Refinish Your Table – If you Dare

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It all started with good intentions. A little old lady and a dining room table; four chairs. She even bought the materials. It began as a nifty weekend project that I thought I could finish in no time at all, take a few photos of and make a quick buck on. What unfolded was a month long fiasco that ate away my time, fingers and patience. Refinishing furniture is not what it’s cracked up to be and if you’re looking for a quick fix on some of your old furnishings, then you might be better off buying new or hiring a professional refinisher. Even small projects can take lots of time and effort to refinish. Don’t find out the hard way like I did when I bit off more than I could chew with this large dining room table and chair refinishing project. If you’re considering refinishing ANYTHING, consider this how-to project a cautionary tale you have to read.

Take your Time

I’m probably one of the most impatient woodworkers there is. I really like to move along with a project from start to finish with very little static time in between steps. So, when it came to removing the old finish, staining the project and then finishing it all over again, the literal “watching the paint dry” scenario drove me up the wall.

Materials for removing the finish
Materials for removing the finish

It takes lots of time between coats for materials to dry, at least four hours in most cases. That can really add up to lots of down time so it’s a good idea to split the project up into sections of finish. For instance, remove the old finish on the chairs while you’re waiting for the stain to dry on the table top. This can help you to economize the project’s timeframe without having lots of down time between steps.

But don’t get overzealous in your project scheduling. Relax and take a look before you move on to the next step. I made the mistake of not taking my time and forgot to finish sanding one part of a chair seat with 220 grit sandpaper before I stained it. It left some nasty brown lines that I had to sand out and re-stain. Lesson Learned: Take your time and double check your work before moving to the next step.

Use the Right Finish Removal Steps

Pouring on the goo
Pouring on the goo

When I took on this project, I thought the whole table was solid wood. A simple sanding and it was finished; right? Oh, how could I be so naïve? After I got the table back in the workshop, I found out that the table top was super-thin veneer and the base and chairs were made from several different species of wood. Simple sanding with paper changed to a liquid chemical stripper, abrasive sponges and orange rubber gloves to protect from the caustic chemicals.

The veneer was much too thin to sand off the old finish so I used a low-VOC paint stripper that rinses off with water and was fairly painless to use. But I could see a problem with someone using too much water to remove the finish and causing the ultra-thin veneer to bubble and buckle. Once it dried, I used a 220 grit paper to fine finish the surface. If you’re looking for a good stripper (we’re talking paints, right), our editor Marc is a fan of Soy Gel Stripper.

The section on the right was stripped three times, the left section was stripped two times and the center was done just once.
The section on the right was stripped three times, the left section was stripped two times and the center was done just once.

I used a series of 80-160-220 grit sanding paper to finish the sides of the table, the base and the chairs. For the most part, I used a small handheld random orbit sander that made quick work of the task – at least on the flatter spots. The flat spots consisted of about 80 percent of the material, the other 20 percent needed to be painfully done by hand.

Did I say hand? I meant back breaking labor that took entire days of sanding with fingers and thumbs. Getting into the tiny cracks and crevices was pretty tough and it really took a toll on my fingers. I looked at the store for some sort of a tool to get the finish out of the cracks, but everything I seemed to find didn’t work and ended up going back to the store. The best tool I found to use for sanding in the cracks was a piece of quarter round wrapped with some adhesive-backed sandpaper. Sometimes low tech is high tech. Lesson Learned: Use the right tools for the job for the best finish in the end.

Finishing Doesn’t Mean Finished

One chair sanded, one chair unsanded
One chair sanded, one chair unsanded

Once I spent what seemed like an eternity to get the old finish off, now I had to put it back on. The sweet little old lady who owns the table wanted it to be a little bit redder than the original stain, so I had to stain the table a little more than I would have liked.

If you’ve ever stained before, you know how deceiving the smell can be. At first, it doesn’t seem so bad – at least it’s tolerable. But before you know it, if you’re not in a well-ventilated space, your heads going to be swimming in a haze of fumes and the smell is making you sick to your stomach. Even with a respirator, you can still taste that dirty stain flavor on your tongue for days with some of the more “potent” products out there. Consider a low-fume, eco-friendly stain to minimize that effect.

After a few hours, I had a set of chairs and tables that slightly matched. The different species of wood made the chair seem multi-colored. I ended up having to stain some of the wood darker in some locations while leaving other areas untouched to get all of the wood to be the same color.

Finished Table (1000x605)
Finished and ready to go

The next day after the smell diffused somewhat from the workshop, and I was ready to finish the refinishing. A quick coat of polyurethane with a really soft brush designed for stains and poly’s and the table really came to life. I used a water cleanup poly and cleaned the brush between coats. Each coat took about four hours to dry, but in the humid south, I had to wait 6 hours.

After each coat dried, I hit it lightly with 00 steel wool to knock down any imperfections and wiped it off with a soft cloth. Some folks prefer to avoid steel wool as it can leave behind little pieces of metal that can cause surface imperfections. 260+ grit sandpaper works too, but it’s harder to use with wood contours. It took me four coats to get the final finish I wanted and about a week of cure time before it was ready for everyday use.

Lesson Learned: Avoid little old ladies and their kitchen tables.

If you dare to take on your own refinishing project, at least now you’ll be diving into it with a better expectation of what to expect. And, if you take on a project like this as a pro. . . bid hourly! Let us know how your projects go (or maybe don’t go) in the comments below!

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About Eric

Since Eric built his first skateboard ramp in his parents driveway; he’s breathed, slept and eaten DIY construction. As a second generation master carpenter who runs two Florida-based construction firms, Eric’s had the chance to work on everything from Mcmansions to your local mall to the cat lady’s bathroom. So when it comes to dealing with construction s@#t; he’s the man—literally. There isn’t a tool or construction material that Eric hasn’t used and abused, and if there is; it’s rocking in a dark corner nervously waiting for him to show up for work.

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