Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Refurbishing Furniture

Here is a list of the top 10 mistakes to avoid when you are refurbishing furniture. Learn from common mistakes I have made.

This post was originally written in April 2021 and updated in April 2024.

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If you are new to this blog: Welcome! My name is Anna and I share information on collecting antique/vintage items, refurbishing furniture and making small crafts/projects. The purpose of this blog is to share with you how to use creativity and antiques to make your home beautiful. In addition to information here on the blog, you can also follow me on the following social media accounts InstagramFacebook or Pinterest.

Antique washstand

Backstory

I started refurbishing furniture in 2008.  At first, I worked on pieces for my own home because refurbishing your own furniture is much more cost effective than buying a piece completed by someone else.  Refurbishing furniture is also a great way to affordably decorate your home. As time progressed, I started selling refurbished furniture. Over the years I have learned a few hard lessons.  So, here are 10 of the most common mistakes you can avoid when you work on refurbishing your next  FB marketplace, thrift store, find or any other piece of furniture.  It may be a good idea to read this article prior to your first furniture makeover. Avoiding these common pitfalls will save you time and money.  It will also save you some unnecessary aggravation on your next DIY project related to painting furniture. 

Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Refurbishing Furniture

For purposes of simplicity, this article focuses on repairing and working on wood furniture.   It also focuses on furniture that is painted with latex paint, chalk paint or milk paint.  It does not address refinishing furniture with spray paint.

Where possible, links are provided to online resources.  However, most items mentioned are available at your local hardware store or big box home improvement store. 

Also, these mistakes are associated with refurbishing old furniture and therefore, most pieces shown here are at least 70 years old. Old wooden furniture is usually made exceptionally well and in the long run holds up better than more recent productions.  In general, if you are interested in refurbishing furniture,  you want to look for quality pieces that have potential. 

Please note, these mistakes also apply to painting wooden kitchen cabinets.  Conversely, these ideas and recommendations below would not necessarily apply to furniture restoration – which aims to restore furniture to its original condition. 

Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid Refurbishing Furniture

 

Mistake 1: Using wood fillers other than Bondo.

Wood filler is used to fill the holes from previously attached hardware, cracks that have developed in the wood, and gouges that may exist on surfaces.  When working on a piece of wood furniture that needs anything other than a pin size hole filled, I go straight to Bondo.  At first I tried to avoid using Bondo because it requires mixing a base with a hardener solution. However, I have learned the hard way, that if you want a smooth finish that has the durability of wood – Bondo is the best option.  Other wood fillers tend to be softer and can’t be sanded to a smooth finish. 

Another benefit of using Bondo is that it performs like wood.  So if you have to re-drill holes for hardware you can drill through the repaired portion of wood.  In contrast, with other wood fillers, if I try to drill a hole in a repaired portion there is a risk the entire repaired section will crack and crumble. 

Mistake 2: Not having enough paint

Paint can be expensive, particularly speciality paints such as chalk paints, mineral paints or milk paints. In an effort to save money and not waste paint, too often I would try to cautiously meter out how much paint to apply to furniture with terrible results.  It’s best to buy more paint than you think you will need. There is nothing more frustrating than running out of paint when you are 3/4 of the way through your furniture makeover.

Mistakes to avoid when refurbishing furniture

Be sure to read the instructions for proper preparation.   Depending upon the brand being used, it could require a minimal amount of prep work and application of one coat paint -or-  require extensive prep work and multiple coats of paint.  For example, chalk paint requires minimal prep work and you may need to only apply one coat of paint.

Notes about Milk Paint

If you aren’t familiar with milk paint, it comes in a powder form. Generally, you mix a1:1 ratio of powder with warm water to make the paint. Milk paint is a very old type of paint which has been around for more than 100 years. It does have some quirks.

When using milk paint, you have to paint the entire piece of furniture – even with the second and third coats.  You can not touch up spots or specific areas on a piece of furniture because milk paint leaves a splotchy uneven mark when the paint dries. Further, if you are painting a piece of furniture a lighter color such as white, pale grey, light green, or  pale blue- it may require 3 (or more) complete coats of paint.  

Milk paint is my favorite type of paint to use because it imparts a lovely finish with character. However, it does require getting used to its quirks.

Notes about Cupboard Interiors

Another relevant and important piece of information:  the inside of cupboards require way more paint than the outside. There is so much more surface area on the insides of cupboards, especially when you need to paint shelves.  For this task alone, you will need a lot of paint.  Also, my comments for interiors of cupboards apply about needing multiple coats of paint when applying a light color paint over a dark wood.

Cupboard Interior

Mistake 3: Not buying enough sandpaper

Sandpaper is my secret weapon of choice.  Sanding is necessary for prep work and is usually the first step in the process.  It is also necessary to sand between coats of paint to create smooth surfaces for an even finish.  It’s easiest to order large quantities of sandpaper in a variety of grits.  I use sandpaper for a palm orbit sander and I also use sheets for hand sanding. There is nothing more frustrating than starting a project and running out of sandpaper in the middle of completing the project.  So, buy plenty of sheets of 80, 120, 180, and 220 grit sandpapers.  A final sanding with 220 grit sandpaper will ensure a smooth finish.

