Wooden furniture is one of the most wonderful inventions, isn’t it? Wood in and of itself is a gorgeous material, and when it’s used for furniture, it’s just perfection. Except, of course, when that furniture is dining room chairs…and it’s old and beat up and not very pretty anymore. But there’s great news, and that is this fact: wood can (almost) always be restored and refinished to become something you love.
This tutorial will take you, step-by-step, through the process of refinishing a set of wooden dining chairs; however, you can use this same process for virtually any wood piece you’d like to redo. The process takes quite a bit of time and lots of effort, but the end result is worth it.
This is the “before” photo of the dining chairs at the dining table. The shape of these chairs is great for this space, because they are low-profile, which makes the natural light more accessible visually. They are smaller scale, which is nice in a small dining room (which this one is) to keep things in proportion.
One downside to these chairs is that, in this state, they currently blend a little too closely to the floor. Like, they match…almost. But not quite. And this is not a great characteristic here.
Another sad spot for these chairs, which might be an instance for other dining chairs as well, is the sorry state of the legs. These are not filthy, although they look it. They are simply bashed and banged and scratched.
So, while they are a good shape and size for the space and are quite sturdy, these dining chairs could really use a refinishing job.
The first thing to do is strip the old finish off your existing wooden furniture. This could be paint, lacquer, varnish, polyurethane, or any number of other finishes. I recommend Citristrip stripping gel for its low fumes and effectiveness.
Brush the Citristrip generously onto your chair’s surface. Get all the surfaces – inside, outside, backside, frontside, even down in the cracks and grooves where different wood pieces join together.
The Citristrip goes on pinkish but dries white.
Let the Citristrip sit for about 15-20 minutes. The instructions on the product states you can wait up to 24 hours before removing the Citristrip; however, I found it to be easiest and most effective to remove within about a half an hour. Waiting too long caused the Citristrip to over-dry (if that’s a thing) and become quite hard to remove, which required another application of Citristrip just to get the first one off more easily. When you’re staring down the gun that is eight dining chairs needing refinishing, this extra double-application is not welcome if it’s not necessary.
Test a small area to see if the Citristrip has worked to remove the existing finish. Scrape away the Citristrip and anything that comes with it with a plastic scraper.
Where the Citristrip has dried in the cracks, use a toothbrush to brush the excess away after you’ve done the plastic scraper.
Citristrip worked very well for removing the finish on most of these wooden chairs. However, in some instances, the varnish was particularly stubborn. It was gummy coming off with the Citristrip and plastic scraper. No problem, though. Simply remove what you can on the first pass, then reapply a second coat of Citristrip, wait 15-20 more minutes (or until you can tell it’s done working), and scrape off the second coat. Repeat if necessary, depending on the thickness of your particular furniture’s finish.
When all the finish is removed and most of the Citristrip is scraped off, it’s time to clean your furniture to remove the last of the residue. Use a stripping after wash and wipe it all over the chair.
I started with a scouring pad and dipped it in the after wash.
Rub the scouring pad over the wooden surfaces to be cleaned to remove all Citristrip residue.
Full disclosure: While the after wash seemed to be useful for its purpose, I realized that, because I wanted to sand the chairs before refinishing them anyway, it would save a step to skip the after wash and simply sand away the Citristrip residue. Use fine grit sandpaper, such as 220-grit.
Use the 220-grit sandpaper to gently sand all surfaces of the chair. If you opt to do this step in lieu of the after wash, make sure the Citristrip residue is completely dry so it will flake off easily.
As you’re working through each chair, use pointed toothpicks for the hard-to-reach areas to clear them out completely.
Good job. You have now stripped the finish off your chair, removed the stripping agent residue, and sanded (times six or eight, if you’re doing a dining set). That’s a lot of work, I know. But now the fun begins, where you start to make the chairs really look great.
You may notice, upon closer inspection, variations in your wood. This spot here, for example, wasn’t terribly noticeable underneath layers of clear varnish, but it could very well become an eyesore in the staining process. Wood tends to absorb stain differently, even the same piece of wood, which creates an uneven look.
To minimize this mis-absorption rate, use a pre-stain wood conditioner on your bare wood. Note: If you are going to use an oil-based stain, you should use an oil-based wood conditioner also.
Simply brush the wood conditioner onto the wood and let it sit for a few minutes.
You can see here the difference in tone between wood that has been treated with wood conditioner (the back of the chair) and wood that hasn’t yet been treated (the front seat).
Use a clean rag to wipe off any excess wood conditioner before it dries.
Now that you’ve treated your chairs with pre-stain wood conditioner, they are ready for the staining process. This one, for me, is the most rewarding. Choose the stain you like (oil-based if you’ve gone with an oil-based pre-stain wood conditioner, although you really should choose your stain first and work backward from there), and stir it up thoroughly.
Following the directions on the stain, apply it onto your dining chair. Wait the allotted time (in this case, just a few minutes), remembering that the longer you wait, the darker the stain will likely be.
Wipe off the stain with a clean rag. (You’ll want to have plenty of clean rags on hand, because they become quite dirty during this process, and if you have multiple chairs, you’re going to need at least one rag for every chair, maybe more.)
If you find that you’ve wiped the stain off too soon, as was the case here, it’s not a big deal. Simply reapply the stain and wait a little longer. Try to keep the total time under stain (before wiping it off) constant across all your wood surfaces, whether it’s in one or two applications.
