Eco-Friendly Furniture Restoration

As an avid recycler, I try to extend the life of everything I own. I have remodeled clothes, used old plates under plants, turned flowerpots into pencil holders, and made gift card collages out of old cards. One of my favorite ways to save money, recycle and have a fresh look in the house, though, is to refurbish furniture.

This is an excellent value, since giving a chair or desk a makeover is so much cheaper than buying new. It is also easier on the environment by not tossing that piece into a landfill and creating the need for more waste through manufacture and transport of a new one.

Eco-friendly wood stripping and sanding

The easiest way to give new life to a piece of wood furniture is to strip and sand it, then give it a fresh coat of paint or varnish. There was an old dresser in my daughter’s room. When she was 14, she took it upon herself to strip it, sand it and paint it two shades of pink. We went to the hardware store and bought new pulls for it, and she painted them a contrasting green to create a new piece of furniture.

photo: D'Arcy Norman

Use an eco-friendly stripper, such as Citri-strip. I have used this before. It is non-toxic and has a citrus-y smell to it. It takes a bit more work to scrape off than the toxic strippers, but your health and the environment will thank you.

The alternative to using a stripper is to wrap a piece of very course sand paper around a wood block, and sand down the finish. You can use a scraper in tandem with that, especially if there is ornamentation to clean. This takes a lot of elbow grease, but it’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Once you have the finish off, sand until it’s smooth. You can use the block and sandpaper or an electric sander. For a smaller piece, an orbital sander is good. Start with a coarse grade of paper, sand all the surfaces, and wipe off the sawdust with a dry rag. Then move to the next finer grade, sand and wipe again. Keep going down to the finest grade of paper until you have a very smooth surface. Apply paint, stain or varnish according to the directions.

Low VOC paint, stain, and varnish

Be sure to use low-VOC products! VOCs are chemicals that have negative affects on your health, from headaches to cancer. They gas off for years after application, also reducing your indoor air quality.

Read the labels and/or ask for help at the store. Low-VOC paint has less than 200 grams/liter, according to the EPA. No-VOC paint has less than 5 grams/liter. Low-VOC varnish is allowed 300 grams/liter.

Low-VOC paints are readily available. I have used Bioshield, Benjamin Moore and Safecoat, but there are plenty others; Sherwin Williams, Ecos and YOLO. Low-VOC stain is harder to find, but Safecoat, Bioshield and Vermont Natural coatings and others manufacture it.

Low-VOC varnish should be water based acrylic or polyurethane. I have found this at my local hardware store.

Re-Use: Check out your local thrift shops and yard sales

Photo: Dancing Lemur

You can also scour second hand stores and yard sales if you’re looking for a project. I once bought a dresser at a thrift store. It was the right size, but was painted a hideous battleship gray. I bought it anyway, thinking it would have layers and layers of old paint to scrape off. I put some stripper on it, and one lone coat of gray paint came off easily. Underneath, I found a mahogany dresser in excellent condition! I sanded and oiled it to bring out the grain.

Add new hardware pulls and hinges (if they are visible) along with your new paint/stain job.  Paint a decorative trim or stencil the edges of dressers or bookshelves.

Replace fabric on chairs for a new look. Standard slipcovers are available for all styles. You can reupholster, if you’re feeling especially handy. Add cushions to wood side chairs for a softer look.

I once turned an old, small-paned window frame into a mirror. My full-length mirror broke in two pieces, so I had the hardware store cut one piece to the right size to fit behind the window frame. Before securing it to the back, I stripped and pained the frame a bright color. You can back a window like this with many things. A friend used cork to create a bulletin board.

Once you know the steps to refurbishing and educate yourself about non-toxic products, the only thing holding you back will be your imagination!

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