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I have a wooden shoe cabinet (actually it might have had some other purpose, but that's what it does now), whose side has... well, seen better days:

enter image description here

but its top face is in (somewhat) better shape:

enter image description here

I don't want to make it into something completely uniform and painted where you don't see the wood. I want it to look more like it used to before all the wear-and-tear, and staining/water-seepage etc.

Now, I've never done restorative (or any proper kind of) woodwork before; nor have I painted nor varnished wood. But - this is the DIY site, so my questions is:

What steps should I be taking to bring this piece of furniture into decent shape?

Please include steps which are "investigational", e.g. "check if X or Y", not just actions.

If there's any extra information I should provide, please let me know and I'll add it below.

Additional information:

  • I don't know the reasons for the staining/discoloration, since I got the cabinet the way it is now.
  • The material is proper wood, all over - not chipboard. I don't know which wood though.
  • I'm not planning on buying a bunch of expensive electric tools for a one-time project. But - you can certainly maike suggestions assuming such tools are available. Maybe I can get them and maybe I can't and will try some manual alternative.

Anyway, I don't actually know, because I got it this way. I'm pretty sure the darker stain near the bottom is due to water, but I can't say for sure.

PS - The shoes are in there, you just don't see them from this angle.

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  • Something worth considering is 'what's actually the staining' - you're going to have a very different process for dirt on the outside, and a simple spray on furniture cleaner might work, and say mould - which might need a pre treatment. Also, how much your time/cost preference would be - sandpaper is cheap but takes time. Electric sanding tools with a vacuum cleaner for dust would be easier, faster but more expensive. Also whether its solid wood, or ikea style wood faced particle board. The top says this is something solid. The screw says ikea. Mar 20 at 1:15
  • Hi, welcome to Woodworking. You're asking too much here and as an experienced StackExchange member you should be aware your choice of words means you're asking for opinions, specifically highlighted in the help. But in short, if you're OK with painting this then I would suggest you do exact that because that's the only way you can be sure you'll achieve a uniform colour before you start, and it simplifies preparation/surface treatment considerably.
    – Graphus
    Mar 20 at 7:41
  • @Graphus: Whittled down the question, please have another look. About painting - note that I don't mind non-uniformity in color.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 20 at 10:10
  • @JourneymanGeek: Oh, so you're a woodworker too? :-) ... Anyway, see edit.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 20 at 10:16
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    Re. the form of Answers, if you're happy with ones that don't actually tell you how to do what you've asked but only mention that you can that's your call. But this is not what SE is supposed to be about. Anyway I'm bowing out now because just trying to explain how and why is beyond the scope of the Comment system here. If I can give one final suggestion, ask this on a conventional forum where you can get into a dialogue with one or more respondents who can get you started, and then are there for the (inevitable) follow-on queries. Best of luck with the project.
    – Graphus
    Mar 23 at 5:11
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You may have unrealistic expectations when you say "I want it to look more like it used to before all the wear-and-tear...". The best you can probably hope for with furniture with this level of use/abuse is what is sometimes called "distressed" or "rustic". That means that you make it look better but accept the defects as part of the character of a used piece. I think you should accept this and strive to make it look nicely rustic, and I think it will be beautiful. As a note, furniture folks will often purposely scratch, ding, and discolor brand new pieces, to give them the rustic look.

There are many techniques, many preferences, many ways to do this, and many opinions. I will share mine:

  • sand, sand, sand, sand, ad nauseum. You can do it by hand but it will be quicker/easier with electric sanders. I would start with a belt sander (work with caution- removes large amounts quickly, very aggressive) on the worst areas, like that end panel. The top, however; does not appear to need the aggressive belt sander. I would then switch to a random-orbit palm sander. For all sanding you start with coarse paper then use successively finer grit until it is as smooth as you want it to be.
  • stain. Lots of options here but I would use a traditional solvent-base wood stain. Start by testing colors on the underside-back of the top (or other appropriate inconspicuous place that won't show) and pick a color that pleases you and that is dark enough to help blend the stains that you can't sand out. The darker you use, the less of the wood's natural grain/beauty will show at the end.
  • finish. I like oil finishes (e.g. tung oil, danish oil, linseed oil) as they seem to give a rich glow to the wood. They are, however, different than a brush-on water-base poly. The oil will be beautiful but will require several applications and some buffing, and does not give a hard protective surface like polyurethane. Polyurethane will give a hard durable surface.
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  • 1. Do you suggest I sand the entire cabinet, or just the problematic parts? 2. What is "poly"? 3. The less-wear part of the top of the cabinet does have somewhat a bit of a sheen; what would be closest to that? Or, hopefully, indistinguishable? 4. Thanks for detailed answer :-)
    – einpoklum
    Mar 22 at 8:46
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    You will need to sand the whole thing or any stain you apply may not absorb properly. "Poly" is short for polyurethane, which is an easy to use finish for wood. It can be solvent or water borne and can be flat (dull), semi-gloss, or high gloss. It becomes hard when cured and protects the wood surface from moisture/stains and gives some protection from mechanical damage (minor impacts). Solvent borne poly will tend to change the natural color of wood a bit (makes it look wet) whereas water borne poly is typically crystal clear. Mar 22 at 18:49
  • @einpoklum, I want to caution that as detailed as this Answer seems it actually barely skims the surface. This is why at 1 hour and >1,000 words I abandoned the Answer I was writing yesterday. I realised that even that length — almost all of it confined to how to hand sand — was still too shallow to really be useful to the complete novice. Numerous magazine articles have been written about how to sand, and in woodworking books entire chapters can be devoted to sanding, which should give an inkling of how much depth someone starting out needs to delve into to get a decent understanding.....
    – Graphus
    Mar 22 at 23:42
  • @einpoklum, also please note there is no requirement to stain, that is an optional step. See closing paragraph in this previous Answer. Basically you stain only if the desire is to change the basic colouring of the wood, which I don't think from what you've written above you want to do.
    – Graphus
    Mar 22 at 23:47
  • @Graphus, "stain only if the desire is to change the basic colouring of the wood"... OR if you wish to hide discoloration that could not be removed by mechanical or chemical efforts, yes? Well, I guess that would be changing the basic color; just wanted to point out that in this scenario it might help aesthetically... Mar 22 at 23:53

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