before & after basics

Before & After Basics: Wood Restoration

by Daniel Kanter

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of my favorite television genres is the makeover show. While I tend to fall asleep somewhere around the 15-minute mark of an episode of Homeland, set me up with a remote and some Bath Crashers, and I’ll be there for a good 12 hours, hooked. Even if I think the “after” is ugly — and, sometimes, worse than the “before” — there’s still something so satisfying and exciting about that act of transformation that I can never seem to turn away.

Slightly less predictably, my favorite sub-genre of the makeover show has nothing to do with home design. Sure, I’ll watch someone renovate kitchens for as long as HGTV will allow, but my real passion lies with the personal makeover show — the kind where they renovate flesh-and-blood human beings as opposed to brick-and-mortar houses.

Tragically (for me, probably not for the human race generally), these shows seem to have fallen out of fashion in recent years. Sure, we still have Clinton, Stacy, Carmindy and a revolving door of hairstylists to teach us What Not to Wear (and how to do our make-up and how to have Mom Hair). It’ll do fine, but I submit that the now-defunct 10 Years Younger will always have had the upper hand because of the added benefits of bluntness and public shaming. Where Clinton and Stacy’s hidden cameras seem to be all in good humor — as evidenced by the beet-faced contestants looking more pranked than completely betrayed — the 10 Years Younger crew had participants stand in a glass box, much like the Pope, while bystanders judged their overall appearance and, most importantly, guessed their age. From there, they’d receive a few non-invasive cosmetic procedures before being handed over to the “glam squad,” a team of peppy style mavens who decked them out with a couple new outfits, a fresh hairstyle and a make-up regimen. Then they’d repeat the whole humiliating glass-box exercise over again, where, as the name implied, onlookers would always deem them to look about 10 years younger than they had before, give or take a couple years for believability’s sake.

This might seem a little unsettling until you remember that before Ty Pennington hosted Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and was just that fun and funky carpenter on Trading Spaces, there was just plain old Extreme Makeover. Here was a show where regular people were plucked from their lives, told they were unbearably hideous and saddled with new exercise routines, eating habits, teeth, faces and bodies. The show didn’t shy away from aggressive (extreme, you might say) plastic surgery, and participants always seemed thrilled with their slimmed noses, enlarged breasts and whatever else they received. They didn’t seem that interesting at the time, but the early aughts — based on reality TV alone — were utter madness. (See also: Mr. Personality)

I’m no expert, but I think the genre reached its true apex with The Swan, which took all the extremity of Extreme Makeover, doubled it, and then threw in the added benefits of competition. Here was a roundtable of harsh “mentors,” a reality TV mansion, a host of indeterminate nationality and an eventual beauty pageant. There, the contestants, who had each undergone months of surgical procedures along with rigorous dieting and exercising, would squeeze their new bodies into extravagant sequined pageant dresses and parade their new smiling faces with their new shining teeth across a stage. As an added bonus, they were refused access to mirrors of any kind while undergoing their transformations, so they literally had no idea what they looked like until the end. It was high stakes, high drama and highly messed up. Try making something like this up. It’s impossible. Sure, more recently we had Bridalplasty, but that feels like Saturday morning cartoons after The Swan. There’s just nowhere to even go from there, and that’s why the makeover genre has petered out. We took things too far, and soured it for everyone.

While there’s certainly a lengthy discussion to be had about all the terrible things a show like this says about our society, the way we view women’s bodies (or in the case of Extreme Makeover, all bodies) and how the show is ultimately sadistic and more or less tragic, I can’t help it. I was thoroughly entertained. But what I find exceptional is that all of these shows — from Extreme Makeover to What Not to Wear — always return to the same basic refrain: that the experts are just enhancing the participants’ natural beauty. Nobody is ever unsalvageable. There is always potential to be unlocked, whether that means a new shade of eyeshadow and a flirty bob or what basically amounts to an entire face transplant. It’s all about working with what you have, and striving to be the best version of whatever that is. It’s just the modes of getting there that vary so greatly.

This is more or less how I think about wood restoration, which I’m realizing after 800 words makes me a lunatic. But I’m a lunatic who knows some things about wood, which is why I’m here. In my mind, there are two main approaches to fixing up a piece of wood furniture. The first is the Extreme Makeover/The Swan approach, where everything is sanded down until the wood looks clean and new, after which you build it back up again with a series of new finishes until everything looks like it just rolled off the factory line. And then there’s the What Not to Wear/10 Years Younger approach — a milder alternative where the excess and grime are cleansed away to play up the good and minimize the not so good. Everybody knows that wood is, generally, quite salvageable, but often people take the Extreme Makeover approach to wood restoration when all they really need is the What Not to Wear treatment. Usually, all it really takes is a good cleaning and a few readily available products to bring out the natural beauty of a piece of wood that’s seen better days! — Daniel

See Daniel’s wood restoration tips after the jump . . .

