Whether your old wood cabinet, chair or table is covered in varnish or paint, stripping and refinishing it will dramatically enhance the look. There are several methods of stripping wood furniture, but the chemical method is generally easiest, giving you greater control and faster results than heat-stripping or sanding. Then it's just a matter of applying a rich wood stain topped with gloss (varnish for a matt shine, polyurethane for a glassy one).
Remove any non-wood fixtures or hardware from the furniture. Lay plastic tarps under it. Put on rubber gloves and goggles.
Brush liquid stripper onto the wood surface, starting at the highest point and working down. Work in sections of a few feet, letting the stripper sit on the surface for a few minutes, until the existing paint or varnish starts to bubble and soften.
Scrape off the softened finish, using your plastic putty knife.
Soak a nylon scrub pad in paint thinner, and scrub the whole surface to remove all residual finish and stripper. Re-soak the pad in thinner as needed. Get the whole surface clean and bare. Let it dry overnight.
Lightly sand the surface by hand with fine sandpaper, making sure to get into all the crevices. Wipe off the dust.
Apply wood stain to the furniture, brushing it on heavily in small areas, letting it sit for a minute, and then wiping off the excess with paper towels. Stain the whole piece. Let it dry for a day.
Brush on varnish or polyurethane, starting at the top and working down. Brush it in very thin, even strokes, avoiding bubbles. Let it dry for four hours.
Hand-sand the dry gloss very lightly with fine sandpaper. Re-apply a second coat of gloss, and let dry. Repeat the process for a third coat. Don't sand the third coat, but let it dry for a day.
Ventilate the area when applying stripper and stains.