How to Refinish Old Furniture: Decorate Your Place on the Cheap

The style of a man's home is just as important as his personal style. Learn how simple it is to refinish old furniture and stop living in a cardboard bachelor pad.

Before I begin, I need to emphasize one thing: Any guy, regardless of skill or creativity can do this project on a lazy Saturday. It requires minimal investment, minimal tools, and minimal design skill.

Living on your own is hard. Bills, maintenance, rent. But one of the hardest things for a man newly on his own is creating a home. Furniture, decorations, and art are not only expensive, they find themselves low on the priority list. Hell, you're not going to spend $1,000 on a couch if you can't even contribute a few hundred bucks a year to your 401(k).

Just like a man's shoes or how he takes care of his vehicles, how he styles his home is a true representation of who he is. We dress well to convey something about ourselves. We're strong and successful. Tasteful and attentive. Sexy and masculine. A man's home is no different, whether it's the Playboy mansion or a studio apartment in the middle of nowhere.

So what to do? Unfortunately many guys in their 20's assume that since they can't afford nice furniture and decorations that they'll be forced to live in a desolate, IKEA-filled bachelor pad, allowing folks to come over only after a few drinks and the sun has gone down.

But there is another solution–and not only is it cheap, insanely easy, and masculine, you'll score major points with whoever comes over.

A hundred years ago if a guy needed a table he had three options: buy one, be given one, or build one. The last of which, satisfies a gentleman's primal desire to build his home with his own hands. Fast forward to the present, and the skills to do that have been lost over generations, let alone many guys at our age live in apartments with no physical space to build furniture even if they knew how.

The solution to all these problems is surprisingly simple: Find an old, unwanted piece of wood furniture and redo it. Strip it down to its wood, and breathe new life into a piece of discarded furniture that will look like it cost hundreds of dollars.

My first adventure into redoing furniture started only a few months ago. I was walking the dog here in Los Angeles and stumbled upon an ugly wooden dresser on the sidewalk. Finding furniture on the street is not uncommon here, in fact, there's a service to call for the city to come pick up big items like mattresses and tables. So I regularly see various home items awaiting their funeral on the sidewalk.

And occasionally, there's a piece that's been battered, repainted, and ignored for decades that is a diamond just needing a little polishing.

To illustrate just how simple the process for redoing a piece of furniture is, I'll break it down into 3 steps:

  1. Removing old paint or varnish
  2. Applying new paint and stain
  3. Roughing it up around the edges to give it an antiqued look

That's it. The rest is just details, and they're super easy. The best part is the style I'm going for is old and antiqued. I like that it looks like maybe it's been sitting in a barn for 20 years. This makes it very hard to mess up. Sand off too much? The paint is uneven? Deep gouges in the wood? Perfect, it's all a part of the look.

My second piece shown here, was even easier than my first so I'll start with it. I paid $10 for it at yard sale, and it's old. The 70's at the newest would be my guess, possibly older. I did all this work on a balcony that's only 4 feet wide.

Before and after of an old dresser and it being refinished

Put down a plastic drop cloth ($1.99 at a hardware store). The best thing about redoing wood furniture is you can get an amazing look by re-staining the top. So, I taped off the top and removed the drawer pulls so that I wouldn't get paint on them.

An old dresser being spray painted

After that, I simply spray painted the front and sides with gray primer. This dresser had some unique trenches that were darker than the rest of the wood that I wanted to preserve. I used a Q-Tip to fill the trenches with vaseline to protect them from the paint. After the paint dried I simply wiped away the vaseline.

Vaseline or Crayon with arrow pointing at crevice in dresser

When spray painting, you want to do several light layers. Holding the can at 6 to 12 inches away, spray the paint in an even, light layer to avoid puddling, dripping, and thick spots. A can of spray paint costs less than $5.

It took me 3 coats to get the consistency I wanted.

After that, I removed the cover from the top and sanded away the old varnish so that the wood would be able to take the wood stain. After sanding, wipe away all the dust with a lint free cloth. I picked up a small can of wood stain at Home Depot for about $6.

