How to Refinish a Chair: A Handy DIY Guide

Feb 20, 2024 / Laura Bolt

Did you know it’s possible to refinish a chair over the weekend? If you want to give new life to your vintage find, here’s our handy guide to show you how.

Whether your hand-me-down chair was found in your own attic, at a garage sale, by the side of the road, or at your favorite flea market, we’ve got expert tips to see you through the transformation—even if it’s your first DIY project.

Furniture artist and expert storyteller Andy Kline loves to rescue furniture on its way to the landfill and give it a “new chapter,” while inspiring others to do the same on her unique YouTube channel, Furniture Fables by Andy.

In fact, she cites chairs as some of her most sentimental projects, as they often evoke fond memories.

Luckily, there are some simple ways to restore an item no matter where you found it, so you can pass it down through generations to come.

What kinds of chairs can you refinish?

For beginners, Andy says that the best candidates are going to be solid wood with simple lines, or solid wood with a removable padded seat cushion.

“Leave the complex upholstery to the specialists,” she advises. “Another tip for DIY sanity? Avoid chairs with spindles, at least for your first project. Spindles = time and effort.”

After you’ve examined the chair you’re refinishing for scratches, dents, and paint chips, you’ll want to gather your materials to address its specific wear-and-tear.

What materials do I need?

You will likely need to do some sanding by hand, particularly for detailed or more ornate parts of a chair. Andy recommends R.A.D. Pads, which are foam sanding pads created by SurfPrep Sanding.

“The hardest working (and most expensive) tool in most chair restorations is probably an electric sander,” says Andy. “If you already have one of those, you’re in great shape! If not, a basic sander is a sound DIY investment and can be purchased for under $100.”

For a chair that has an old coat of paint or stain on it, you’ll want to remove that whether you prefer to stain, repaint, or let the natural grain show through.

A stain stripper is your tool of choice here. (Remember, chemical strippers can be harsh, so you’ll want to work outside or with the windows open. Store and dispose of the product according to the directions.) Look for a version that is nonflammable and nontoxic. Some even come in gel form, which are easy to work with and result in much less mess.

Other tools you may need include:

  • Sandpaper (high and low grit)
  • Wood putty and a putty knife (to fill in any dents or scratches in the wood)
  • Primer (if you’re planning to paint your chair)
  • Paint and brushes
  • Varnish and furniture wax (if you decide not to paint or stain)
  • Dropcloths

Now, it’s time to get to work!

How do I refinish a chair?

man pours paint into a tray as part of his diy project or refinish a chair

Strip any stain or paint with a chemical stripper.

If you’re using a stain stripper, start by applying the stripper and letting it soak according to the instructions on the label. Depending on the formulation, you’ll then wipe, scrape, or rinse off the chemicals to remove the paint/stain. Wipe the chair clean with a damp cloth, and then let it dry for 24 hours.

Sand with an electric sander, then with sandpaper by hand. Wipe it down.

Next (or first, if you’re not using a chemical stripper), start the sanding process. Use your electric sander first, followed by sandpaper by hand to remove smaller sections and fine tune. Finish sanding with another wipe-down to get rid of debris.

Apply wood filler, if needed.

Does the chair have scratches or dents that remain after the sanding is done? Now’s the time to apply your wood putty.

Stain, if not painting.

If you want to stain the chair you’re refinishing with a wood stain varnish, now’s the time! Apply a clear varnish or furniture wax if you prefer the look of its natural wood.

Painters, apply your primer.

If, however, you want to paint your chair, use a primer to make the color more vibrant and even. A good rule to follow is to sync your primer to your paint—water-based primer for water-based paints, varnish for varnish.

Paint, let dry, repeat.

Finally, it’s time to paint! Chalk paints are an easy DIY option for beginners. Otherwise, look for latex or oil-based paints with a satin or semigloss finish.

According to Andy, “If you are planning to paint your chair(s), don’t use your leftover latex wall paint, which is prone to peeling off of furniture. Instead, choose a paint that is intended for furniture or cabinets. It’ll be more wipe-able and stand up much better to the unavoidable wear and tear chairs will experience.”

Be sure to let your paint dry between coats. After your final coat, let it dry for 12 hours (at least), and then enjoy your new creation!

You’ve got a cushion … or not.

As you’re looking to refinish your chair, don’t forget about a cushion. Now, if your chair comes with a cushion, you have even more of an opportunity to show your style.

A piece of fabric and a staple gun can refresh outdated upholstery. Andy recommends “looking for gorgeous designer remnant fabrics at a discounted price at your local fabric store, or fabulous vintage fabrics at a local antique store or mall.”

Don’t be afraid to go a little wild. “The ‘power of the print’ is undeniable,” says Andy. “A hit of fresh, modern fabric can do wonders for any outdated chair.”

If your roadside or antique store find didn’t come with a cushion of its own, don’t worry. That hard seat is no obstacle. “You can also add a tie-on cushion,” says Andy, “for a little extra style and comfort.”

To review:

  1. Strip any current stain or paint with a chemical stripper.
  2. Sand your piece with an eclectic sander, then sandpaper by hand.
  3. Wipe your piece down to get rid of excess material.
  4. Fill in gaps with wood putty.
  5. Stain or apply a primer.
  6. Paint and let dry.
  7. Add accessories or cushioning.

If you’re ready to apply your new skills on your next makeover, learn how we painted a desktop for some amped up WFH (work from home) style.

How much does it cost?

Prices can vary depending on your materials and your goals, but you can expect to spend an average of $100-$500 on refinishing a chair. Of course, your per-item cost may come down if you are doing a set of chairs in the same stain/paint color.

Hunting for a good deal at flea markets and thrift stores can save you money in the long run, as can having a keen eye for things that can be used around the house.

In fact, Andy recently completed a total chair restoration for just $22 on a vintage chair purchased for $15 using $7 worth of materials she already had (or was saving just in case).

For her process, she “cut a piece from a memory foam mattress pad that no longer fit any of our beds to replace the chair’s very old, very dusty cushion padding, and used my electric detail sander with a foam abrasive to sand out all the dings and scratches on the body of the chair. Then I used a new inexpensive curtain that was in my to-be-donated pile for the seat fabric, and I left all the gorgeous wood with its beautiful carved details ‘au natural,’ sealing it with just a bit of clear furniture wax. For a special little detail, I added a transfer of a bird and tree branches to the back.”

Andy refinished a chair in a single day! Check out the whole process on her YouTube channel for some inspiration for your next DIY project.

Ready to join the weekend warriors restoring furniture of all kinds? Read our tips for these outdoor wood projects.

If you’ve truly caught the DIY bug and want to expand your skills beyond wood, try your hand at these practical projects to update your home from our blog.

Who knows? At this point, your new skills may become more than just a hobby.

Recent Articles