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Tutorial: Refinishing Antique Doors

April 3, 2012




  • Brushes (the cheap-o one use kind, not foam – foam will melt in the stripper)
  • Chemical resistant gloves
  • Cat litter ( weird and optional)
  • Dremel. or brass wire brush.
  • 4″-6″ Spatula
  • Glass jar (old pasts sauce jar or something like that)
  • Heat gun (if the door is painted)
  • Mineral spirits
  • Metal bowl
  • Orbital or palm sander and/or Mouse style sander.
  • Paper towel
  • Stripper and/or heat gun (depending if the door is painted)
  • Steel wool
  • Sharpened dowels (optional)
  • Saw horses or something sturdy to set the door on horizontally
  • Shop vac (optional)
  • Sand paper: 50, 80, 150, 220


Lay the door down on saw horses or something sturdy that you don’t mind getting gunk on. If you are using a heat gun to remove paint you could do it in place with the door hangings vertically (not at all ideal, but possible).

Ready to apply stripper

Remove all hardware (knobs, back plates etc..). Do not skip this step, I mean how lazy are you? You will not have professional results if you leave them on.

remove all hardware

If the door is painted, the easiest way to remove the paint is with a heat gun. I used one to strip the kitchen cabinets here if you need instructions. If the door is stained and covered in varnish, the a heat gun will not do you any good and you need to use a stripper. The doors I purchased were stained so I used Klean-Strip stripper for varnished wood. It’s low odor and not as caustic as some of the others on the market. There are lots of options out there, so get what works for you.


Apply the stripper.  What can I say – read the directions. Don’t glob it on and brush it back and forth. Put on your gloves and pour the stripper into a metal bowl, I use a stainless steel mixing bowl.  Load up a brush, and brush it onto the wood in one direction. Do not go over the same spot, brush it on and let it be.

Cheap brushes for stripper

Loading cheap brush with stripper

Move quickly and cover the entire surface of the door. A nice thick even layer is what you are shooting for. The hardest part about this step is opening the container. It is officially adult proof.”Press and turn” my a**.

applying stripper


Wait. Let it set for 15-30 minutes. If it’s really hot out or you are working in sunny spot check back frequently, because you do not want the stripper to dry on the wood.

Waiting to stripper to penetrate stain


Scrap it. Use the spatula at a 45 degree angle with even pressure and scrap the stripper off on the flat parts of the door.  For the detailed paneling and trim work use steel wool or the brass wire brush. Use a brass brush instead of the cheaper steel one because brass is softer and will not mar the wood. Scrap all the used stripper into a pile, or several piles.

Scraping used stripped off with spatula

Steel wool for details

Use the sharpened dowel to remove the gunk and stripper from details and edges.

sharpened dowel for details


Remove it. Two options here: either scoop the excess into a glass jar and wipe up the excess with paper towel OR mix cat litter into the used stripper and then vacuum it up. The cat litter option is kind-of cool, less goopyness but takes just as much time and you need a shop vac.

Cat litter


Clean it up. Once all the excess stripper is wiped up or vacuumed off, then wet down a paper towel with mineral spirits and wipe door the down like you were washing it with a wash cloth, removing all the excess stripper residue.

Wiped down with mineral spirits

Set the door aside to dry. The mineral spirits with evaporate off in a few minutes.


Repeat. I had to repeat the stripping process twice to remove most of the stain and varnish. If this is necessary then don’t use the cat litter in between coats of stripper, just wipe away the excess and apply the next coat. The cat litter is just for removing the stripper before cleaning. Also, you do not need to clean the door with mineral spirits if you plan to add another coat of stripper. Repeat step 1-6 on the opposite side of the door.

Wood after two coats of stripper


Sand. Depending on the condition of your door you could get away with using 180 grit followed by 220 or 240 grit paper and be done with sanding. My doors had several deep gouges and rounded edges so I started with 80 grit paper. The higher the number, the finer the grit, so plan to work your way up.  You can not skip from 50 to 240, you have to use different papers to slowly get to the smooth finish you will need for staining.


I used a palm sander and the mouse, which has a pointed tip for getting into corners. Do not apply pressure to the sander – you will end up wearing the wood lower in some points and can actually damage it when using a very abrasive grit like 50 or 80. Let the sander do the work and change the paper often.

Mouse sander for corners

This is the most important preparation step for staining so take your time and do it correctly. I check with my hand to make sure the door is evenly sanded and smooth on all surfaces.



  • Brush: natural bristle or high quality nylon
  • Conditioner (or damp rag)
  • Finish/top coat: Shellac or polyurethane
  • Glass or metal dish
  • Mineral Spirits
  • Old t-shirt
  • Paper towel
  • Stain: oil or water based
  • Steel wool
  • Wax


Condition: The doors I worked with are pine which is a soft wood. Because the pine is soft it needs to be conditioned to accept stain evenly. If the wood is not conditioned different areas will soak up more stain than other are the finished door will appear blotchy. You have a few options for conditioning:

  • Minwax sells a wood conditioner that’s water based and is applied within a few minutes of staining.
  • De-waxed shellac can be used as a conditioner, but you have to make sure it’s de-waxed and most of the off-the-shelf brands have wax. Zinsser Seal-Coat is a de-waxed shellac. If you want more info on waxed vs. de-waxed check that out here. 
  • Guess what is free and also conditions wood? Water does! Too much water will raise the grain and you will need to sand again, so just a damp rag rubbed evenly over the wood surface will do. Stain immediately after conditioning with water. I conditioned the doors with water.