For this project, I started with a salvaged antique ladder at the Design*Sponge office, repurposed into a rolling bookshelf ladder. I can only assume that the various staffers here use it to reenact that scene in the library from Beauty and the Beast.

This ladder is super cool and super old and has a great deal of character, but it had never really received a thorough cleaning. I knew the patina and richer tones of the wood were lurking beneath all the build-up from over the many years (dirt, waxes and sealants, grime, mayhem, foolishness, etc.), so I wanted to uncover them without making the ladder look like it had just been refinished. While sometimes sanding everything down and starting fresh truly is the right move, that can often end up looking weird and very “done” on antique pieces, and I didn’t want that. Too much (or sometimes any!) “restoration” can also compromise the value of an antique, and even though this ladder isn’t particularly valuable, it’s still something to be cognizant of. In my mind, if something is old, it should look old.

To accomplish this, I started with a bucket of warm water with a few tablespoons of Murphy Oil Soap and several pads of fine steel wool. Steel wool is obviously much milder than sandpaper and stands up better to water, but it’s abrasive enough that it’ll smooth out any problem areas that might be chipped and brittle. As with sanding, always scrub back and forth with the grain. I used grade #00 steel wool, which is relatively fine (much less coarse than the kind you’d buy in the grocery store!) and available in big packs for only a few dollars at the hardware store.

I’d recommend doing this part outside, if possible, or at least on top of a drop cloth. You’ll want to wear clothes you don’t care about, too, since the water that’s going to come off of this stuff is usually some bile-like shade of brown-black that may stain. And you’ll definitely want gloves. This part of the process is not glamorous, but the results are glamorous enough to justify feeling like a steaming pile of human garbage while it’s going down. Trust me.

You’ll want to change your water fairly frequently so you’re not just moving dirty water around, and I’d recommend going over the whole thing a couple times, just to make sure. It’s okay if the water is still a little murky at the end (expecting it to run clear isn’t very realistic), but it should be significantly less disgusting than your first bucket or two.

Let the whole thing dry out for a while — I’d recommend a couple hours, if not longer. I get impatient and like to get projects done in one fell swoop, but you don’t want to trap a bunch of water in the wood. As the wood dries, it will become significantly lighter and might look like a terrible piece of garbage driftwood that you’ve totally ruined, and you’ll think you’re worthless and unlovable. You’re so dramatic! Calm down! This is all part of it! Sheesh.

After the wood has dried, I like to use a wood oil finish, such as Danish oil finish or tung oil finish. Often just referred to as natural oil finishes, these products are actually a mix of natural oil (like tung oil or linseed oil), mineral spirits and varnish. I like them because they look more natural than a polyurethane, and they’re extremely easy to apply and maintain. Using a lint-free cloth or rag (that you don’t mind throwing away!), just rub a generous coating of oil all over the wood in the direction of the grain. After about 15 minutes, wipe off the excess!

Depending on how thirsty the wood is, you might need two or three coats of oil finish. That’s okay! Give the wood what it wants.

After the final coat of oil has been wiped away and dried, I like to buff in some Howard Feed-N-Wax. There are many different furniture waxes out there, but this one smells great and works great, and I’m a big proponent of it. The wax will give your piece an extra oomph of luster and richness.

The wood will probably be a little sticky/slimy for a day or two, but everything will absorb and harden up, and it’ll still look great! To maintain, I like to reapply the wax every couple months, and you can always wipe on another coat of oil if the wood is looking dry.

I love how this low-impact process brings out what I see as the best features of old wood pieces — the patina and the wear and tear! It’s not a total overhaul, but a thorough cleaning is often all you really need to enhance what you already have.

Daniel Kanter is a freelance writer and designer who blogs about his home and life at Manhattan Nest.

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  • This couldn’t have come at a better time! Restoring a Heywood-Wakefield dining set this weekend. Have been terrified of doing more harm than good. I feel a bit more confident now!

  • I laughed out loud a couple of times reading this. Thanks for all the reality tv memories! In all seriousness, this is the technique my uncle taught to me and he’s been restoring furniture for years! I recently scrubbed down three wooden printer’s drawers with Murphy’s and finished them with lemon oil. It’s not as heavy as tung oil but I’m so happy with the result. I hear you on not wanting the piece to look fake when you’re done.

  • This is such satisfying work! And this post was funny. Nothing makes me look forward to my weekend more than an upcoming wood refinishing project.