Apply the wood stain along the grain with a foam brush ($.99, make it easy on yourself and get one that fits in the can), using long even strokes while avoiding puddling as much as possible. Unlike paint, wood stain is applied and then wiped away after about 15 minutes, literally leaving the wood stained. Following the directions on the can, you continue to apply coats of stain until you get the desired darkness with 4-6 hours in between coats.

Before and after of restaining a scratched surface

Once the wood is stained the color you like, allow it to dry and apply a coat or two of polyurethane. Polyurethane is what protects the wood from the elements. Without it, you just have raw wood that is stained.

After the stain dries, dust off the surface with a lint-free cloth. Use a soft-bristled brush to apply a thin coat of polyurethane in long strokes also along the grain. This will not be rubbed off, so you want to make sure that you don't apply too much at one time.  Allow it to dry overnight, or according to the can's directions, and apply a second coat.

Staining and applying polyurethane to a dresser top

This particular dresser had a unique wood carving in the center, so to accentuate it I used sand paper to “antique” the edges. I sprayed some white spray paint that I had sitting around into a paper bowl and used a paper towel to loosely cover the cutout, and immediately wiped it off, resulting in this cool old finish.

Distressed decoration on dresser

And that's it. This dresser, which I have in my living room cost less than $25 to create (I had some supplies left over from the other dresser) and has become a focal point of the room.

My first dresser that I did was more involved, but no more complicated than the second. This dresser being the one I found on the street, looked like it was being used in a children's room. It was painted an ugly red and orange, so I would need to remove the latex paint from the top before I could stain it.

Before and after or an old dresser redone

Luckily, science has made sanding away paint unnecessary. There are several paint strippers available, and I used Citristrip. I picked up a spray can, which was enough to do the dresser top or something like a chair. If you need to strip more paint than that, I'd recommend getting the larger option that comes in a jug, and you brush it on.

Citristrip is amazing. You apply it, let it sit for about 30 minutes, and come back and scrape off all the paint layers with ease. I was really surprised at how well it worked.

Scraping of paint with citristrip

Just like the other dresser, I masked off the top so I could paint the front and sides.  I used normal latex paint on this dresser for two reasons. First, I wanted a specific color that wasn't available as a spray paint, and second, I was concerned about spray paint being inconsistent. The spray paint on the second dresser is fine and an easy solution, but the brushed on latex paint produced a better finish overall. So, it's up to you.

After painting the sides, front, drawer fronts and letting it all dry, I went back with some sand paper to roughen up the edges and give an old feel. Next time I'm going try steel wool.

Just as with the other dresser, I then applied several coats of stain and polyurethane using the same process described above. This dresser is a harder and better wood, notice how much lighter it is than the other dresser with the same number of coats of stain.

The gray dresser had some cool knobs already, but the red dresser I found on the street had wooden knobs. Not the look I wanted. I checked various hardware stores and eBay and found that the knobs were easily going to be the most expensive part: several dollars a piece and I needed 8 of 'em. Luckily I found a $.99 bin at one of the hardware stores that had some I could use. They were shiny brass which didn't match the old feel of the rest of the dresser. I painted them with black spray paint, then once dried used sandpaper to rub off some of it, revealing the brass underneath. It resulted in a very cool old feel, and was super cheap.

Spray painting dresser pulls

I have this dresser in my dining room, and works perfectly as a serving table or cocktail station.

DIY dresser redo after photo

Don't let money be an excuse for having a junky apartment. With a little thought and some chump change you can create some beautiful and stylish furniture. Nobody has to know you found it on the street.

Andrew Snavely

Andrew founded Primer in 2008 and brings 15+ years of men's style expertise. Known for his practical, relatable approach to style and self-development, he has been a recognized speaker at conferences and has styled work for top brands. Off-duty, he loves photography & editing, and enjoys road trips with his dog, Leela. Raised in rural Pennsylvania, educated in DC, and living in LA for nearly 20 years, Andrew's diverse experiences shape the relatable and real-world advice that has helped millions through Primer. On Instagram: @andrewsnavely and @primermagazine.