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A Guide to Wooden Furniture Restoration Materials

Finishes, stains, fillers, and sealers vary from project to project and deteriorate over time. If you are doing a lot of refinishing work, you might want to maintain a small supply; otherwise, buy these materials as you need them for each project. There are, however, some basic refinishing and repair materials that you should have on hand, and both abrasives and adhesives should be stock items. In this article, we'll review the materials that should be on your must-have list for your workshop.

Paint and Varnish Remover

There are quite a few differences among removers. The less expensive removers usually contain some form of wax, may be toxic and flammable, and need to be removed with scrapers or abrasives. The more expensive ones are nonflammable and nontoxic, and some can be removed with water. There are also wipe-on, wipe-off removers and gel removers, many of which are noncaustic and easy to use. Experimentation will be your guide. The liquid is used on flat surfaces and the semi-paste on vertical surfaces, such as chair legs, where holding power is important.


Abrasives, the materials that work as tools, are essential in furniture refinishing and repair, but their primary role is not that of removing an old finish. Sandpaper, which used to play a major role in furniture stripping and preparation for finishing, has been replaced in part by a variety of chemicals and milder abrasives. Many professionals use sandpaper regularly, but some professional refinishers never use sandpaper, substituting steel wool and abrasive powders instead.

Sandpaper can theoretically be used for every step of refinishing, but you may prefer to use sandpaper for coarse work, steel wool for stripping and fine work, and pumice or rottenstone for finishes. The only way to decide is experimentation and experience.


Sandpaper is made in a variety of types, both organic and inorganic. The organic types include flint paper and garnet paper, inexpensive papers that tend to wear down quickly. The inorganics, or synthetics, include aluminum oxide and silicon carbide papers, which cost more but last longer; they're available in much finer grits than are flint and garnet paper. Emery paper, used on glass or metal, should not be used on wood; use it only to clean furniture hardware.

Some professionals use only the synthetic papers (aluminum oxide and silicon carbide), while others believe the less expensive organic papers -- especially garnet paper -- are sufficient for all refinishing/repair needs. One thing is certain: flint paper, although the least expensive, wears down quickly and will cost you more in the long run. Use flint paper on gummy surfaces, where sandpaper becomes ineffective quickly. On other surfaces, the more expensive synthetic papers are faster-cutting and easier to use than the organics.

To see whether the synthetics are worth the money, start out with garnet paper and then do your next finishing job with a synthetic paper. If there's a big difference, you may feel the more expensive synthetics are worth the price; if not, you may go back to garnet paper. Use sandpaper of the type and grit appropriate for the job.

Steel wool and abrasive powders also are helpful materials to keep in your at-home workshop. Learn about their many uses in the next section.