If you notice significant drips or streaks when applying the stain (such as will likely happen when you do the very top of the chairback), quickly brush other stain over those streaks. If you leave the streaks for a few minutes before adding other stain and wiping it off, those streak marks will have been staining the longest and will, therefore, be darker and visible. No, thanks.
Be sure you’re working in a well-ventilated area when using all of these products. A garage works well, particularly to keep the breeze from blowing leaves and dust onto the wet wood.
After your stain is fully dried and cured, it’s time to apply a couple protective coatings of Polyurethane.
Use a foam brush and wipe it all over the wood.
Although the poly is clear, it has a lovely satin sheen to it, so you can see where you’ve gotten and where you’ve missed.
After the first coat polyurethane has dried, following the directions on your container, it’s time to sand with fine (220-grit) sandpaper and apply a second coat.
And a third and a fourth coat, if you want.
After your last coat, leave the chair(s) alone for at least 24 hours, perhaps longer, until the poly has dried completely and the surface is not at all tacky.
While you’re waiting for the polyurethane to dry, you can utilize your time well by recovering the seat cushions. Remove staples from the underside of the seat.
While it’s recommended by everyone who recovers things that you remove all staples and fragments of the older upholstery, I couldn’t do it. There were just too many staples, and the chair seat wouldn’t be any worse off by leaving them. I ended up just cutting the old upholstery very close on both sides of the staples and removing the bulk of the corner fabric.
Lay your seat onto the new fabric. This particular fabric – faux leather – is perfect for dining room chairs. Waterproof, subtly textural, tons of color options, faux leather is a fantastic choice for durability and maintaining sanity amidst the Dining Room Experience With Children. (Example shows Keller Style Catalina Faux Leather in Shadow.) Cut with a 3”-4” cushion to give you plenty of fabric to wrap over the edge of the seat and staple down on the underside.
Flip the fabric to be right side down, and center your seat onto the fabric.
Double-check to make sure you have enough fabric to come up and over the back edge of your chair, then staple the center of the front side (we’ll call it A) about three times.
Leave it at this for a minute.
Spin the chair seat around, then pull the back side of the fabric taut (directly opposite what you just stapled; we’ll call this B). Keeping the fabric tight, staple the center of this back side a few times.
Spin the chair seat 90 degrees to what we’ll call side C; pull taut, and staple a few in the center. (I went a little crazy on side B, as you can see, but I’d recommend reigning in the staples at this point to just about three.)
Spin the seat 180 degrees to the last side (D). Pull taut, and staple this last center down.
At this point, you should have the centers of all four sides stapled down. The fabric should be taut, with no wrinkles or bumps or anything odd. If you’re good to go, it’s time to hit the corners.
For corners that are 90 degrees (as opposed to curved), you’ll want to imagine there’s a line from the center of the chair to wherever it is you’re stapling. Always pull taut against this line. Staple from your center staples toward the corner on both sides.
Staple all the way until the corner almost meets up; you want to leave about 1/2″ between the final two corner staples here.
Pinch the excess fabric, and make sure the corner fabric (whatever will be on the top of the chair seat) is smooth.
Create a flat edge of folded fabric, about 1” wide, that hits directly at the center of the corner.
Fold the excess fabric directly back over the corner, making sure there are not extra bumps or ridges in your fabric. If you happen to find a bump, it’s because you did not pull the fabric taut enough as you stapled up the side toward the corner. To remedy this, you can either try to hide the bump (if it’s very small) under the folded fabric, or you may have to re-staple that half of the side, pulling the fabric much tighter this time to ensure its smoothness.
Check for a professional-looking corner and make any minor adjustments needed.
Staple the corner in place.
Viola! Looks beautifully professional, all tight and crisp.
For any rounded corners, your approach will be more fluid. Begin by stapling inward from the center of your two adjacent sides until you’ve reached the beginning of the corner’s curve. Staple – once – directly in the center (point A).
Pick one side between A and the last side staple (red dot). Pull the fabric taut on your imaginary line from the center of the seat itself, then staple – once – in the center of this space (point B).
Pull the little bit of fabric between points A and B taut, then staple once more in the center (point C).
Repeat this process for all the other sections. Basically, you’re dividing spaces in the curved corner in half and half and half again until you’ve stapled the entire curve, pulling the fabric to be tight and smooth each time.
It should look great when you’ve stapled them all around the curve.
Repeat this process for all the curved corners.
Trim any excess fabric to about 1/4″ to 1/2” away from the staples. Done with your seat cover!
When you go to cut out the next one, keep the same direction on the fabric for all your seat covers. In other words, have the front of the chair seats face the same direction on your fabric piece.
With your polyurethane completely dried and your chair seats recovered, you just have to reattach the seats to the chair frames.
Then you’re done!
It’s a good time to remember where you started, to see how far your wooden dining chair has come. Although many of the differences are subtle, the overall chair is so much better for the space.
The classic grey stain is still on the warm side, which is necessary for this dining space, but, being grey, it adds a nice cool tone.
It’s hard to beat that low profile for a chairback, especially when the dining room is filled with young children and their friends.
The benefit of staining, rather than painting, is that the wood grain comes through beautifully.
With a stain like classic grey, for example, I feel like you get the best of both worlds – color AND wood grain. That’s a win-win!
We hope you find this tutorial helpful for refinishing your favorite wooden pieces.
With so many pieces, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or hurried.
Just remember to take your time in the refinishing process, recognizing that you’re crafting pieces that you’re going to love for a long while.
Ultimately, we hope you love your “new” dining room chairs!