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Martha Stewart's right-hand man offers furniture refinishing tips and guidance for newbies and the faint of heart.

Martha Stewart, Kevin SharkeyKevin Sharkey shares his tips for refurbishing furniture as part of a blog tour for Martha Stewart Living magazine's January 2011 issue. Photo: Martha Stewart Living

When DIY Life was asked to participate in the week-long Martha Stewart Living Blog Tour, we jumped at the chance to get firsthand, Martha-approved advice about the art of refinishing furniture. We spoke exclusively with Kevin Sharkey, Senior Vice President and Executive Editorial Director, Decorating, and Executive Creative Director, Merchandising for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (yes, that's really his title!).

DIY Life is final stop in the tour, but don't forget to check out yesterday's post in Huffington Post's food section all about acheiving the most scrumptious roast chicken. And of course, head over to for lots of top-notch DIY ideas for the new year!

Flea market finds are perfect candidates for furniture makeovers. Photos: Martha Stewart Living

We don't know about you, but sometimes we get a little hesitant about refinishing furniture. Even if we have a great armoire and a rich shade of espresso that we know will really make it pop, we think: What if we ruin it? What if we don't use the right paint? Should we stain it instead? So we asked Kevin Sharkey to address the concerns of DIYers who are new to refinishing furniture. Luckily, he put our fears at ease (hopefully yours, too).

DIY Life: When is it worth it to refinish a piece? And when is it not worth it?
Kevin Sharkey:
It's really determined by what the piece means to you. If it's a family heirloom, like a Chippendale sideboard that you want to preserve and pass down, it's worth refinishing it. (Note: Sometimes a piece is worth more with a slight blemish than completely refinishing it.) However, I would recommend you consult with a professional. This should not be the first piece you attempt to refinish. But if you pick up a chair or table at a consignment shop or at a flea market, give refinishing a try. It's a perfect opportunity to try your hand at refinishing.

Make things even easier by starting with an unfinished piece like this Ingrid Table. Photo: Martha Stewart Living

DIY: What are the best pieces/types of furniture to refinish and why?
I would say if you are new, start small: Chairs are ideal to refinish; so are small side tables or benches. Then as you build your confidence, you can try a bigger piece like a dresser, or sideboard. Obviously, the simpler the design, the easier the job. In general, square shapes are easier to refinish than round ones. Something with intricate carvings or turned legs should probably be handled by a professional. Painting a piece is a great option for the beginner. A flea market table can be upgraded easily with a simple but impactful coat of white or black paint.

An even easier approach is to buy an unfinished piece. This allows you to truly customize the look and try out refinishing in an expensive way.

DIY: What are the most common mistakes people make when embarking on a refinishing project?
Not taking time to prep the piece properly. Like painting, 90% of the work is in the prep to achieve the desired result. Sanding, cleaning and priming the piece properly will pay off in final product. Sanding is key as it smooths imperfections and opens up the grain to receive the finish. Cleaning ensures there is no residual dust or residue that can mar the stain's appearance and priming or using a pre-stain will help you achieve consistent color and finish -- just like painting a room.

DIY: Can you ruin a piece of furniture while trying to refinish it?
You can't really ruin a piece. If you make a mistake, there are ways to fix it. If you are staining and you have a blotchy spot, you can sand it down or apply a darker color to cover it up.

DIY: What advice would you give someone who is stripping a piece of furniture for the first time?
Stripping is a pretty toxic process. Follow manufacturer's instructions diligently, and always wear proper protection.

DIY: What are some of the most common pitfalls to avoid when prepping a piece of furniture?
Make sure you thoroughly sand the piece down. Don't rush because you are excited to get the stain on. Next, remember to thoroughly clean after the sanding process. Even the slightest residue can cause imperfections in the finish. I would recommend using a tack cloth, available at hardware stores; they're great for removing any sanding dust. A vacuum cleaner with the dust brush attachment is also a good option. The last thing to avoid is rushing through the coats of stain. It's critical that each layer dries completely before applying the next one.

DIY: How do I choose between different finishes? Should I use wax, oil, polyurethane?
It depends on the look you want to achieve. Other factors include how you will use the piece. If, say, a table is going to be placed in a busy traffic area to corral mail, keys, etc., you will probably want to go with polyurethane or a high-gloss finish. This will be make the finish more durable.

DIY: Do you have any special tools that you use when refinishing furniture?
The manufacturer always directs you to the best tools for the job. For example, if the stain recommends applying the product with a cotton rag, use one to achieve the best results. When sanding in hard to reach spots, a course, use a steel wool pad rather than sand paper; a steel wool pad mold easier to these areas. The same thing applies to the type of brush. If you are using an oil paint, thr manufacturer may recommend a synthetic brush then say a milk paint which is typically applied with a natural-bristle variety. For pieces that have a sizable area to cover, consider using a small paint roller. This works well for styles with flat surfaces such as a simple chest of drawers.

DIY: Do certain types of wood take certain types of paints and stains better than others?
First and foremost, it's always helpful to identify the species (i.e. maple, birch) to help determine the best process. But in general, if you have an antique farmhouse table that is made of oak and has beautiful wood grain, you'll want to preserve that look. A stain is ideal for this. However, if a pine side table has visible knots, you may want to cover those. Here, you could use paint, milk paint, or even spray paint, like our line of Martha Stewart Living paints at Home Depot, which is wonderful for painting furniture pieces.

Try your hand at this DIY project. Photo: Martha Stewart Living

Feeling inspired? Get started on one of these refinishing projects this weekend!

- Make an Impact With Pattern: Another interesting way to use paint on furniture is to create a contemporary pattern on a classic piece, as the editors from MSL have done at left. This caned bed's look was achieved using a hardware-store staple, blue painter's tape.

- From Eyesore to Eye-Catching: Budget Furniture Makeovers. Check out these wallet-friendly ways to transform old furniture into dazzling updated focal points.

- DIY Warrior: Refurbish a Concrete Porch. A once-charming front porch crossed over from shabby chic to utterly disgusting. Sound familiar? Take a peek at this porch makeover.


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