It is possible to refinish some wood veneer furniture. It is the ability to sand the surface that determines whether you can remove the existing finish. Some veneers are so thin that, by sanding the surface, you actually wind up sanding through the veneer at the same time. If you are fortunate enough to have a piece with a 1/4-inch veneer, the piece will respond perfectly to this refinishing process.
Step 1 - Assess Damage to Veneer
It is essential that all damaged areas be repaired on the surface of your wood veneer furniture. Sometimes, for example, the corners of the veneer will lift away from the furniture as the glue begins to disintegrate. Other repairs such as water damage, bubbles, and missing or split veneer must also be repaired at this time.
Step 2 - Repair Damaged Areas
A painstaking procedure, the repair of any damaged veneer is essential to proper refinishing of the wood veneer furniture. Air bubbles, splits, and corner lifts all follow the same basic steps for repairs. For a bubble, tape the area with a couple of layers of masking tape and slice the bubble with a craft knife with a #10 blade.
As you are regluing the areas, you may find that the veneer has swelled from water infiltration. If this is the case, carefully slice both sides of the damaged veneer until the piece lays flat. Clean out the existing glue and debris from the damaged areas and from the underside of the veneer, gluing it back down with yellow carpenter’s glue afterward.
For water-damaged and scratched areas, if the damage is on the surface, it will be handled when you sand to remove the veneer finish. For areas with missing veneer, you must create a veneer patch of the same grain and glue it in place. Some pieces may also need to be clamped while the glue is given time to dry. With all repairs properly done, the piece is ready to refinish.
Step 3 - Refinish Veneered Surface
With all the cutting, patching, and gluing completed, it's time to remove the old finish. The thickness of your veneer will be important in determining what type of technique you should use for this task, so to determine this thickness, open a drawer or turn the piece upside down to see the edge width of the veneer.
With very thin veneers, it may be better to remove the finish with a light rubbing of denatured alcohol, lacquer thinner, or another protective coat remover, and #000 steel wool.
For wider veneer, very carefully sand the surface, avoiding sanding through even these thicker panels. Wipe the dust off with tack cloth. Never use water to clean as it will cause swelling and will be problematic with the final protective coat.
Step 4 - Stain and Protect Veneer
With a foam brush, apply your new stain to the piece. Wipe off any excess stain after five minutes and then allow it to dry 24 hours. Repeat until the desired color is reached.
Apply the protective coating next (shellac, lacquer or polyurethane) with a natural bristle paintbrush. You will need to allow 24 hours between these coats for dry time. Lightly sand with 320-grit sandpaper after each coat and wipe with a tack cloth before applying another for a smooth finish.
Repeat this application at least two to three times for several coats of protection. Allow the final coat on the wood veneer furniture to dry a full 48 hours before use.