re working in is too cool, your lacquer is at risk of orange-peeling, which happens when the lacquer dries too fast and air gets trapped underneath. The result is an orange peel-like texture in the lacquer when it’s dried.
Once upon a time, wax was the go-to finish for wood polishers. It provides a protective barrier and leaves wood look rich and natural. However, in more recent years, as our options for wood finishes have increased drastically, the use of wax has evolved to compliment other finishes. Nowadays, wood wax is mainly used on top of a primary finish.
There are many different wood waxes to choose from, from carnauba wax, to beeswax, to paraffin wax. Read up about the properties of beeswax and paraffin wax in this article on How to Make Your Own Candles. Beeswax is a popular wood wax because it’s a soft wax that provides wood with a soft glow and pleasant smell.
Wood wax provides a barrier between the wood and air-borne pollutants. It’s also easy to apply, remove, and reapply, and the natural ones (like beeswax) are toxin-free. However, it has a few downsides: it’s easily damaged by heat (leaving white rings), and requires frequent re-application to maintain your desired look.
Not for use on just any type of wood furniture, penetrating resin offers a unique, raw, finish. Unlike other finishes, penetrating resin is designed to sink deeply into the wood, and harden the fibers within, highlighting the natural grains and ever-so-slightly darkening the wood without adding any color. As such, this type of finish is best used on open-grained woods.
Penetrating resin is extremely durable. It’s also easy to apply and reapply. However, as this finish is very wood-specific, it’s important to note that it will not absorb well on close-grained woods. In fact, it really ought only to be used on oily hardwoods like rosewood and teak.
Is your wood floor scuffed up? You can use these same wood finishing techniques for that, too!
The easiest to use of all wood finishes, Shellac produces pleasing results after several thin coats, which dry quickly (within four hours). It’s usually used on fine, ornate furniture, and traditionally used on fine French pieces, particularly on walnut, mahogany, and fine veneer woods. Shellac comes in white and orange colors, and needs to be thinned with denatured alcohol before it’s applied to your chosen piece.
So, why wouldn’t you use shellac? Well, it’s not that durable. Spill water or alcohol on it and it’s doomed! Remember those white rings from the wax? Those happen with shellac too. Humidity and moisture turn it white. All these issues are reasons why it’s usually exclusively used for ornate pieces that don’t tend to suffer from the wear and tear that other pieces do — shellac is just too much hard work otherwise. In addition, shellac should only be used over alcohol-based stains, and take note: it has a short shelf life. Don’t try to recycle your old shellac: it won’t dry properly.
Wood oil can and should be used in addition to other finishes. It brings out the wood’s character, and tends to be made of natural substances, which, of course, is better for the environment.
If you have wooden furniture in your home, you’ll probably know that it requires a certain amount of care. One of the best things you can do for your wood furniture is to oil it regularly. Wood oil not only penetrates deeply and improves the look of wood furniture, but it also offers long-lasting protection for your pieces.
While linseed oil is the most commonly used traditional wood oil, it tends to be sticky and difficult to apply. Danish oil and tung oil are easier to use and last longer than linseed oil. You can get tung oil in semi-gloss and gloss finishes, while Danish oil provides a satiny finish. However, do note that if your piece of wood furniture already has been treated with a certain oil, you’re best off to continue on with that same oil, even if it’s linseed.
These oil finishes should be applied directly to bare wood — even if the wood has been stained. That being said, any stains used should be water-based, or non-grain raising (NGR), as oil stains will interfere with the wood oil’s penetration. Alternatively, just pick up a tung oil sealer stain to do the job all in one go.
Easy way to get scratches out of wood furniture
Below, we go through how to sand and polish your wood furniture, but sometimes your piece will only have a small ding or scratch that you need to get out. This doesn’t require a full sand and polish of your piece of furniture. Instead, there are a few much simpler, much less time-consuming tricks you can try.
There are numerous ways to get scuffs and scratches off your wood table, and restore it to its former glory.
The tea bag method
Place a black tea bag in a mug, and boil a pot of water. Pour a tiny bit of water on the teabag (do not fill the cup). Allow to steep for a good few minutes — the longer it steeps, the darker the liquid will become, so gauge the length according to the darkness of the wood you’re working with. Use a cotton swab to apply the brown liquid to the scratch in your wood, and wipe away the excess with paper towel. You don’t want to stain the wood around the scratch — only the scratch itself. Repeat process as necessary to achieve the color you’re after.
