Welcome to This Is How We Do It, a new series wherein we’ll be discussing projects both inside the home and out and explaining, you know, how we do it.
I bought my first house three years ago, and went from renting a small apartment to owning and then furnishing a whole house. One of my favorite things about finally owning a home is that I feel I can buy “adult furniture” and not have to worry about ruining it by moving over and over again. I slowly started picking up vintage pieces from craigslist and refinishing them, including my dining table.
I set up a craigslist search and waded through hundreds of listings until I found this amazing solid cherry table and chair set for a couple hundred dollars — less than an IKEA set. I went to the seller’s house and was super excited about the quality of the wood and craftsmanship. It was solid wood, all joined, no nails and complete with 8 solid chairs. The only problem was the table’s surface. It was covered in rings from glasses and the finish had worn off in spots and the wood underneath had then become badly stained with dirt. No problem; it was solid wood, I could sand it out. So I brought it home.
How to refinish a table
Time: However long your patience lasts for craigslist plus a few hours for sanding and finishing spread over a couple days.
fine steel wool (from a hardware store, not the grocery store)
Murphy’s Oil Soap
an electric orbital sander and sandpaper (80, 150 and 220 grit)
Watco Danish Oil, Natural
some old t-shirts or lint-free rags to use for the finish which you’re ok tossing into the garbage after
Step 1: Acquire a solid wood table
(Already have a solid wood table? Great, skip this step!)
Craigslist has an “email alert” function which you may want to set up for your search if you don’t find anything right away. You’re going to be looking for a table which is solid wood, not veneer. Veneer is a very thin strip of a nice quality wood glued over the top of a cheaper or harder and more stable wood or wood composite. People have been using veneer for centuries, so buying vintage doesn’t necessarily mean you’re buying solid wood. The veneer layer on top is paper thin, so even if you sand very very very lightly by hand you still might sand through or rip & tear the veneer. It’s really not worth the effort, and solid wood is less fragile anyway.
If you can’t tell if a table is veneer or solid wood, look at the edge of the table. Is there an “end grain” at the end of the table, indicating it’s solid wood? Or is there another type of wood edging the table, or a seam at the very edge? That probably means veneer.
If you do have a veneer table, you can usually get away with chemically stripping the finish and refinishing, without sanding. Or even easier, something like Restor-A-Finish will likely be enough to fix most issues (the stuff is magic).
Step 2: Clean it
The next step is to clean the years of dirt and grime and furniture polish off the table. Use your fine steel wool and a bowl of hot water and Murphy’s Oil Soap to get all the crud off. Keep dumping and refilling your bowl of soapy water and wash the table until the water stays clear. Make sure to run it over with a rag with plain water to rinse it too.
Step 3: Sand it
You really should try to get an electric orbital sander if you can, as it’ll save you lots of time. (Do you have a friend you can borrow one from? is there a tool library in your city? do you have a crafty friendly neighbor?). If you can’t at least get a nice sanding block and decent quality sandpaper — it makes the task a lot faster.
Start with a 80ish grit and sand until all the old stain and finish, marks, rings, scratches and whatever else is off the table top. Once you’re happy you can do another pass with a 150 or so, then finally a 220 or higher grit to make it real smooth. Don’t press too hard with the electric sander or you’ll get little circle marks which are hard to get out. Make sure you sand in the direction of the grain, not across the grain. Be careful about the edges of the table; I recommend doing these by hand.
Step 4: Wipe it down
Clean off all the wood dust real well. You can use a wet cloth if you want but you have to wait until the table is totally dry before going on to the next step.
Step 5: Oil it!
I really prefer oiled wood to a varnish or polyurethane — the finished table still feels like wood and not plastic. This is my favorite step because I get so much satisfaction out it. I love to watch the colors of the wood come out when it’s wet with the oil.
Use the lint-free rags or old t-shirts and rub the Danish oil into the wood, and be liberal with it. Allow it to soak into the wood for about 5 or 10 minutes and then wipe off the excess. Allow to completely dry before repeating this process. I did 5 coats on my table.
For one or more of these oil applications you can use fine 400 grit sandpaper or your fine steel wool to wet sand the table. It makes a bit of a slurry of wood dust mixed with oil which fills the tiny pores of the wood, sealing it better from moisture. It’s not a necessary step, but feel free to do it if you want. Wipe off the excess as normal when you’re done sanding.
These oiled rags heat up as they dry, and can be spontaneously combustible. When you are finished, spread them out somewhere to dry that they won’t be in contact with anything flammable and allow them to fully dry before throwing them in the garbage. I lay them in the bathtub or sink and then put them in a sealed container in the garbage when they are dry.
Wait a good 24+ hours before going on to the next step. Make sure the table is totally dry.
Step 6: Wax it
The oil does a really good job at making the wood look beautiful and hardening the surface, but to make it extra waterproof you’ll need to add wax. I really like a product called Feed-N-Wax which is some percentage orange oil and some other percentage beeswax which makes me feel that it’s somewhat safer for me, though that’s probably untrue. At least it smells nice. Apply the Feed-N-Wax liberally and let it soak in, and after 20 mins or so wipe off the excess and you’re good! I take a dry towel and buff the surface to shine it up too, but you can skip that. You should keep doing this every few months or so to refresh the coat. I also did it to my chairs after I cleaned them. It will darken the color of the wood just a bit, so keep that in mind.
Note that you can skip this step and add a layer of water based polyurethane over the top of it all if you don’t want to wax. I don’t find the waxing tedious though, it takes just a few minutes.
I clean my table with plain water or Murphy’s Oil Soap, and don’t use any strong cleaning products on it. I reapply the Feed-N-Wax every few months. I do use trivets on my table for very hot things like soup, and use coasters for drinks, but the finish should hold up if you forget.
Feel free to post questions and photos about your table projects in the comments. I can even help tell you if your table is solid or veneer if you are unsure.