How to Repair and Refinish A Thrifted Chair

Today I want to show you how to repair and refinish a thrifted chair. You’ll never have to feel intimidated by the process or leave one of those treasures behind again!

Thrifted Antique Chair Completely Finished. Repaired, Refinished, Reupholstered sitting in my dining room between white curtains and under a beautiful antique mirror.

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my full disclosure policy and privacy policy.

I am regularly in thrift stores and one of my guilty pleasures is antique furniture. But wooden chairs, in particular, seem to be an easy thing to collect. Probably because every household needs more seating, right?

They also happily can squeeze into just about any vehicle, making them easy to impulse buy.

I often come across beautiful chairs in yard sales, antique shops, flea markets, and my local thrift store. I instantly fall in love with them, but upon close inspection, I find they need more than a little TLC.

Because of their regular use sometimes they have broken dowels, weak points in the frame, or loose joints. In other words, a wobbly chair.

Sadly most are destined for dumpsters if the right person doesn’t pick them and fix them. So, I’ve made it my mission to adopt them as I find them and give them new life.

Let me show you what I have learned through patiently and faithfully restoring vintage and antique chairs along the way.

Watch this on Youtube:

How Do You Restore An Old Wooden Chair?

It is not a complicated process to restore an old wooden chair. But it is a labor of love, so be prepared to get dirty. And also, you may hate sanding when you’re done.

01 Take the Fabric Seat Off the Frame and Set Aside

If the seat has an upholstered seat you want to take this off before you start scrubbing the seat. Many chairs don’t so if your chair is all wood skip this step and move on to step 2.

Thrifted chair with the seat uninstalled upside down on the ground. Preparing to clean the frame and repair it.
There are typically 4 – 2″ screws holding the seat onto the frame. Typically in vintage and antique chairs, they will be flat head screws which are a bit tricky to get out. An old butter knife works wonders. Step 1 to repair and refinish a thrifted chair.

02 Thoroughly Clean the Chair

Note: It’s best to do this process outdoors if at all possible.

Supplies Needed To Clean A Wood Chair:

  • Microfiber Rag
  • Bucket of Warm Water
  • Dawn Dish Detergent or
  • Murphy’s Wood Cleaner
  • Scrub Brush
  • Dry Rag

Before you start cleaning you want to take the chair seat off and set it aside.

It doesn’t hurt to dust cobwebs off the underside before you start with the damp rag. Just because wet cobwebs are gross. And in my experience, most antique thrifted chairs have cobwebs and or spider egg sacks.

Add your dawn dish detergent (a couple of drops) or Murphy’s Wood Cleaner (1/4 cup to 1 gal – for light cleaning. 1/2 cup to 1 gal. – for heavy cleaning) to the warm water and mix. Take your microfiber rag and wet it, ring it out really well, you want it damp.

Start to wipe the entire chair off, scrub where needed. Then take a dry rag and wipe it dry.

After I thoroughly washed it I took my metal putty knife and started to scrape away any build-up in the joints, cracks, and corners. Older chairs have more than likely been painted or refinished at least a couple of times. So old polyurethane, stain, or paint can build up and needs to be scraped away.

03 Repair Any Broken or Loose Parts of the Chairs Frame

Now is the time to start making your repairs. Wiggly the chair back and forth and inspect the frame thoroughly so you know what to fix.

It doesn’t really matter if you start at the top and work down, or vice versa.

For my chair, I chose to start with the left arm. The joint was loose and it needed to be glued, clamped, and secured with two brad nails from behind the arm.

To start I used a metal scraping tool to actually create leverage and open up the crack wider. That way wood glue could get into the hole.

Then I secured the arm tightly to the frame using a long clamp. At that point, I used my cordless brad nailer to put 2″ brad nails through the back of the chair frame into the arm at a slight angle.

Make sure to wipe off any excess wood glue that will squeeze out in the process.

Do this process for each loose, wobbly joint. For me, I had to do this process with both sets of legs, front and back.

04 Use Chemical Stripper to Remove Any Current Paint

I was lucky in that the chair I was working with this time had already had its previous paint job taken off for me. But in previous projects, I was not so fortunate.

If you are looking to refinish the antique chair then this is a really important step to take. However, you could opt to just lightly sand and repaint. I don’t recommend it because even if you’re going to paint the piece it never looks as good to pile paint layers on.

My favorite paint stripping product is called Citristrip for a couple of reasons, 1. It is low VOC, so you really won’t smell much making it much more appropriate for indoor use. (Ventilate regardless). 2. It works really well without being caustic or making a huge toxic mess.