The iodine method
If your wood furniture piece is made of dark wood, you can give the iodine method a try. Use a cotton swab to apply the iodine to the scratch, and, as in the method above, wipe away any excess with paper towel.
The steel wool method
If you would prefer a more effective way to remove the scratch, rather than just color it in, you can give this method a try. Grab some mineral oil (we like this 16-oz bottle of Swan Mineral Oil) and powdered pumice (we like this Super Fine Grip Dental Pumice), as well as an extra-fine grade steel wool pad (we like this 8-pack of Red Devil Super Fine Steel Wool Pads). Make a paste with the mineral oil and powdered pumice, and rub it into the scratch with the steel wood pad. Once you’ve achieved your desired look, use a dry cloth to wipe away and polish.
For a more thorough polish, start by dampening a high-grade sandpaper. Following the direction of the scratch, sand the scratched area gently. Once the scratch is removed, apply a paste wax with your steel wool, and buff.
The crayon method
Believe it or not, the right color of crayon can actually help restore the look of your wood furniture to its original glory.
Get a wax crayon that matches your wood color (you can also use oil-based paint, if preferred). Simply color in the scratch with the crayon, and then rub the wax deeper into the scratch with your fingers to blend.
The instant coffee method
Make a paste using instant coffee granules and water, and use your fingers to rub the paste into your wood furniture’s scratch. This method works best on dark stains.
The walnut method
Get a raw walnut and crack it open. Take the meat inside, and rub into the scratch. Use a soft, dry cloth to wipe clean. It probably goes without saying that this method works well on walnut wood!
The lacquer or shellac method
If your wood furniture has a lacquer or shellac finish, get some rubbing alcohol (we like this Amazon Brand of Isopropyl Antiseptic for Technical Use), nail polish remover (we like this Ultra Powerful Nail Polish Remover by Cutex), and a small brush (we like this 3-piece Plaid Nylon Brush Set). Dip your brush into the nail polish remover and gently brush over the crack. This will soften the lacquer around the scratch and cause it to fill in the affected area. Leave overnight.
Materials (if you’re doing it by hand)
If you’re going to sand your table by hand, all you need is sandpaper, teak oil, damp rag, vacuum with hand-held attachment.
- Low-gradient sandpaper — we like this 25-sheet pack of Multipurpose 60-Grit Sandpaper
- High-gradient sandpaper — we like this 45-sheet pack of Dry Wet 240-Grit Sandpaper
- Wood polish: Use a wood polish specifically formulated for the type of wood your furniture is made from — we like this Feed N Wax Conditioner by Howard Products
- Rag — we like this pack of 150 White Shop Towels
- Medium-gradient sandpaper — we like this 3-Pack of Pro-Grade No Slip Grip 150-Grit Sandpaper
- Vacuum with hand-held attachment — we like this Cordless 2-in-1 Lightweight Handheld Vacuum
Materials (if you’re using a palm sander)
If you can get your hands on a palm sander, do so! It makes this job so much easier.
- Palm sander — we like this ¼ Sheet Palm Grit Sander Kit
- Low-gradient palm sander sandpaper
- Medium-gradient palm sander sandpaper — we like this 3-Pack of Pro Grade 150-Grit Sandpaper
- High-gradient palm sander sandpaper
- Wood polish
- Vacuum with hand-held attachment
1. Prepare your room
Taking the time to prepare your room before starting, and protect your furniture with drop cloths will make clean-up so much easier.
It’s not a required step, but unless you have the ability to take your furniture outside or into your workshop in the garage, you’ll want to take some time to prepare your room before you start. Clear away any little trinkets as these will collect sawdust in all their nooks and crannies. Cover sofas and any other big pieces of furniture that can’t be moved with old sheets.
This step is worthwhile, because sawdust goes — quite literally — everywhere.
2. Prepare your sandpaper/ palm sander
If you’re sanding by hand, cut your sandpaper in half, and then fold it into a quarter. This is the easiest way to use sandpaper for furniture polishing.
If sanding by hand, prepare all your sandpaper sheets by cutting them in half and folding the half in half. This gives you a quarter of sandpaper that fits easily into the palm of your hand, and is the most effective way to sand.
If you’re using a palm sander, however, just pop the lowest gradient sandpaper on the face of the palm sander.
3. Sand with the grain
When sanding, you never sand against the grain. Always sand with the grain. This applies to hand sanding and when using the palm sander.
Sand your furniture down with the lowest gradient sandpaper (which has the thickest pieces of sand, making it rougher), focusing on the problem areas in particular. This will require a significant amount of elbow grease if you’re sanding by hand.
