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How to Refinish Oak Veneer

Updated March 05, 2019

It's sometimes hard to distinguish oak veneer plywood from real hardwood. The giveaway is beading attached around the edges of cabinet panels, shelves, doors and tabletops. When you see it, take extra precautions when refinishing so you don't scrape or sand through the veneer. Most plywood veneers can withstand a moderate amount of scraping and sanding, but if you bear down too heavily on the edges or in the corners, you could wear through the veneer and leave an unsightly spot that is difficult to mask.

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  1. Spread stripper liberally on the veneered surface with an old paintbrush. If you can, lay the surface flat on a pair of saw horses before applying the stripper. If you are refinishing built-in cabinets, though, spread the stripper on the vertical surfaces.

  2. Give the stripper about 10 minutes to work and, wearing rubber gloves, scrape it off with a pull scraper. Spread some old newspaper near the work area so you can deposit the stripper and finish on it as you work. Scrape off as much of the finish as you can without letting the corners of the scraper gouge into the wood.

  3. Wipe the wood down with a rag moistened with water after you finish scraping. The water will neutralise the stripper and clean it from corners and crevices you couldn't reach with the scraper. It will raise the grain of the wood somewhat, but you'll be able to knock it down again by sanding. Let the wood dry before proceeding.

  4. Attach a piece of 100-grit sandpaper to an orbital sander and sand the flat surfaces to remove the stain and any finish you couldn't remove with the stripper. Concentrate on the main body of the piece and leave the edges and corners for later.

  5. Change the paper to 120-grit and sand the flat surfaces again, including the edges and corners. Work the edges of the paper into crevices if you can reach them, but don't let the sander linger on any one area for too long or you may wear away the veneer.

  6. Tear a piece of 120-grit sandpaper in half and fold one half into thirds. Sand corners, coves and edges by hand, keeping a close watch on the veneer. Stop sanding if you notice it beginning to chip or wear away. When you finish, sand the entire piece by hand with 150-grit sandpaper. Sand with the grain of the wood.

  7. Apply stain with a rag or paintbrush, spreading it with the grain of the wood. Let it soak in for a few minutes, then wipe off the excess with a clean rag, rubbing along the grain. Let the stain dry overnight.

  8. Spread one coat of clear finish from a spray can or use a paintbrush. If you use lacquer, use sanding sealer for the first coat. Let the finish dry for the amount of time specified on the container, then sand the surface lightly with 220-grit sandpaper and apply a second coat. Repeat if you want a smoother finish.

  9. Tip

    While you can brush most urethane products, you usually have to spray lacquer. However, there are brushable lacquers on the market that produce results comparable to spraying. If the veneer has bubbled, cover the bubbled area with a towel and apply an iron set to low heat. The heat should soften the glue and bind the veneer back to the substrate.


    Stripper is caustic and will mildly burn your skin. If you get any on you, wash it off immediately with water. Wear a respirator and eye protection while stripping, a dust mask while sanding and a respirator while applying finish.

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Things You'll Need

  • Stripper
  • Old paintbrush
  • 2 saw horses
  • Rubber gloves
  • Pull scraper
  • Old newspaper
  • Water
  • Rags
  • Orbital sander
  • 100-, 120- and 150-grit sandpaper
  • Stain
  • Clear finish
  • Paintbrush

About the Author

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.

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