8 Essential Wood Refinishing Tools and Supplies
A refinishing expert provides the lowdown on the basic products you'll need for your next refinishing project.
Teri Masaschi, author of Foolproof Wood Finishing: For Those Who Love to Build & Hate to Finish, knows how much fun it is to shop for new wood-finishing products. But don’t go overboard when you’re first starting out. “Buy per project: don’t fill up your cabinet with what you think you might need,” she says. “Before you know it, that cabinet will be full.”
Still, you’re going to need some basics to get started, and these are Masaschi’s suggestions for a well-rounded arsenal of tools. (And don’t forget: when you buy something new, label it with the date purchased. Time passes quicker than you think, and the products won’t last forever.)
All of the following are available at big-box stores:
1) A nice thick stripper for paint removal. To get thick coats of paint off an old wood piece, you’ll need a goopy product that clings to the piece, such as Klean-Strip Semi-Paste Stripper.
2) Thin stripper for finish removal. To remove old finishes, you don’t need quite so much staying power. “Old Masters sells a really nice watery stripper, TM-1,” Masaschi says. “Just get a little collection pan and wash down the piece by soaking it over and over again with a brush. The stripper just dissolves everything; it’s really nice.”
3) A power sander. After stripping, you’ll need to smooth the surface by sanding it. For big jobs, a power sander can cut down considerably on the tedium. You can sand by hand at about 100 to 200 strokes per minute, but a power tool can whip out 6000 to 8000 strokes in the same time frame. Keep sandpaper discs on hand in a range of grit sizes from 80 to 220.
4) Good sandpaper. “The most incredible sandpaper is one from Shopsmith,” Masaschi says. “It lasts forever and stays sharp: it’s really high quality.” In addition to power sanding discs, get some 320- and 400-grit sheets plus a couple of blocks for hand sanding. There are lots of blocks on the market, but to keep it simple, use a felt block or a wood block with some cork glued to it (wood alone can wear through sandpaper too easily).
5) Wipe-on stains and finishes. For the amateur wood finisher, Masaschi recommends going with wipe-on products, such as Minwax Wipe-On Polyurethane and General Finishes gel stains or gel topcoat. “If somebody were to take all my spray guns away tomorrow, I’d go with wipe-ons,” she says. “They take a number of coats to build up durability, but they’re easy to use and very pretty.” While brush-on products are thicker and require fewer coats to create a tough surface, they stay wet longer, so you may get drips, sags, brushstrokes that show and debris and dust falling into the finish. Wipe-on products avoid those headaches altogether.
6) Good cloths. For wiping on those stains and finishes, no need to buy new shop rags: just wash some old cotton T-shirts. But make sure they’re lint-free so they don’t leave any unwelcome surprises in your finish. “And remember that oily rags can combust while wet,” Masaschi says, “so after using them, put them outside immediately to dry or in a pail of water so you don’t burn your shop down.”
7) Fine steel wool and paste wax. “After your wipe-on finish is completely cured, which should take a couple of weeks, you should do a soft rub-out with fine steel wool and paste wax,” Masaschi says. “Just rub out the surface gently along the grain and buff it off with a soft rag and away you go: you’ll have a beautiful soft finish.”
Look for “0000” (four-ought) grade steel wool, which is the finest texture available. Masaschi says that for paste wax, you should stick with what’s easily available because there are lots of good products on store shelves, but she prefers Behlen’s Blue Label wax, if you can find it. The best choices, she says, are blends of beeswax, carnauba or candelilla and sometimes paraffin; any of those alone is too hard or too soft to work properly. And paste wax is a great choice because it goes where you put it, does no harm to wood, protects against spills and can be easily removed if necessary with mineral spirits.
8) Odds and ends. It’s a good idea to have a few things close by before you start a refinishing project. Painter’s tape, pencils, permanent markers, finishing nails, stirring sticks, disposable plastic cups (which solvents won’t melt), household ammonia for brush cleaning, clean canning jars, old teaspoons and tablespoons and yellow wood glue all come in handy. You won’t be sorry you planned ahead!