If you’re using a palm sander, lean into the machine as you go. This will make it more effective.
Lots of sawdust will appear.
After sanding, your piece of furniture will be covered in a thick layer of sawdust.
If your piece of furniture requires you to sand all the way to the bottom (such as the legs on a table), be sure to prop up your piece of furniture to make it easy to access the bottom.
7. Use a vacuum to clean all the sawdust
Your vacuum’s handheld attachment is ideal for sucking up difficult-to-clean sawdust particles.
If your vacuum has a handheld attachment — ideally with a brush face — this is the perfect accessory for cleaning the sawdust off your now sanded piece of furniture. If your vacuum didn’t come with a handheld attachment, fear not. You can use a damp rag for this job. It’s just a bit messier.
💡Tip: Don’t wash your rag off in your kitchen sink, as sawdust particles can clog drain pipes. Instead, use a bucket filled with soapy water to rinse your rag.
8. Sand again with a higher gradient sandpaper
Be sure to use two hands when using your palm sander.
Once you’ve vacuumed up all the sawdust, you’ll repeat the sanding process — this time with a higher gradient sandpaper.
How many times you repeat this process will depend entirely upon how scuffed up your wood furniture is, and how deep your stains or marks are. For a simple buff and polish, feel free to just sand twice — the second and last time with 150 gradient sandpaper.
For a more thorough buff and polish that gets out stains and marks, repeat the sanding process at least three times. For extremely deep stains, not only should you sand four or five times, but you should also concentrate on the marked up areas when you’re sanding. Of course, don’t overdo this step, as if you sand too heavily on one portion of the table and not another, you’ll end up with an uneven surface.
Vacuum up your saw dust again, and repeat process as needed, with increasingly higher gradient sandpaper each time.
💡Tip: The higher the gradient of sandpaper, the finer the grains are, and the more it will polish the table off to a smooth finish.
9. Wipe your piece of furniture
Use a damp cloth to make sure your table is completely white free of sawdust
Once you’ve completed all the steps of the sanding process your piece of wood furniture requires, get out your rag and run it under the tap. Ring it out as much as you can, so that it’s just damp.
Now, run your rag over your table to wipe off all the remaining saw dust.
10. Allow your wood furniture to fully dry
Take a break while your piece of furniture dries completely. You don’t want any water sitting on the surface of the wood for the next step.
You can use this time to vacuum and dust any saw dust that settled around your room. You won’t be sanding any more, so it’s a good time to start cleaning.
11. Oil up your table
When oiling your table, it’s important to use a generous amount of oil — but not too much!
Get out your oil and a clean rag (don’t use the one you just used to wipe the table of sawdust), and shake your oil can well. Pour a generous dollop of oil directly onto your piece of wood furniture.
This is a good amount of oil for a wooden table surface of this size.
Apply your oil with your clean rag (though if you can get your hands on a clean cheesecloth, even better). Spread it across the surface of your furniture using a circular or figure-eight motion, until it’s been coated evenly and the wood has stopped absorbing it.
💡Tip: As you rub the oil into the wood surface, do so with the heel of your hand, working along the grain. Do this for about 15 minutes — this will generate heat, which actually helps the oil penetrate into the wood. Some oils may absorb faster than others; always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions on the back of the oil tin.
12. Allow to dry
Once you’ve completed the oil rubbing process, allow your piece of wood furniture to dry for 24 to 48 hours, or perhaps longer. Check the back of your oil can for specific drying times. Linseed oil can take up to a week to dry properly.
💡Tip: If you live in a humid climate, allow for longer drying times.
Once the drying time is up, wipe your piece of wood furniture clean with a dry cloth, to remove all excess oil. Most oils shouldn’t leave any oily film, with the exception of linseed oil, which leaves a very thin oil film atop the wood.
💡Tip: Extend the drying times for the final coats of oil, which take longer to dry since they won’t likely be penetrating the wood’s surface. If your oil isn’t completely dry in between coats, your final finish will be sticky.
13. Repeat oiling process as needed
Depending on the severity of the pre existing damage to your table, give it between two and five coats of oil. You’re after a rich and hard finish — continue repeating until you achieve it. The number of coats you’ll need to do depends on both the type of wood in question, as well as the oil. While Danish and tung oils often only require one coat, linseed oil can require up to 20.
14. Re-wax your table if needed
If your table is a waxed table now you’ll need to re wax it with a furniture wax
If you follow the steps in this article, your wooden piece of furniture should be looking like new, just like our wooden table!