Fixing it up: Refinishing a Table

Preparing for this past holiday season gave cause to some concern in my family.  Recently moved into a new home that is larger than our old one, my wife has the itch to furnish. Add to that the fact that her extended family was coming to visit to celebrate Christmas at our house this desire became much stronger.  There was one issue, however.  The fact that we had just moved into a new house, meant that our discretionary funds are and we are unable to purchase anything new.

The largest of concerns for my wife was our dining room table. Inherited from her grandmother, it hadn’t handled the years of abuse our kids have given.  Pitted, scratched, and discolored the table had truly seen better days.  My wife was really looking into what could be done to replace this thing. Dreams of counter-height, new colors, and more seating area were frequently discussed, but the reality of the budget didn’t leave her room to get what she wanted.

This then left me in the position of being able to work a little with my hands in order to make my wife a whole lot happier.

The Project:

I had, between Thanksgiving and December 20th, to get our table refinished. No, outsourcing this was not an option and I really wanted to get the practice. There were difficulties however. Work was just wrapping up a major project that demanded extra time, and I managed to rip some tendons in my ankle, making my mobility very limited.  Add in my overall lack of skill, and I was a bit concerned with my ability to finish the project in the given timeframe, with results that seemed worthwhile.

Step 1 – Location:

Friend helped me move the table out into our garage. The temperature was not exactly going to work in my favor here, but the amount of dust and fumes I was about to create meant it was the best location I could use, given the fact that I don’t have a real workshop in place (someday :) ).

Step 2 – Stripping:

Stripping, not exactly a common topic on this blog, but in this case it’s correct.  I needed to remove all of the old stain from the table.  One thing I knew form previous experiences is the nicer, ‘greener’ strippers aren’t worth jack on a project like this.  Get the good stuff and save yourself the trouble.  Harsh fumes abounded, but I followed the proper safety instructions, and was able to remove most of the old stain quickly. Thick globs of stain and varnish would drop to the cardboard I had protecting my floor.  The large flat surface was the easiest, of course. But the curvy legs required a lot more scrubbing and work to get all the color out.

Step 3- Sanding:

Once the pitted stain was gone, it was slightly disheartening to see the actual wood damage that existed underneath in some areas.  The table is made from great wood, and I really worried that damage was deep. So I began my sanding carefully. Using higher grains (usually 300 and above) I carefully removed only a fine layer of surface wood in order to help remove the last bits of stain, and take out the smaller nicks and bumps that my kids had caused. There were a couple of water damaged areas that needed a little bit of 120 grit paper to dig out a more, but thankfully the good quality of wood had kept the damage quite superficial.

I spent quite a while sanding, especially dealing with the funny curvy areas. But I’ve been rewarded with a new, beautiful tabletop.  The materials were good enough that it looked like new again, the surface was amazingly smooth, and the wood grain was gorgeous.

Step 4 – Cleaning:

You can never do enough of this here. And as much as I tried, it wasn’t enough.  You see all that sanding created a large amount a bit of dust. Dust is the enemy of the next step.  No matter how tiny the speck of dust, it will show up in your stain. And it will always land right in an area that causes you no end of annoyance.  So take extra time, and get rid of all the dust, hair, particulate matter that you can.

Step 5 – Staining:

This was the part that I made sure to really involve my wife in. Our old home had light colors everywhere, so we had a dark couch and table. Our new house has much darker colors, and so my wife wanted a lighter colored table.  We went to the store together and I let my wife go through the thousands of different tones that seemed to exist. It finally got to the point where It seemed to me that she was comparing 6 different stains of the same color, just with a slightly different name. To her of course there was all the difference in the world between them, especially when I brought up that the color would depend on the wood itself. So nervously we purchased a color, and I went to test it out.

I practiced staining with one of the table leaf’s, so we could see the color on the top, as well as the side.  Thankfully a couple of coats got a tone that my wife was very happy with. Just remember, don’t let the stain dry all the way. You will wipe it off after a bit so your don’t get spots in different colors. instead you wind up with a nice even color across your wood.

Step 6 – Varnish:

We do have some types of furniture that are unvarnished. But by and large you want your wood to have a varnish, especially for a table that kids use.  This was by far the most aggravating step to get correct.  The varnish is that thick, clear layer that goes over the stain to protect everything, but just like with a car, it can magnify any imperfection. As I stated, no matter how I tried, I did wind up with a few specks of dust that would cause little bubbles, or other issues as I tried to create a smooth tabletop.  Smaller pieces of furniture would actually be easier here, since creating a large totally smooth surface really lets errors stand out.

Despite minor bumps, and the need to fix my mistakes a few times, I was able to get in a couple of coats. One of the biggest difficulties was the cold snap that caused the garage temperature to drop, keeping the varnish from drying. I had to run a heater in there to help out. This required extra caution of course because I had a heater (electric, no flame) near my varnish fumes.


As the deadline neared, I was getting very concerned. Time was almost out, and I was fighting the temperature to get on the varnish. But the results were looking good.  I gave it a final coat the day before my deadline, and when it was mostly dry we moved it into the house so it could finish drying in better temperature. On the day everybody arrived it was just sitting for a final 24 hours before we put anything heavy on it. (It was technically dry, but it is suggested to let it sit to finish curing underneath the surface).

In all, we are happy. I had fun getting better at finishing with wood, and working with my computer-programming-soft hands, and my wife was elated at getting a ‘new’ table for Christmas in a color that now accented our new house. We also saved the obviously large amount of money in not buying a new dining set. This win, however, is probably fleeting as my wife begins eyeing new chairs.

So remember folks. That old beat up table is likely still a beautiful table underneath, just waiting for a little bit of work to free it from the scars of family dinner time. Yes, it can take a little time, and work, but the results are amazing and the pride in your own labor is something that can’t be gained in any way other than hard work.

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