Victorian Washstand

Mistake 4: Not using a good quality paint brush

If you don’t want visible brush marks on your furniture or the occasional bristle hair from your paint brush to adhere to the paint, then I encourage you to use a good quality brush with fine bristles.  Inexpensive paint brushes tend to have coarse bristles My go-to brushes are made by Zibra.  I also like the higher end paint brushes made by Wooster.  If you take care of your brushes and clean them after every use – they will last for years.  As a result, I don’t mind paying more for a good brush since I know I will still be using it in 5 years time.

Mistake 5: Using a good paint brush to apply primer

You know that nice paint brush you just purchased?  Never, use it to apply primer.  It will be ruined.  It will end up a gummy mess and will be all but impossible to clean.  When applying primer, I use cheap brushes and then I throw them away.  It takes so long to clean the brushes and even at that point the bristles are usually damaged.  Hence, I just toss the entire brush.  My favorite place to buy cheap paint brushes is from the dollar store.  You can also purchase chip brushes sold at your local hardware store.

Mistake 6: Underestimating required repairs

Required repairs are some times difficult to know, or identify, until you start working on a piece of furniture.  Before you purchase a piece of furniture, pay close attention to the condition of the drawers, doors and legs.  Drawers should slide in and out easily.  Doors should open and close without getting stuck.  The legs should be free from chips and cracks.   Try your best to find a piece of furniture that doesn’t need any repairs. 

Antique china cupboard from the early 1900s with original casters

In general, old furniture with a chipped veneer or broken legs will require a significant amount of time and work.  When furniture requires extensive repairs, it can double or triple the amount of time you need to invest in refurbishing it.  When evaluating whether or not to buy a piece of furniture, I check its overall structural condition.  Look for hidden cracks, broken and missing pieces.

Mistake 7: Not sealing top surfaces

If you are refurbishing any type of table, it will need a durable top coat to protect it from water and moisture. At least three coats of a durable top coat should be applied to the surface to protect it from any type of water damage.  

Antique side table painted with milk paint

To protect the tops of refurbished furniture, my go-to preference is  Minwax’s Polycrylic, a water-based solution.   This is a water-based sealer that is easy to apply and easy to clean up. If you have painted a piece of furniture a lighter color, such as white, light grey, pale blue, or light green, avoid using an oil-based polyurethane because the clear protective finish turns yellow with the passage of time and with exposure to sunlight.

Mistake 8: Not using good quality hardware.

This was also a tough lesson to learn.  When I first started working on furniture, I would go to big box stores or hobby stores to get knobs and pulls.  Then I noticed that over time, these pieces of hardware did not hold up.  They became loose or the nuts and bolts never seemed to connect securely. Or worse, the finish on the hardware started to wear off. Ordering hardware from reputable companies like Rejuvenation  makes a big difference. Also, always be on the lookout for vintage/antique sets of knobs and pulls (that come with mounting hardware) when you are antiquing. They don’t make knobs and pulls like they used to!

Mistake 9: Not Removing Old Paint

There were many times I thought it would be ok to re-paint a previously painted piece of furniture without removing the old finish.  If the existing paint job is not in excellent condition then painting over it won’t work well.   It’s important to use a chemical stripper, such as Citristrip, to remove the existing paint.  Using a paint stripper to remove the old finish/paint is essential if you want good results. 

Antique china cupboard painted with milk paint

Mistake 10: Not setting aside enough time 

This is by far one of my biggest mistakes.  When I first started refurbishing furniture, many times I thought I could paint a piece in 4 hours.  So many times, I was wrong.  This is especially true if there were complicated repairs that required cutting new pieces of wood, gluing, clamping or even stripping old paint.  Since then, I have learned to set aside regular chunks of time (between 2-3 hours) to work on furniture.  Then I stop.  A couple of days later, I spend another 2-3 hours working on the same piece of furniture.   I repeat this pattern until the project is complete.  As a rule of thumb, the average piece of furniture, that doesn’t need repairs, requires approximately 8 hours to refinish.

Summary

Hopefully this list of common errors will help you when working on your next DIY project. Refurbishing furniture is definitely hard work and requires time but can result in beautiful and unique pieces of furniture that will last for years.  

Anna Signature Block

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4 Comments

  1. Guilty as charged, Anna! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve also made some of these same mistakes and regretted them almost immediately. Especially, when it comes to prep work and having enough paint. Looking back I think I was just so excited to get started I thought it would all work out. But goodness those lessons were usuall the most time consuming and costly ones to experience. Thanks for helping to set us straight. It’s such vaulable information to share! Hugs, CoCo

    1. Oh my gosh – I have learned the hard way by making all of these mistakes myself! If I can help someone else from making the same error(s) – then it makes my day. Re-doing a paint job (because you made a mistake with the prep work) is so time consuming and costly

  2. Thanks for sharing this post! So much great information! I will be painting several furniture pieces this summer, so this is very helpful! Pinning now!

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