How To: Refinish a China Cabinet

Not long after our move to Alabama one of my neighbor’s approached me about refinishing her mom’s handed-down china hutch. This piece is very special but wasn’t cohesive with the desired look of Christina’s home. I was honored to be trusted with this family heirloom and wanted to make both mom and daughter proud.

Before committing to this project I wanted to take a look at the hutch and determine what materials were used, their condition, and get a confident understanding of the client’s desired outcome. This hutch is made of solid wood and in good condition, meaning Christina’s dream of a white, farmhouse style hutch was possible. The hardware was broken and needed to be replaced and I noticed the wood had a thick lacquer finish. This all goes into the calculation of time and materials needed.

When wood has a slick, extra shiny surface it needs to be sanded or primed before being painted. While chalk paint COULD be used directly on the wood with no prep, and, yes, this makes the project a heck of a lot easier, I knew it was important to Christina for this hutch to safely make a few more military moves and look beautiful for years to come. If this hutch is going to be in their family for a long time, the chosen finishes need to last equally as long.


first step of refinishing a china cabinet

STEP ONE: Disassemble.
Unscrew all hinges, hardware, door stops and glass inserts. Make sure to label these old, stubborn screws because they will want to go back in the original holes they came from.

step 2 of refinishing a china cabinet

I used painters tape to block off and protect the mirrored backing and any remaining glass which should not be painted.

It’s important for the primer to not only dry, but cure to the wood. Generally this takes 3 days, but considering the 100% humidity and scattered shower forecast I was working with, I gave it a bit longer. Primer gives the chalk paint a dry surface to adhere to.

how to select new hardware

We decided to paint the hutch a chalky white, complimented by a dark stained buffett top. New hardware was ordered for the cabinet doors to give Christina the farmhouse look she was hoping for.

tips to great sanding

I sanded down the buffet top to prep it for stain. This step takes longer than you might think. It’s important to sand the surface and surrounding beveled edge equally. Whatever is not buffed out will only be highlighted when the stain is applied. Stain absorbs into the pores of wood, meaning the more a surfaced is sanded the more stain it will absorb in that spot. I took multiple passes with 60 grit sandpaper, dusted off the sawdust, and repeated until my surface was smooth and even.

things to know about changing hardware

STEP FIVE: Wood Filler.
Spread wood filler over any hardware holes no longer in use. We decided to change the existing knobs to bar pulls, so these holes needed to be filled in. Once the wood glue dries it will turn a chalky, yellow color. Now you can sand it flush with the neighboring wood.

beautiful wood stain for a farmhouse finish

STEP SIX: Condition Wood.
This step is so important. Think of getting a spray tan. You should always apply lotion prior to receiving the tinted mist so your tan comes out looking even rather than patchy, right. In a similar way, wood conditioner preps your surface for a beautiful EVEN stain. (This may not be the best example, but you get the point).

I like to use a rag rather than a brush when staining to give me more control of where the stain runs. It doesn’t take much, just rub a dab of stain into the wood in the direction of the grain. I used English Chestnut for the first coat but felt it needed a more golden base as opposed to an ash wood, so I wiped a second coat of Golden Oak over the wood to obtain the desired finish. PERFECT!

Chalk paint an old china hutch HOW TO

STEP EIGHT: Chalk Paint.
Allow the first coat to dry completely before applying a second. It usually takes me two complete coats to achieve a milky white finish.

STEP NINE: Touch ups.
I noticed the paint didn’t reach into the crevices of the floral wood details, so I took a thin brush and traced each line. This ensures the only exposed wood was what I chose to distress in the end.

how to distress a piece of furniture

STEP TEN: Distress!
Yes, this is my favorite step of them all. Distressing gives the perfectly painted an authentically aged look. After all, the piece is old so it shouldn’t look like it just stepped off a warehouse floor. It’s been loved, it’s been moved, it’s been part of the family for generations. It should have a few smile lines. The goal with distressing furniture is to make a piece look like it aged well! For this I used 220 grit sandpaper and lightly hand sanded the places it would naturally show wear over time, such as the edges, corners, and raised surfaces.

best way to protect painted furniture

Clear wax is an excellent top coat for large furniture items such as this hutch. It not only protects and seals the surface, it also makes the piece smooth to the touch (as opposed to the typical, dry chalk paint finish). I applied the wax using a bristle brush, then buffed it out with a white cloth. I recommend working in small sections, as the wax drys quickly.

STEP TWELVE: Wax again.
I applied a second coat of wax for good measure. This hutch is subject to small, sticky fingerprints, which means Christina will appreciate the well-waxed and easy-to-clean surface.

STEP THIRTEEN: Reassemble.
This step is so fun because you start to see everything come together once again. Hinges get screwed back on, glass inserts go back into doors, and new holes are prepared for the updated hardware. We decided to keep the three original drawer pulls and replace the seven door knobs with new antique brass bar pulls for that farmhouse finish.

refinish a china hutch

I must say, by the end of this project I grew quite fond of this hutch.

Its character is unmatched. Dress it up to display china, or dress it down to display original kindergarten works of art and family mementos. The mirrored back and elegant original bail pulls compliment the design of this classic piece, while the lightly distressed finish and farmhouse bar pulls allow it to serve a second generation.

Cheers to a successful restoration of another beautiful piece of furniture! Are you are interested in having me tackle a project for your home?

8 thoughts on “How To: Refinish a China Cabinet

  1. Debbie Sawatzky says:

    This is beautiful!!! You do such a beautiful job and are so knowledgeable on how to get the job done.

  2. Kerri Gasparovic says:

    The hutch looks great! I knew you were working on it, but had no idea how beautiful the finished product was!!

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