Don’t get me wrong, it still makes a mess. It just isn’t as bad. Follow the instructions on the back of the container.

Additional supplies you’ll need:

It’s a very simple process.

  1. Before you start, put your goggles and gloves on.
  2. Put your project piece on a drop cloth or other covered surface.
  3. Pour approx. 1/2 cup on a flat surface of the project and work on spreading it around thick until the entire piece is covered in the goo.
  4. Cover with the cling wrap to hold in the moisture so it doesn’t dry out too quickly and it can work really well.
  5. Let it sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  6. Test an area. The paint should easily come off without much pressure at all. If it doesn’t, cover it back up, let it sit longer.
  7. If it peels off easily scrape it all off and scrape it into your small trash can.

Do this process until you’ve gotten all you can off of the piece, then let it dry.

Check out this post that details the entire Stripping with Citristrip process.

05 Sand the Entire Frame

This part of the process was almost entirely skipped for this particular chair since I already liked the finish. I only had to sand one area.

In order to repair and refinish a thrifted chair, there are sometimes veneer issues that pop up. The one small spot of veneer on this chair had already broken in two places so I opted to remove it with a putty knife. Then I sanded that spot smooth with 120 grit sandpaper.

Depending on what your chair needs it could require a heavy dose of sanding or just a light once over. Assess your chair’s current finish and decide if you will stain it or paint it.

The back of the chair with the broken veneer waiting to be taken off.
The before of the back of the antique chair. To repair and refinish a thrifted chair you will almost always have to deal with veneer issues.

If you had to strip the old paint job you will have to do a lot more sanding. Large strips of flat parts of the chair you can use an orbital sander with 120 grit sandpaper.

Any spindles will have to be sanded painstakingly by hand. They can be a pain, but man do they ever look gorgeous when they’re finished. You will never be sorry you took the extra time and effort.

Coincidentally I have an entire blog post about the 10+ Essential Tools for the DIYer, you should check it out.

06 Stain or Paint Your Antique Chair

I am a lover of all-natural wood tones, so I’m a sucker for the long process of refinishing antique furniture. Even if it does sometimes make your fingers ache.

My favorite and most used stain in this house is Early American by Varathane. It has this perfect warmth to it and really does give you the early American colonial vibe.

There was a time when I was all about just painting and saving myself time, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to really appreciate the historic aspect of antique pieces. And I want to preserve as much of their providence as I am able to.

That being said, I am also a huge lover of homemade chalk paint. I can’t recommend it enough if you’re looking for an easy out for a project.

Homemade Chalk Paint Recipe:


  1. Mix 1-2 Tbsp Plaster of Paris with 1/4 cup water thoroughly.
  2. Add it to the mason jar.
  3. Add the entire jar of sample paint to your mason jar.
  4. Mix the two together thoroughly until it becomes thicker.

07 Apply A Protective Finish to Your Antique Chair

There is a huge range of options that you can use to protect the wood your chair is made of and I’ve used many with great results. Some of the protective coats I have used and recommend consist of:

  1. Minwax Polycrylic I prefer a satin finish
  2. Minwax Wipe-On Poly
  3. Waterlox is a type of tung oil
  4. Minwax Tung oil
  5. Furniture Wax

Here are a few tips to help you decide which protective finish to use:

Use Poly or Tung oil (waterproof finish)

  • If it’s a piece that will take a lot of heavy use: countertops, chair seats (painted), etc.
  • If it will be outdoors or in an area where moisture may be (like a kitchen or bathroom), etc.
  • You want longevity of protection for the piece.

Use Furniture Wax (reapply periodically)

  • If it’s not likely to get heavy use as the sides of a cabinet, or if you’re staining and don’t need a waterproof finish.
  • You want a historically accurate finish for an antique piece.
  • You’re looking for a quick, easy, mess-free, and light finish.

I chose to use furniture wax because it’s one of the easiest and mess-free finishes. Also, I’ve had great success with its protection.

To Apply Furniture Wax:

You’ll need lint-free rags. It’s best if they’re neutral color (white) so no dye transfers onto your piece.

  • Cover your first three fingers in the rag and make a circular motion in the wax to cover them.
  • Apply liberally over the entire frame of the piece.
  • It’s helpful on spindles to use your entire hand covered by the rag. Grip the spindle and move your entire closed hand forward and backward down the whole spindle.
  • When you’ve finished a single coat let it sit for 10 minutes.
  • Go back over the entire piece and buff it with your rag.
  • It will take 24-48 hours to fully cure, but it’s fine to use until then (unless it doesn’t have an upholstered seat).

