Revamping an Old Wooden Chair from Start to Finish

old wooden chair in need of refurbishing

One of my favorite pieces of furniture in my home is an antique wooden chair that I restored myself, and use as an accent chair. I had bought it at a flea market for a bargain and set aside a weekend to revamp and restore it. All I needed was a random orbital sander from Bob Smith Tools and a little paint that was already lying around in the back of my garage. This article is all you need to know to revamp a wooden chair.

Things to look out for

Before purchasing a used chair, or starting a project with an old chair that was lying in your backyard, you need to assess whether it is worth restoring or not. If you see extensive rotting in any part of the chair, it might not be salvageable. Sometimes you can saw off the rotten parts (such as a rotting cross rail or wooden leg) and replace them with new wood. More often than you’d think, it is cheaper to simply buy a new chair, and discard the old one (if it has no sentimental value).

Don’t be limited by the original style of the chair. You can completely change the style of a chair and make it your own, and should not be restricted by any theme or style it was made in.

Sanding and Repair

The first step to any restoration in woodwork is to remove all the old finishing, and repair and parts that need fixing. This step is important because it will make functional use of your chair; after all, a beautiful chair with splinters and a broken leg is not a useful chair at all. Don’t be intimidated by the electric sander, learning to use it is not difficult.


A random orbital sander is the perfect tool for revamping a wooden chair. Try to get a cordless model that has variable speeds, and search for compact models to help you with the tight spots you need to sand.

A few tips before you start sanding:

  • Work in a well-ventilated area, and exercise the normal safety precautions when using any power tools. In this case, it will include wearing safety goggles, a dust mask, noise-reducing headphones, and you might also consider using anti-vibration gloves.
  • If there is any reason to believe you will be sanding lead-based paint off your chair, make sure you are outdoors and connect your orbital sander to a vacuum. Dust from sanding lead-paint is a major cause of lead-poisoning.
  • While the sander can significantly speed up the sanding process, it should be done slowly. The usual recommendation is around 1 inch per second. So don’t rush.
  • Avoid pressing on the machine, this will cause visible scratching and gouging. You don’t have a lot of material to work with when you’re sanding a chair, so this is especially important.
  • Regardless of the grit size you choose, you should always be using abrasive discs with successively higher grit sizes. So remember to change the abrasive disc to higher grit size, and never lower. Sand the entire area using one grit size only once to avoid over sanding.
  • When using a finer grit (for polishing), using the random orbital sander at a medium speed is recommended. So for higher grit sizes, use medium speed, and high speed for lower grit sizes. Never use the sander at its lowest speed. If unsure, the highest speed is suitable for any sanding purpose.
  • Never stop moving the sander, to avoid getting an uneven result.
  • Even though it may seem awkward because chairs don’t have a lot of flat surfaces, make sure that the sander is flat against the surface you are sanding.

Using a light touch while moving at a slow and steady pace, sand all the surfaces of the chair using a 120 grit (coarse) abrasive disc. You should be able to remove all the old finishing, whether it is varnish or paint. Also, if there are any parts of your chair that have rotten, you should be able to remove the rotted wood using the orbital sander. After you have gone over every last part of the chair, remove the abrasive disc and use it to manually sand any rough spots you find. Repeat the entire process using a 220 grit (fine) abrasive disc. Don’t forget to go over your work using the fine sandpaper at the end.


Why You Shouldn’t Use Paint Strippers

Paint strippers are toxic chemicals and are potentially hazardous, so I would not recommend their use for amateurs, and it is especially not suitable for indoor use. You will need to sand the chair anyway, so there is no point in handling hazardous materials and risking serious burns and other injuries.

Repairing A Wooden Chair

You may or may not need to do some repairs to your wooden chair, such as fixing a broken cross rail or replacing a rotten leg. Before you continue working, make sure that your chair sits level, and that every part of the chair is securely fastened. If the chair is wobbly you might find it useful to sand the bottom of the legs until they are equal.

Colors For Your Chair

We’ve not reached the fun part of the project, although it will involve a lot of waiting around. After you have finished all your sanding and reparations, wipe down the chair using a damp cloth. This will clear away any dust and debris left from the sanding process. Wait for the chair to dry completely, or use a household blow dryer.

Choose your color palette, and remember that the options are endless. You don’t need to stick to one color either, experiment with the idea of contrasting colors. If you are using it as an accent chair, think of a color that particularly stands out in the room you need it for.


Remember to purchase a primer that matches the type of paint you intend on using, preferably from the same manufacturer. I used latex paint, and a synthetic brush (generally they go together, whereas oil paints work well with natural brushes). A primer will help the paint adhere better and prevent it from chipping and peeling.

Mix the primer with a thinning agent as per the directions listed on its packaging. Using even strokes, apply the primer on all the surfaces of the chair, and make sure to be thorough. Wait for the primer to dry completely before applying a second coat. You might feel the need to apply a third coat, but I felt that two was sufficient.

When the primer has completely dried, use the random orbit sander with a high grit abrasive disc (220 was fine for me). Make sure to keep the sander flat against all surfaces, and do not use any pressure to prevent gouging. Manually go through the entire chair once more using the abrasive disc.

Painting Your Wooden Chair

After mixing the paint with thinning agents, use a brush to paint the entire chair in even strokes. Do not use too much paint to avoid streaking and clumping of the paint. Dipping the paintbrush only a quart of an inch into the paint is a good way to achieve this. Always paint in the direction of the wood grain, which is the lines of fiber running through the wood. Avoid going back and forth with your paintbrush, but instead, move in one direction only. Try not to stop the brush at the edge of the wooden surface, to avoid the accumulation of the paint on the edges. If you notice any paint pooling, make sure to smooth it out as soon as possible.

As usual, wait for the paint to dry completely before adding a second coat to give it a nice solid coat. I didn’t feel the need to add a third coat, but you can judge for yourself. You will need to find a balance between adding too much or too little paint.



I found that adding a little upholstery to my wooden chair was helpful in adding more colors and making it more comfortable. This can be as simple as finding a cushion that can be tied on the seat, or you can craft one yourself. Of course, I went the DIY route; because I felt I could customize it better. I don’t recommend using a seat cover, because that defeats the purpose of all the work you have done so far. But to each his own.

Personally, I was able to sew two pieces of matching fabric to the corners of a cushion cover. After inserting the cushion into its cover, I could easily tie the two ends to the stiles on the sides of the chair. An added advantage to this method is that I can easily wash and change the cushions to different colors if I choose to do so.

So there you have it, that’s how you can easily amp up the style of a room by giving some life to an old wooden chair. It wasn’t too difficult a process and I highly recommend everyone to try this project. It’s a good way to dip your toes into woodworking.

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