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Refinish a Wood Chest

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BLACK+DECKER B+D Contributor 189 Projects

Nothing evokes a sense of mystery like a wood chest. It might be one you found at an antique shop, or one that's been passed down through generations of family. It could be a newer chest that's faded or worn and you just want to breathe new life into it. The finish has likely faded or has been worn over time, and because chests are working pieces of furniture, dents, scratches and splinters typically need attention. Refinishing a chest is a good weekend project for all skill levels. The bulk of it can be done in a single day, using simple tools and supplies.

Divide + Conquer

Divide the refinishing job into three steps: repair, sanding + finishing. The sanding, which is probably the most important part of the project, requires most of the morning. Add stain afterwards, if desired. It's a good idea to allow the stain to dry overnight, and then tackle the topcoat the following day.

Sanding is Key

Sanding is the most important part of refinishing. The right tool means everything, and the BLACK+DECKER MOUSE® Detail Sander is ideal for removing old finishes in tight spaces. Capable of sanding on three sides, it has internal dust collection and a comfortable, ergonomic shape that fits your hand. It's ideal to use all day if needed.

Applying the Stain

Stains are available in a few different versions. Water + solvent-based formulas require anywhere from minutes to hours to dry. Oil-based stain requires up to 72 hours to dry. All are good products, and the application of both is pretty much the same so the decision will come down to preference. Oil-base stain permeates better than solvent base and dries less quickly (which offers you more application time). Not to mention, woodworking experts claim that oil-base stain adds deeper color. Solvent-base stain gets projects done the same day, and is available in a variety of different colors.

How to Refinish a Wood Chest

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    Place the chest on a work surface at about waist height. Your work area should be well-ventilated, and you should wear eye and breathing protection. Clean the chest thoroughly to remove dust or debris from the inside. Use a putty knife or light-duty steel brush to scrape off old or flaking finish.

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    Use a screwdriver to remove hinges and latches. If your chest has piano hinges, a cordless drill/driver eliminates time spent removing numerous screws. Mark the hardware with tape so you know where each piece goes, and place them in a container. Remove the lid and place it flat across your work surface.

    Good to Know: Older brass screws are delicate. Set your drill/driver on its lightest clutch setting to prevent stripping. But if you happen to strip some, it's fine to replace them with new ones. The BLACK+DECKER 20V MAX* Lithium Drill/Driver with AutoSense™ Technology is the drill of choice to avoid stripping screws. With AutoSense™ Technology, you’ll strip fewer screws.

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    Look for open cracks, splits, holes, gouges, deep scratches or loose splinters or veneer. Repair all cracks and splits that are more than about 1/16" wide, as well as large splinters and loose veneer. Inject wood glue into the crack or underneath the splinter, using a glue bottle with a fine tip or a glue syringe. Use a putty knife to spread glue under large areas of loose veneer.

    Apply clamps to close the crack, if possible — bar clamps work well for this purpose. Use a clamp or weight, and masking or painter's tape to hold down splinters and loose veneer. Allow the glue to dry for at least 1 hour.

    TIP: Use colored epoxy to fill cracks, splits, gouges or holes larger or deeper than about 1/16". It hardens and fills defects without clamps.

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    Fill dents, deep scratches and other depressions with plastic wood dough, using a putty knife. Plastic wood dough is sandable and stainable after it hardens.

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    Remove the old finish with the sander and 100-grit sandpaper, working on one side at a time, inside and out. Rotate the chest on its back, front or sides, placing the side you're working on face up. Use a back-and-forth motion, working parallel with the grain in small circles, moving the sander in manageable sections. When the wood looks bare, move on to another section.

    TIP: Don't spare the sandpaper. If it begins to polish instead of removing material, replace it with another ¼"sheet. Medium-grit sandpaper, such as 100-grit, is for all-purpose sanding. Grits lower than 100 can scratch wood. Grits higher than 100 are commonly used for finish work.

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    Save time and effort by removing the old finish from tight spaces, contours and molding details with an oscillating tool. Oscillating tools come with a wide range of attachments specifically designed for this purpose. Hand-sanding is another option:  wrap sandpaper around dowels or flat sticks to sand into tight spaces or inside curves, lines or other features.

    GOOD TO KNOW: If you're staining the chest a lighter color than the existing stain, all of the stain must be removed from the chest. If you're staining it the same color or a darker color, you don't need to completely remove the stain. It’s fine if it looks a bit patchy after sanding, the patches blend out when you add the darker stain.

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    Attach 100-grit sandpaper to a hand-sanding block, and sand the chest inside and out, using long strokes parallel with the grain. Don't skip this important step; it is critical for a smooth, consistent finish. Attach 180-grit sandpaper to the block and sand the entire chest and lid one more time. Wipe off all sanding dust to prepare for staining.

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    Apply stain to a soft cotton cloth. Liberally coat the chest one side at a time with the stain, adding more stain to the cloth as needed. Immediately wipe the stain off with a clean, dry cotton cloth. If the stain begins to dry before you're finished, work in smaller sections.

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    Allow oil-based stain to dry for at least 72 hours. Allow solvent-base to dry for 15-to-30 minutes. If the color isn't deep enough, apply another coat, allowing it to remain on the surface longer, but don't allow it to dry before wiping it off.

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    Topcoat finishes vary in formula and application. We recommend lacquer for its ease of application and durability. Apply an even coat of lacquer to the chest and lid. Spray or brush it inside and out with only a light coat. Allow it to dry, typically in about 20 minutes or less.

    TIP: Aerosol lacquer is easy to use for beginners. It's available at home supply stores, and comes in low-, medium- and high-gloss formulas.

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    Sand the dried lacquer surface by hand, with a folded piece of 180-grit sandpaper. The finish should have a dull sheen and a residue of white powder when you're done sanding. Leave the powder on the chest; don't wipe it off. It's part of the finishing process and will be absorbed by the next coat of lacquer.

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    Apply one or two more coats of lacquer as needed, without sanding between coats.

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    After giving your new finish a chance to dry completely — it might take a few days before the odor diminishes — it's time to put it back together. Grab the container with the hardware, and give it a good look. It might be that it's a little rusted or has a light patina prized by collectors — don't replace it. Reassemble the chest with its original hardware using the tape marks. Aged hardware in good working condition can add value and mystique to your chest.