1. Decide if it is a good piece to refinish. Make sure the piece of furniture you want to work on is structurally sound and doesn't have too many coats of paint on it. If you believe the piece to be an antique, do not refinish it yourself. Take it to a professional that works on antiques because sometimes refinishing these pieces will devalue them. Good older wood that is not in too bad of shape is what you want.
2. Strip off the old finish. Use a gel or thick stripper because it's easier to handle, especially if you are a beginner. Get the kind that says it cleans up with water, or no clean up. Make sure your work area is well ventilated and you cover the floor under and around your project. Apply with a brush and work in the direction of the grain. Do it in sections if it is a large piece.
3. Sand your wood. Sand off any areas that didn't strip completely off with 120 grit sandpaper. Then sand the entire piece with 220 grit sandpaper. Make sure you sand with the grain of the wood. Finish off with a finishing sander, staying with the grain until you get a nice smooth surface. Go over it with tack cloth to remove any leftover dust from the sanding. Make sure you get it all or it can ruin your new finish.
4. Apply sanding sealer. If you are leaving the wood natural, you will want to right to Step 6. If you are going to stain, you should first apply a coat of sanding sealer. Apply a coat, let it soak in for a few minutes and then take one of your rags. Wipe it off. This will keep your stain more even as it soaks into the wood. Sand with your 120 grit paper and clean off the dust.
5. Stain your project. There are a few types of stain, but the easiest to use and to clean up is a water-based stain. Most are applied with a natural end paint brush and wiped off with a soft clean rag. Leaving the stain sit a little longer or doing more coats will make you color darker. Try it on an underside to see the shade you like. Follow the manufacturers time on drying before applying the polyurethane.
6. Coat with Polyurethane. Apply the polyurethane with a brush. Stay with the grain and do longer strokes. Once it is covered, let it dry and sand with the 220 grit paper. Clean off the dust well and apply again. You can do as many coats as you want to get your desired finish. It's much better to do a few thin coats than one thick one. You'll have a much smoother, clearer finish.