08 Build A New Seat If It Needs to be Replaced*

This may or may not apply. In most projects, I’ve had the chair seats were still in usable shape. But there have been a few where the wood was simply wrecked in one way or another and I needed to build a new seat.

The good news is this is not a difficult process at all. If you have the old seat you can use it as a template at least.

I used the seat as a template so I knew the exact size to make my insert out of scrap plywood. I cut it out with my jigsaw.
My plywood piece was cut out with my jigsaw. Super quick.

My seat was a new one for me, it had no center. Instead, it had support straps tacked underneath. Instead of replacing those straps, I chose to make it solid by using it as a template and cutting an insert out of a scrap piece of plywood.

I had to sand it a little with 120 grit and my orbital sander to get it to fit in there. In the end, it was super snug. A perfect fit.

When I repair and refinish a thrifted chair I always look at what I already have for supplies before I head to the store. I firmly believe in using what you have on hand first.

If you have some scrap wood check your pile first and see if you have something that will work. I had some 1/2″ plywood strips in my shed that almost fit perfectly.

I used my Kreg jig pocket hole jr system to drill pocket holes with my impact driver. You also have to use the Kreg clamp to secure it to the wood before you can drill. It’s a quick and simple process but ensures a really secure connection that can take the weight a seat will need to endure.

09 Reupholster the Antique Chair Seat

Chair seats are possibly the easiest upholstery project you can take on so don’t feel intimidated by it at all. Bonus, it takes minimal tools to complete this part of the process.

Tools Needed to Reupholster A Chair Seat:

Typically I would cut the foam 3-4″ longer to wrap around the sides and then secure it all the way around with staples. But because I had extra padding from its original structure I chose not to. It worked out fine.

To truly repair and refinish a thrifted chair you need to really choose a good fabric. I love drop cloth for many reasons. This was some leftover bleached drop cloth. To read all about that process go read How to Bleach Drop Cloth for Vintage Vibes.

  1. Covered in quilt batting, measuring out the drop cloth fabric. I left 4″ leeway on all sides.
  2. One side of the fabric was stapled completely. I choose to staple one side at a time. It allows me to adjust as needed.
  3. The opposite side was stapled completely. Pull the fabric taut so there isn’t any loose, but not so tight as to create weird lumps on the sides.
  4. Leave the corners for last.
  5. To staple, the corners lift up, then fold the sides under the front. Lay it down and staple.
  6. When all four corners are finished go back with scissors and trim all the excess fabric.

10 Install the Newly Upholstered Seat to the Chair Frame

Not that this entire journey hasn’t been enjoyable, but this is undoubtedly the most enjoyable part of the process. The part where you get to see your finished project!

I always replace the old screws with brand new #12 2″ wood screws. Reinstalling the seat is as easy as putting the chair on its back, securing the seat with one hand, putting constant pressure on it, and screwing the new screws in using your impact driver or drill.

And voila, done!

Completely finished. Repair and refinish a thrifted chair front shot. Antique wooden chair with spindles and beautiful curves with a brand new upholstered seat.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Purchasing Old Furniture

Each type of chair will require a different repair and process to restore it. It’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into before you commit. So, here are a few things to consider before you bring home second-hand furniture.

  1. Does it wobble if you move it back and forth? Inspect the legs, arms supports, etc. Loose joints are easy enough to repair but will require tools.
  2. Does it need an upholstery job? If it needs more than a simple seat upholstery you may need to leave it for a more experienced person.
  3. Does it require any major repairs? Do an overall structure inspection and look for things like broken joints, missing or cracked pieces, to ensure the seat doesn’t need to be replaced. Seats can be replaced, but are you able to do it?
  4. Is the work worth it for the price? We all have dreams of restoring an old family heirloom, it’s a bit romantic. But I’m much more willing to invest decent time and sweat equity if I’m paying $5.00 rather than $50.00.
  5. Do you have the tools it takes to make the right repairs? The tools I have used to repair chairs are Large clamps, wood glue, Bondo wood filler, Sandpaper, Orbital sander, brad nailer, and occasionally my impact driver.

I hope you find a beautiful antique chair calling your name at a thrift store and grab it now that you know the ins and outs of how to repair and refinish a thrifted chair.

Printable Card: How to Repair and Refinish a Thrifted Chair

Thrifted Antique Chair Completely Finished. Repaired, Refinished, Reupholstered sitting in my dining room between white curtains and under a beautiful antique mirror.