  • This is excellent timing… I’m inheriting a (really fantastic mod-60s-style) desk my (now-deceased) grandfather made, and it’s in a bit of a questionable state… bookmarking for reference, and thank you!

  • This is looking great! I got an old side table that seriously needs a treatment like this… its full of old stickers and any attempts to remove them have been absolutely in vain. Maybe the steel-wool will save it now. Thanks for the thorrow how-to.

  • Don’t forget – don’t throw those oil-soaked rags in the trash or leave them wadded up anywhere, because they can spontaneously combust. Instead, drape them over saw horse or something so they can dry out, or put them in a bucket of water.

  • Lovely and simple tutorial! This should inspire confidence in many wanna-be refinishers. Love seeing the Maine Atlas front and center too!

  • This post makes me feel real sad, and a little annoyed.

    Steel wool is not good for wood, and shouldn’t be used to sand down to raw timber (or on raw timber at all), and anyone that know what they’re talking about will know this. When using steel wool, tiny metal fibres come loose and can embed themselves in the wood and over time rust, especially when exposed to water. Also, some woods, like oak, have tannins that will react to the steel wool that will progress over time. Steel wool should only be used on wood if it already has a finish on it (not to remove the finish) and only if that finish isn’t water based.

    There are synthetic alternatives that should be used instead (like 3M scotch pads) and that are safe to use with any cleaning, prepping or finishing.

    Such a bummer to see bad advice given so confidently on a blog I really adore!

  • @julie (or anybody else who knows) – what do you do with the rags after you put them in water? when is it safe to get rid of them? do you have to take them to the dump or can you put them the trash after they’ve been soaked in water?

  • daniel, i want you to just follow me around and narrate my life for me. you make boring-sounding things (e.g., wood restoration) wildly entertaining–and easy to understand. thank you!

  • I thought this sounded like a nice, relatively easy way to restore older furniture until I saw that you have to reapply the wax coat every couple of months! I just don’t have time for that and I know I wouldn’t do that. Is there any other finish you can use that wouldn’t be so high maintenance?

  • “As the wood dries, it…might look like a terrible piece of garbage driftwood that you’ve totally ruined, and you’ll think you’re worthless and unlovable. You’re so dramatic! Calm down!” Thank you for this! I have had this exact mid-way though renovations of all kinds.

  • @Janeise—I’m glad you like the post, but be careful with the Heywood-Wakefield! I obviously have no idea what condition it’s in, but the blonde wood and finish on H-W stuff is very particular and can be fussy, and I think is probably covered in polyurethane or varnish. This really works better with wood that isn’t sealed with a poly or where the old finishes have worn off (as was the case with this ladder). Depending on the condition and what it’s worth to you, you may want to consult a refinishing expert or just try cleaning it with mild soap and a rough sponge or something. The steel wool is really to get layers of dirt and old layers of wax and stuff off the wood—you shouldn’t need it for just cleaning a piece, though.

    @Catherine—you don’t need to reapply the wax that often…it’s really dependent on your climate and temperature. I probably end up throwing some wax on my furniture every few months or so, and that’s enough to keep it looking good. The Howard’s wax is just a pretty thin liquid…so I just wipe down my furniture (as I would with standard weekly-ish cleaning), then put on a layer of the wax. It really only takes a couple of minutes! You could always use a polyurethane, but I just like more natural finishes. Polyurethanes and varnishes tend to scratch, however, so they can end up looking bad over time and are way more of a headache to repair.

  • I have two antique library ladders that I will be doing this cleanup on… Thank You! However, mine had apparently been used for some kindof painting job and have several blobs of paint on them. What do you recommend as far as paintal blobbage removering? Also, what would you suggest vis a vis disassembling the ladder first?

  • This is wonderful inspiration, can’t wait until I have something larger than a tiny apartment so I can fix up old wood pieces!

  • We just found an amazing old ladder that was put out to trash, so this is perfect! What hardware is used on this ladder to turn it into a rolling library ladder? That’s exactly what we want to do in our office with our trash treasure ladder.

  • Great tips thanks Daniel. Love your writing! I did an upholstery course recently and they showed me how they clean up the show wood on chairs. Mix 50:50 turps and linseed oil, rub wood all over with steel wool then rub excess off with a cloth. After that use a wax and buff with a cloth to get a nice lustre. Works nicely for pieces that just need a bit of help but no drastic measures.
    Daniel, have you ever seen the Gok Wan ‘how to look good naked’ shows? I think you would love them. They are makeover shows but he works on making the women grow in confidence and really feel good about themselves by showing them how to wear clothes to suit them. Not a surgeons knife or aerobics class in sight. Gok Wan is a force for good in the world!!