Stain. I prefer to use oil based stains because I think the colors are richer and the finish is better. This means you need mineral spirits or turpentine to clean the brushes when you are done. You can always use water-based though, and the clean-up is just soap and water.

Stirred not shaken. Do not shake the stain! That just makes bubbles, which you do not want. Stir the stain to mix it thoroughly before using.

Some people rub the stain on with a cloth, I don’t do that. I brush it on with a high quality brush, let it sit for 5 minutes or more and wipe it off before it dries. The longer you let it sit, the darker the wood will be.

The stain is always much darker than the actual finish will be because the door only absorbs part of the stain. So don’t freak out when you brush it on. You can achieve whatever depth of color you are looking for by varying the time the stain is on the wood and how many coats of stain you apply. I did one coat, leaving the stain on for 10 minutes.


Sand: That’s right, you might have to sand again. Read the can. I didn’t sand between coats of stain, but some stains suggest you do.


Protective finish coat: This is where it gets interesting. You have quite a few options to choose from: shellac, polyurethane, lacquer, or oil (for details on each one click here and check out the video).

This tutorial goes over applying shellac. Shellac is a natural product (alcohol and a resin secreted by the lac beetle), non-toxic, low odor, and it dries in minutes. Before you get grossed out by the idea of spreading beetle juice all over your furniture, realize that shellac is all around you. It is actually used on food products because it is so safe. Did you ever wonder why the apples at the store are so shiny? Well, fruit doesn’t grow with a high-gloss sheen.

Shellac can be brushed on, padded on, or sprayed on. I decided to go with the padding technique for application. I used Zinsser clear shellac, since the doors were already stained. If you skip the staining step you can achieve a dark color just using shellac in amber.



Making the pad: Cut up an old t-shirt into 6 inch squares. Old t-shirts are preferrable because they are soft and lint free. roll up one of the squares making a smooth flat surface and cover it with another square, gathering it around the first rolled up square (think dumpling). I actually used a brillo of super fine steep wool folded up in the t-shirt square, which also work well. You want a padding with a smooth surface free of bumps or wrinkles that will glide over the wood.


Shellac: Stir the shellac well to make sure the resin is well dissolved in the alcohol. Pour 1-2 cups of shellac into a shallow dish. Dip the pad into the shellac and knock off the excess (you don’t want it dripping).

Apply the shellac to the door in the direction of the grain and DO NOT GO OVER the area where it has just been applied, the shellac becomes tacky almost instantly so if you do this the pad will drag and stick to the door. It’s OK if each coat doesn’t go on perfectly evenly because the resin is dissolved in alcohol each time you apply a new layer of shellac in melds and blends into the last making one even finish.

Cover the entire surface of the door (takes just a few minutes). The coat you just applied will be dry by the time you finish coating the entire door, and will be ready for the next coat. The coats are so thin when applied with this technique it dries almost instantly and I was able to apply 10 coats in a little over an hour.

After 10 coats of shellac


Sand: I know the sanding never ends! Wait several hours (24 hours to be safe) for the shellac to harden before sanding. This step is really easy, using 340-360 grit paper lightly sand the surface of the door by hand. This step is just to knock down any grain that was raised with the first 10 coats of shellac, and to take down the sheen.

Wipe away the dust. I applied another 5-10 coats of shellac. You know when to stop because the finish will start to form into a rich glossy coat. The doors are ready to use in 1 hour or so, once the finish begins to harden (the finish is dry to the touch almost instantly, but wait at least an hour before putting the hardware back on).

finished product

finished product


Steel wool: If you don’t like the glossy look you can burnish the door with steel wool and wax to create a satin finish. Wait 1-2 weeks for the shellac to completely set or harden before this step. I haven’t done this yet, but when I do, I’ll update the tutorial.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Cdnmaid permalink
    October 13, 2015 10:26 AM

    Thank you for the detailed description and helpful hints for stripping doors. I jabe just finished using a heat gun to remove multiple layers of paint, varnish and who knows what from a pine, ladder-style door (think lots of trim on I set panels). I have read that steel wool leaves tiny flecks of steel in the wood and can rust, but it seems you have successfully used it for such trim. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    • October 13, 2015 2:58 PM

      I’ve never had that issue with steel wool. It would have to be wood with a really open grain that was heavily saturated with stripper etc…

  2. Tiffany permalink
    October 11, 2015 9:40 PM

    What a wonderful, in-depth tutorial! I have 2 doors almost exactly like the one shown & am very overwhelmed at the thought of re-finishing them since I’ve never done anything like this before. I feel confident in giving this a shot now! Thanks!

  3. michael muller permalink
    September 10, 2013 10:35 AM

    Looks great – and I want to do exactly that. What color stain did you use?

  4. Errol Flynn permalink
    September 18, 2012 11:49 PM

    Great write up though I believe you mean scrapE not scrap. 😉

  5. Craig permalink
    April 4, 2012 4:17 PM

    Holy crap the shellac finish turned out great! I’m definitely going to give it a try

  6. April 4, 2012 12:11 PM

    That is quite a process but totally worth it! The doors look great!

  7. April 3, 2012 9:45 PM

    Cat litter?! That is probably the best tip I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to try it. I have some detail work to do with steel wool and stripper on our bathroom door and I’m excited to try out the cat litter for clean up.

    • April 3, 2012 11:46 PM

      It does work! Scrap most of the stripper off and then use the cat litter to soak up the stripper stuck in the detailing and trim. Once it’s all soaked up roll it around with your hands to make sure it’s coated and then vacuum it up.


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