How to Repair and Refinish A Thrifted Chair

Yield: 1 Repaired & Refinished Chair
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Active Time: 4 hours
Additional Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 5 hours 15 minutes
Difficulty: Medium Difficulty
Estimated Cost: $5.00-$20.00

We all have dreams of filling our homes with heirloom quality furniture. Learning the skills to repair and restore those thrifted pieces can help you achieve that dream, even on a small budget.


  • Fabric
  • 1 1/4" Foam
  • Quilt Batting
  • 1/2" Plywood
  • Chalk paint
  • #12 2" Wood Screws
  • Lint-free Rags


  • Hammer
  • Jigsaw
  • Impact Driver
  • Cordless Brad Nailer
  • Orbital Sander
  • Pliers
  • Kreg Jig Pocket Hole, Clamp, & Screws* (Optional)
  • Pencil
  • Metal Putty Knife or Scraper
  • Long Clamps
  • Bucket of Warm Water
  • Sponge, rag, and scrub brush
  • Murphy's Wood Soap
  • Staple Gun
  • 3/8" Arrow Staples
  • Paint Brush
  • Furniture Wax* or other protective coat
  • Butter knife


    1. Take the upholstered seat off the frame and set it aside.
    2. Thoroughly clean the chair using warm water and Murphy's wood soap or warm water mixed with a few drops of dawn dish soap.
    3. Repair any broken or loose parts of the chair's frame. Using wood glue, clamps, and brad nails to support the structure.
    4. Use chemical stripper to remove any current paint* if your piece is painted. If not, skip this step.
    5. Sand the entire wooden chair frame thoroughly with 120 or 220 grit sandpaper. Clean all the loose dust off the piece.
    6. Stain or paint your antique chair wood. I recommend staining anything that is raw wood, or leaving it as is and coating it in a clear coat. If you're painting, I recommend chalk paint.
    7. Apply a protective finish to your Antique Chair. I chose to use furniture wax for the mess-free solution. It's a great quick choice, but for more of a protective finish for heavy use, I recommend poly or tung oil.
    8. Build a new chair seat if it needs replaced*. I replaced the center of my seat with a 1/2" piece of plywood I had as a scrap. I cut it to fit using my jigsaw and sanded it smooth with my orbital sander and 120 grit sandpaper pad.
    9. Reupholster the Antique chair seat. I choose to use 1 1/4" foam (twin size mattress topper), quilt batting, and drop cloth fabric. Start with the foam, use the seat as a template to cut it out properly. Leave an additional 3-4" on each side. Fold the foam up around the ends and secure using staples. Do these same steps for the quilt batting and then the drop cloth fabric. One side at a time, ensuring you're pulling the fabric taut, but not too taut. Save the corners for last. When it's done cut off any excess.
    10. Reinstall your reupholstered seat to your Antique Chair frame using #12 2" wood screws. Turn the chair on its back. With one hand secure the seat putting pressure on it while you screw the screw in with the other hand.



Each type of chair will require a different repair and process to restore it. It's important to know exactly what you're getting into before you commit. So, here are a few things to consider before you bring home second-hand furniture.

    Does it wobble if you move it back and forth? Inspect the legs, arms, supports, etc. Loose joints are easy enough to repair but will require tools.

  • Does it need an upholstery job? If it needs more than a simple seat upholstery you may need to leave it for a more experienced person.
  • Does it require any major repairs? Do an overall structure inspection and look for things like broken jointsmissing or cracked pieces, to ensure the seat doesn't need to be replaced. Seats can be replaced, but are you able to do it?
  • Is the work worth it for the price? We all have dreams of restoring old family heirlooms, it's a bit romantic. But I'm much more willing to invest decent time and sweat equity if I'm paying $5.00 rather than $50.00.
  • Do you have the tools it takes to make the right repairs? The tools I have used to repair chairs are Large clamps, wood glue, Bondo wood filler, Sandpaper, Orbital sander, brad nailer, and occasionally my impact driver.

Thanks for stopping by!


Meet the Author

Hi, I’m Julie! Mother to five beautiful kids, Homeschool Educator, Writer, Handicraft & DIY Enthusiast, Photographer, Thrifter, and Furniture Restorer. Follow along for fun DIY projects creating a handmade home on a budget! Read more about me here→


  1. What a fabulous tutorial Julie! And I love the finished transformation. You’re so good at seeing just what a piece needs 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *