Refinishing a pew will take a few days. If desired, you can change the stain color of the pew after it is stripped and sanded. However, it is more common and easier to simply strip the pew of the old finish, keeping the previous stain color and refinishing with several new coats. Refinishing is usually more economical than purchasing a new pew, especially if there is a volunteer for the project.
Decide if the pew will be able to withstand the refinishing process. Refinish the pew if it is solid wood. If the pew has a veneer surface it will be best to consult a professional. Pews in a historic church that have unique architectural elements and design are commonly refinished to preserve the character. Refinishing will remove the patina of old antique furniture, so if the pews are antique or historical it will be wise to consult a professional who works in antique restoration before attempting to strip or refinish.
Clean the pew before starting the sanding or stripping process to remove any unnecessary debris or markings that could bleed and stain the raw wood that will be exposed. Check the underside of the pew for gum and candy. Use an ice cube to freeze the gum or candy and then pry the pieces off gently with a scraper. Repeat the freezing and careful scraping until all the gum or candy is removed.
Test the finish of the pew by putting a small spot of denatured alcohol in an inconspicuous area, such as the underside of the bench or the inside of a leg. If the finish softens but does not come off, it is water based polyurethane. If the finish does not respond, it could be oil-based polyurethane, varnish, or lacquer. If the finish comes off it is shellac. Take this information to your local home improvement center and select the appropriate stripper or remover to remove the finish from the pew.
Apply the stripper or paint remover in sections in a well ventilated area following the directions, paying careful attention to the recommended application method and time allowed before removal or scraping. If the pew can be brought outside for stripping, this will provide the best ventilation and the easiest clean up. However, if the pew must be refinished in the church fixed to the floor then open the windows to provide as much cross ventilation as possible and cover the floor with a drop cloth or newspaper taped down to catch up drips or spills. It may be necessary to use one type of stripper on the horizontal surfaces and a stripper that is a gel or paste for vertical surfaces or the underside of the pew if this area will also be refinished.
Clean the stripped pew as recommended by your selected chemical products. Some products will leave a residue that rinses with water while others will need a chemical or product to assist with the rinsing. Follow the specific directions for each product. Allow the pew to dry completely. All stripping and removal products are not alike; it may be necessary to test several products in an inconspicuous spot and choose the one that works the best for refinishing the pew.
If staining is desired, it may be necessary to strip the pew again to remove previous stain color. The pew will need to be stripped again if the new stain is a lighter shade than the former shade.
Sand the pew using sanding paper in your hand, on a block, or on a machine. There are various sanding machines that are available for purchase or for rent. If you are not used to using a belt sander, which removes a layer of wood and can leave deep grooves or chinks if you are not experienced, hire a professional restoration specialist to sand. Curves and any fine details or carvings will need to be completed carefully with sandpaper wrapping on your finger tip or on a tool with a small end. Start with medium or medium-fine grit, then finish with fine grit. Coarse grit can leave lines and scratches.
Apply the stain to the pew if desired. Follow the stain directions for using the appropriate application tools and materials for wiping the stain and cleaning up. Pay careful attention to the amount of time that needs to be allowed between coats of stain and before sealing with a finish as recommended on the product.
If you are trying to match the color of the other pews when refinishing just one, it may be necessary to mix two colors of stain to get the desired color. Test this on an inconspicuous area and apply the finish to the spot to see if you get a perfect match. There are two ways to mix colors. Either mix the colors together, in a combination like 50/50 or 25/75 in a separate container or apply one stain and then the other stain on top. These will result in different variations.
Apply 2 to 5 coats of polyurethane sealer to the pew, more coats for higher traffic or rougher use (like children, the back pew, or the arm rests on the sides). Finishes usually come in semi or high gloss. Let the finish dry in between coats and sand with fine sandpaper if recommended in between coats so that the sealer adheres appropriately. Oil based finishes tend to be more yellow to begin with and yellow more with age than water based sealers. There are newer water based finishes that are very close to being perfectly clear that work well over stains such as white oak, pickle, and natural.