  • I’ve always used steel wool in restoring furniture. I’ve never had any problem with the fibers embedding themselves into the wood. I will be refinishing a wood fireplace mantle as soon as it gets a bit warmer out and will give Daniel’s tips a try instead of my regular method!

  • @ Gretchen, re: the oily rags – that is a good question! The best thing to do is to drape them out to dry, even if they’ve been soaked in water. After they’re stiff in a day or two, you can throw them in the trash. Another option is to burn them immediately in the woodstove. That scares me a bit, but I know plenty of woodworkers who do it. ;-)

    The water step is more common on larger commercial job sites, where you can’t have everyone spreading out rags everywhere. At the end of the week someone then takes them all to the dump. but do they just throw them in the hopper??? I don’t really know!

  • Thank you for this fun and informative easy to follow instructional post! I would so much rather watch a 1/2 show on you refinishing this piece than anything on hgtv these days. Thankfully, YouTube as gives us diy’ers lots of video content – perhaps less produced than the hgtv variety (to say the least) and some very entertaining (in a frightening-oh-my-god-I-must-now-mock sort of way), but none-the-less. How to content is FUN!

  • we used denatured alcohol (Home Depot) and fine wool to work off paint splatters and gunky polyureth./stains that gooped up over time on our home’s original wood doors (1925) and it turned out great. same mess though–lots of bucket exchanges and drop cloth necessary. and ventilation.

  • Really enjoyed this post and the corollary to makeover reality TV. Great writing and a good tutorial. Thanks so much for the humor and the tips!

  • Daniel, this post is genius. I love the comparison of refinishing old wood with extreme makeovers. And while I could go on quoting all your words, I really loved this: “Nobody is ever unsalvageable. ” quote of the week.

  • I just want to say that I love Daniel’s posts and I’m so glad to see him on DS! He really does make everything entertaining and very easy to understand.

  • Have you ever watched the lost gem, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”? The things they do for their “makeover” dudes, and their families is really, totally awesome. Its on Netflix instant. For real. You’re welcome… or, after 4 seasons and 101 episodes worth of your life just slipped away, I’m sorry.

  • Daniel, thanks for the advice! I am just so puzzled by a couple of white water stains. I have found a couple of solutions to try. I appreciate you advising me to use caution. After evaluating the piece and doing further research, I am thinking I can have the pieces ‘restored’ without taking it to this extreme. Just wanting to remove the water marks and shine them up a bit.

  • @janeise Harmon – for white water stains, toothpaste and a soft toothbrush. Work it in, leave the toothpaste on for a couple of hours, then wipe off. I don’t know why it works, but it works.

  • woops, I meant, can someone answer THIS question, about the hardware.
    “We just found an amazing old ladder that was put out to trash, so this is perfect! What hardware is used on this ladder to turn it into a rolling library ladder? That’s exactly what we want to do in our office with our trash treasure ladder.”
    Sorry about that.

  • Would this work for new wood? I have kitchen cabinets that are covered in stubborn grease.

  • Can you please give me details on how to attach the ladder to the bookshelf? maybe some photos would help. I have bookshelf with similar set up like yours and having difficulties to figure out how to attach a rolling ladder.

  • I accidentally found myself restoring 80 year old doors – note my cat is attacking my computer as I type (why do they love the computer!!!!) this blog reinforced so many of my instinctual feelings about how to approach these doors… that I feel compelled to thank you profusely *insert imagination of: stupidly ambitious girl thanking stranger profusely for valuable knowledge to help reinforce stupid girls ambitions* :) my point is you are amazing and time, dedication, and hardwork create long lasting results. I am an official life long follower of whatever you do.

  • I have a Rosewood horse that needs 2B fit. Would that be something that you would be able to do? My name is Lisa my phone number is 909-319-5279. I look forward to hearing from you. If this is not something that you would handle if you might know someone who would I would appreciate it. thank you.

  • Hey the final product looks good. Just to add some tip as well. When trying to remove things on your furniture’s surface like scuffs try mixing together 3 parts vinegar with 1 part walnut oil. Rub the final product into the distressed area with a cloth and watch the marks disappear.

  • Finally, Borrego pointed out that training needs to extend not only to you, but to your staff as well. Before hiring technicians to do this kind of work, contractors should be thoroughly versed in wood restoration themselves. Then they must be able to communicate the processes to any hired technicians, who should be painstakingly mentored before being allowed to do the work without close supervision.

  • I have a furkin sugar bucket that is drying out so badly that it looks like it may begin to come apart. What is the best way to rehydrate the wood?

  • Every tried restoring print on an old piece of wood…restoring a factory cart and would like to bring out the stamping…any advice would be great!