I found this old wooden chest in a neighborhood giveaway. Made in Chattanooga, Tennessee, its ‘as-is’ condition was pretty rough on the outside from years of use. Maybe it belonged to a moonshiner and the deep scratches and rings from glassware (or Jack Daniel’s bottles?) would tell a great story if they could, but today they just give the outside a tired look. 

Since the cedar-lined interior was in great shape, I decided to refinish only the outside. It’s hard to know just how much elbow grease is going to be necessary to refinish a piece of furniture, so I tend to approach it like a stain on a carpet: Start with the mildest and gentlest option and dial it up from there. The steps below outline my approach and the results I achieved.   

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Wash surface

The first step is simple—wash the outside of the chest. To do this, mix up some standard Murphy’s Oil Soap, apply it to the chest surface, and wipe down. The goal here is to remove any dirt and reveal any scratches in the original finish.

How to refinish a cedar chest

Rings from drink-ware on old bench

Scratches and dings in old chest

Cavalier wooden trunk

Step 2: Apply Restor-A-Finish

Howard’s Restor-A-Finish is a great product; it wipes on and blends an old finish into existing scratches and defects if they’re not too severe. It comes in different colors and tones, so pick the one you think matches the color of your project most closely. (We chose "walnut.") Per the directions on the can, use ‘0000’ super-fine steel wool to wipe the product on in the direction of the grain, starting with light pressure and building up as needed.

We were impressed at how effective the Restor-A-Finish was at correcting imperfections in the wood after one application—all but the worst rings and scratches were removed. One application would likely be sufficient for many people, but we opted to follow with a gel stain to augment our results (see the next step). 

Murphy’s Oil Soap and steel wool pads

Howard’s Restor-a-Finish with steel wool pads

Wipe and blend

Wipe and blend away scratches to refurbish

Howard’s Restor-a-Finish | Walnut

Some dings will show through depending on severity.

Howard’s Restor-a-Finish works to bring old furniture back to life.

Step 3: Apply gel stain (optional)

At this point in the process, you have two options depending on how happy you are with the results of the Restor-A-Finish. If you're happy with the results, you're all done! However, if you still have traces of imperfections in the wood, you can opt to go a step further and apply a gel stain. With some light sanding and prep, the gel stain should go a long way toward covering any remaining defects in the finish without the hassle of stripping and sanding the chest down to bare wood and possibly sanding away the veneers.  

Since we weren’t sure how thick the veneers were on our chest, and because finish removers are pretty harsh on wood, we went with the second option and used General Finish’s Gel Stain—a full-bodied, pigment-rich, oil-based wood stain.

To apply the stain:

  1. Wipe down the chest with a Scotch-Brite pad and mineral spirits and let dry.
  2. Once dry, sand with a 220-grit sanding pad, going over the surface quickly.
  3. Use a tack cloth to remove any dust left over from sanding.
  4. Paint on a medium coat of gel stain with a foam brush.
  5. Using a rag soaked in mineral spirits and a dry bristle brush, brush away excess stain, dabbing the brush to unload the excess stain onto the rag.
  6. Using a fresh bristle brush, blend the stain to your liking.
  7. Let the stain dry according to the instructions.

Sunnyside Paint Thinner and Scotch Brite pads

Wipe down with a Scotch-Brite pad and mineral spirits.

Wipe down with pads and mineral spirits.

Wipe and blend

3M sandblaster edge-detailing sponge

Sand with a 220-grit sanding sponge.

Sand with a 220-grit sanding sponge.

Use sanding sponge to refurbish wooden trunk.

Wood refurbisher's tack cloth

Use a tack cloth to remove dust.

Remove dust with tack cloth

Use tack cloth to continue to remove dust.

Use a shop-vac to vacuum up all dust

Gel stain for refurbishing old trunk.

Apply a medium coat of gel stain.

Apply medium coat of gel stain

Use a sponge-brush to coat

Bristle brush and rag soaked in mineral spirits

Brush away excess stain using a bristle brush and rag soaked in mineral spirits.

Apply stain with brush

Fresh bristle brush for blending

Use a fresh bristle brush to blend.

Finished refurbished wooden chest

Refurbished wooden trunk

Refurbished wooden furniture

Once your first coat is dry, you can go back and apply an additional coat if you’d like to darken the color or hide more imperfections in the surface. When you’re finished staining, be sure to properly dispose of rags.

And that’s all there is to it! You should have an almost-like-new piece of furniture with minimal evidence of wear and tear.

For more staining project tips, be sure to check out our guides to choosing the right interior stain and exterior stain.