Despite buying a new dining room table from a local, reputable show room, and being very careful with it, I found myself refinishing our table after only three years. I recently re-finished the surface, and was fairly happy with the results.
I took a few photos of the table before I started the process. Originally, a shellac finish had been applied, which provides both the color and a glossy, hard finish. Apparently this is very sensitive to heat, as any place that serving dishes or our plates (yes, our dinner plates that we’re eating off of) would sit, we had chipping, bubbling, discoloration, or some combination of the three.
With some help, I got the table out into the garage and began the process. It had been recommended to me to only strip the top, and leave the sides alone because of the complex curves from the trim-work. I opted to go ahead and strip these for two reasons: 1) I didn’t feel that I would have enough control over the stripper goo to be able to stop it EXACTLY at the edge and 2) I was concerned about being able to match the top color to the side color. I did mask off the table legs and left them alone, as they were in mostly good shape.
The first step is getting all of the old finish off. To do that, I used a citrus-based chemical stripper. As I later confirmed, the veneer is too thin – sand paper is NOT an option. After masking off the base/legs of the table, I applied the stripper in a fairly thin coat using a cheap paint brush. The goo needs to sit a while (about 25 minutes) to do its thing.
I went with the citrus-based chemicals as they are supposedly more environmentally friendly, and less fumes to contend with. I’m not sure about the first one, but I can say that the small wasn’t too bad, especially with the garage door cracked open about a foot. Nevertheless, it is still a potent chemical and it ate through my vinyl gloves in a matter of minutes. I wound up with quite a bit of the stuff on my fingers, and it didn’t leave any permanent affects that I’ve found so far, but my thumb was kind of dried up and tingly for several days.
After a short break, I came back to the table and using a plastic flat-edge scraper, I began pulling up large globs of finish. I found that the best thing was to have a paper-towel in hand to continually clean your scraper to keep the blobs from falling on the floor (which make a big mess). I went through an entire roll of towels stripping the finish off our table.
For me, it took two or three passes with the stripper before I had it down to bare wood. Notice that the coloring is actually in the shellac finish, and did NOT stay in the wood.
Once the original finish is off, it is very important to get all of the stripper residue off of the table before you begin applying the new finish. To do this, you will need a bottle of mineral spirits. Here you can see me pouring the spirits (the milky-white stuff) onto the table, and I used a scouring pad to work it in.
That leaves the table with a residue on it, which I wiped off with a paper towel, and then repeated the process with more spirits. I continued this process until I felt that I had a clean table top.
The mineral spirits dry quickly after being wiped off. I allowed about an hour before continuing with staining.
Here you can see the nice, clean table top after all of the finish was stripped away. I was very fortunate that we had been able to keep any moisture or oils from seeping down through the cracks and chips in the original shellac finish, thereby discoloring the wood. The variations that you see in the oak top was just normal variations in wood colors.
At this point you will need to determine what color of stain to apply. Since I was not re-staining the legs or the chairs, it was very critical that I get a close match. I keep about a dozen samples of various colors on hand, so I took a scrap piece of oak that had similar color and markings, and rubbed in a small patch from each of my options to compare against the existing furniture.
It is important to check your match in various lighting, as fluorescent and incandescent can cause coloring to look much different than when in direct sunlight.
This was the point at which it really set in for me as to the quality of the product and misconceptions that we were left with from the sales-lady. As you can see, the table top has an oak grain to it, and it appears to be several pieces jointed together. The photo above was taken where the table splits for the leaf, and you can see from the side that the top is just laminated onto some sort of pressboard.
This caused me to take note of a few things. First, that laminate is WAY too thin to be able to do any sanding on it, as the thickness in unperceivable when viewed from the side. Secondly, the grain that used to run horizontally along the first lip at the top of the table was actually painted on.
I was really afraid that this second revelation would be the end of this project, but I decided to see how the round-over would take stain. As it turns out, it stained very darkly, to the point that you really can’t tell what it is, and it just looks like another type of wood.
So without doing any sanding (just cleaning with the scouring pad), I moved on to stain.
To apply the stain, I prefer to use a couple of sheets of the blue shop-towels that can be found in the automotive section of your favorite department store. Wearing gloves, I dip the towel into the can of stain and begin rubbing into the clean wood. Honestly, it’s fairly difficult to mess this step up too bad. I do try to keep the towel moving so that I don’t get blotches where the stain sat too long.
Generally speaking, one coat of stain will be sufficient. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you can get a darker stain by applying a second or third coat. My experience has been that 95% of the stain is applied on the first coat, and I use subsequent coats mainly to touch up any spots where I didn’t apply it evenly enough.
Once the table is stained to your liking, it is important to let this sit for a good 24 hours to let it dry. It doesn’t hurt to run a clean towel over the tacky finish after a few hours to pull up any excessive stain to help the drying process.
Take a good, hard look at the surface, checking for any imperfections. The stain should be free of streaks and the top clean. Be sure that there is no dust or debris on the table. While the fumes can be a bit potent, I prefer to apply the final finish with the door closed, to prevent wind from stirring up dirt.
Based on recommendations from others, I decided to use Deft as the final finish. Whenever I apply polyurethane or in this case Deft, I like to use an appropriately sized foam brush. I find that the foam tends to leave fewer streaks, and you won’t have the problem of bristles falling off into the finish.
Starting with a good clean table, I applied a healthy amount of Deft to the brush and starting at one side of the table, make long smooth strokes across the top going with the grain. Keeping the motions smooth and consistent is the primary key to having a good looking finish. This is also a time when being tall and having long arms is almost a must. If you stop the brush at any point, you will be able to see it in the final product. This is especially true as the Deft begins to cure.
One nice thing that I found about the Deft is that it cures very quickly. The temperatures in the garage were running in the mid-sixties throughout this project, and I found that the Deft had cured totally after about four hours.
Once the first coat is cured, it’s time to go over the finish with a scouring pad. This is about your only opportunity to remove any imperfections or streaks in the finish, although it’s not perfect, and it’s better to get a good coat put on the first time.
Take a paper towel and wipe off the table top, again looking for any imperfections. Apply the second coat of Deft just like the first, again being careful not to leave streaks.
Allow the second coat to cure, repeat the scouring pad routine, and then apply the third coat. After three coats, I normally consider this to be sufficient as long as you feel that they were all good, thick coats.
And that’s all there is to it. I estimate that I put in about 20 hours of labor over the course of a long weekend to refinish the table. Considering the labor, and the cost of various chemicals and supplies, the estimate that was given of $500-$700 seems reasonable for someone to do the project for me. Unfortunately for me, my table only cost about $800 new, and so I felt obligated to eat the cost of labor by doing it myself. Materials themselves cost me about $100.
We now have a beautiful dining room table again that actually is better than new.
Here’s a few of the lessons I learned while completing this project.
- Chemical Strippers ONLY! Regardless of what the salesperson may have told you about being “real” wood, it is only veneer, and sand paper would go straight through it.
- Be prepared to find anything. Again, even though our table supposedly did not have any painted-on finishes, all of the wood grain from the edge of the table somehow disappeared when I stripped it. I was able to recover, but be sure to go into this process with the attitude that you MAY have a permanent table cloth covering your new “finish”.
- It’s not hard work, but it does take time.