How to Refinish a Wood Desk

If you aren’t sure about how to refinish a piece of wood furniture, don’t worry. It’s easy to do. Start here!

antique oak desk floating in home office in front of painted bookcases

Refinishing furniture is basically where my love of DIY began. The beauty and craftsmanship of vintage and antique wood furniture is hard to beat. And I love the principle of restoring something worn and tired to its beautiful potential.

how to refinish a wood desk

And since we recently installed painted built in cabinets in my husband’s office, I knew I wanted a wood desk to complement the Agreeable Gray built-ins. This oak desk needed some love, but the shape and size were perfect for the space.

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Materials needed to refinish a wood desk:

How to Refinish a Wood Desk (or any wood furniture)

Here are the basic steps, but read on for details and tips!

  1. Protect your space
  2. Remove the old finish
  3. Fill damage (if necessary)
  4. Stain (if desired)
  5. Seal

I also created a video for you in case you prefer that. Below are detailed written instructions.

Remove the Old Finish

There are several ways you can remove the old finish, but the most common are by sanding or chemical stripper. For smooth, flat surfaces, I often choose to strip by sanding. But for curved surfaces or surfaces with carved detail, I prefer to strip chemically to preserve the beauty of the wood furniture piece. Sometimes, I do both.

For this desk, I began by sanding the top but stopped when I realized I didn’t like how it was removing the aged character of the wood. Instead, I decided to chemically strip the old finish. As always, take proper precautions, such as proper ventilation, eye protection, rubber gloves, and masks, when working with chemicals.

Here are the exact steps I used to chemically remove the old finish on this piece of furniture:

  1. Protect surfaces with plastic

    how to refinish a wood desk - protect surfaces with plastic

  2. Use Citristrip to begin removing the old finish

    Cover piece in Citristrip and let sit 30 minutes. Scrape off the old finish with a plastic scraper (scrape in the direction of the grain). Dip a soft bristle brush (or you can use sponges) in slightly soapy water to wash off the worst of the Citristrip mess. Be sure to dry the desk quickly, as too much water can damage the wood.

  3. Use furniture refinisher and steel wool to remove the remainder of the old finish

    Pour a little furniture refinisher in a glass or metal container. Dip medium grade steel wool into the liquid and scrub the portions of the desk that still have old finish. Watch the furniture refinisher dissolve the old finish and clean up some of the Citristrip residue.

*Note: Citristrip is more environmentally friendly and safer than most other chemical and paint strippers… But I have found that Citristrip can remove most paint and poly, but that old varnish tends to need furniture refinisher. I also think that Citristrip is very difficult to clean off the wood without the help of some more chemical stripper or mineral spirits.

Sand the Piece

Now is your chance to give this old piece a smoother, fresh finish. This can help remove any residual old finish, get rid of dirt, and smooth out scratches. I find a palm sander best for this, as it has more control than an orbital sander.

Just be careful if your piece has veneer that you don’t sand too aggressively; you don’t want to sand through the top layer! Also, if you want to retain character, don’t sand through all the stains. I rather like keeping some of the old stains in wood as it reveals its age and character.

Here is what I did to sand this desk in preparation for refinishing:

how to refinish a wood desk with sanding
  1. Use 150 grit paper by hand to remove any remaining finish, especially in cracks where it pooled
  2. Use a palm sander to give the entire piece a light sanding with fine-grit sandpaper (220 or higher)
  3. Clean off the dust

Prepare the Wood (optional)

If your wood is damaged or you have holes to fill, now is your chance to fix it. Be sure to use a stainable wood filler and to sand smooth after filling. You can also glue loose joints or make other repairs, as needed.

This is also your chance to stain your wood if you so desire. I like the raw tones of oak, but I don’t like the way it often turns orange when sealed, so I used my secret method for maintaining the raw wood look.

how to refinish a wood desk - gray stain

You can also stain dark or golden or whatever your heart desires. Oil-based stains or water-based stains are both great; just be sure you allow them to dry according to the manufacturer’s directions.

  1. Apply your chosen stain with a brush or rag
  2. Wipe off the excess stain and let dry
  3. Apply more coats of stain as desired

Seal the Wood

This is so important! This is what protects your desk from the oils in your hands, spills, sweat from your coffee cup, and more. Not all wooden furniture needs to be sealed, but I think a desk generally does (see here for more on when and how to seal furniture).

In this case, I opted for a water-based polyurethane sealer:

  1. Apply a coat of sealer with a sponge brush and let dry
  2. Lightly sand first coat with 220 or 300 grit sandpaper
  3. Repeat 1-2 times (I did 2 coats on the legs and 3 on the desktop), sanding after second coat

More DIY Furniture Projects

I hope you can see how do-able this DIY project is. It requires several supplies, but no power tools and very little space. I didn’t even put new hardware on it because I found the original charming!

antique oak desk with aged brass hardware

The easiest way to freshen up antique furniture is probably just to paint it (which is also a great option!). But sometimes it helps to know how to refinish a wood desk to capture the grain of the wood and true beauty of solid wood furniture. I’m excited to share the full reveal of my husband’s office toon.

how to refinish a wood desk - oak desk with a beautiful new finish

I hope you now feel confident that you know how to refinish a wood desk or other wood furniture. Here are a few more wood furniture projects you might find helpful:

how to refinish a wood desk

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  1. Gorgeous! Love this. Thank you for sharing on how to keep the oak from looking orangey I have done several projects only to be disappointed due to the orangey color. If I am reading correctly I should apply a gray colored stain first. Again, thank you for sharing.

  2. Miss Rachel, you did a beautiful job refinishing that lovely old desk. It looks so much better than it would have painted. Thank you for sharing and can’t wait to see the finished room.

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