o you have a beautiful, expensive dining room table that fits perfectly in the space, but it’s beginning to look a bit dingy and out of style. What do you do? 

If you’re looking for an easy way to empty your wallet, you could always buy a new table. But if you’re looking to save a lot of money or interested in a fun weekend DIY project, you should try refinishing your table instead.

Refinishing a table is incredibly easy, for the most part. If your table has lots of scrollwork or intricate carvings, you might run into a tad more difficulty, but refinishing a table is essentially a project anyone can accomplish in a day.

We’ll walk you through all the tools you’ll need and then guide you through the five simple steps to making your old table look like new.

The Supplies You Need to Refinish a Table Like a Pro

Your DIY Shopping List--and Why You’ll Need Every Item On It

Rubber gloves on the table
A good, sturdy pair of gloves will prevent your hands from getting covered in wood stain or burned by chemical paint strippers.

Rubber gloves: Safety is key! Thick rubber gloves are most important for those going the paint stripper route, but everyone should have a pair on hand. 

Drop cloth: Put this under your work area to avoid dirtying your floor with dust, oil, and finish. 

Wood stain: There are a variety of stains to consider, which we’ll discuss below. Make sure to do your research if you’ve decided to use wood stain. 

Finish: Polyurethane finish is the most popular and easiest to apply and dry. Look for a water-based finish if interested in an environmentally friendly option.

Sandpaper: Be prepared with at least three levels of sandpaper--coarse, medium, and fine. 100-grit, 150-grit, and 200-grit should do just fine (hint: the higher the number, the finer the grit). You’ll want plenty of sandpaper for this project ,especially if you’re a novice sander.

Scraper: For removing paint or finish. You’ll want a plastic scraper, since metal ones can scratch the wood you’re working on.

Paint brush: For applying paint stripper, polish, oil, or veneer. 

Grain filler: For those refinishing tables made from woods with large grains--like oak or mahogany. Without grain filler, you won’t be able to achieve an even finish.

Paint stripper: Paint stripper is necessary only for those deciding to forgo hand-sanding. Use strippers requiring no cleanup. They come in a variety of formulas--some are liquids, while others are gels or pastes. Liquid strippers will work fine on flat surfaces, but for vertical areas like the legs you’ll need a thicker formula that will stick to the surface.

The Simple Steps it Takes to Refurnish a Table

Get the Table of Your Dreams in 5 Steps

A woman holding a bottle and cloth
Prep your surface with a thorough wipe down to avoid leaving behind any dust.

Step 1: Prep the surface

Make sure you clean all the dust and grime from the table. This can be accomplished using your normal all-purpose cleaners or a wet rag and some soap. The purpose of this step is to ensure that you remove all the particles and accumulated dirt from the table in order to avoid sanding this into the surface.

Take this step to get accustomed with the material you’re working with. As you clean, take careful note of the grain of the wood. Later on, you’ll want to sand in this direction, moving with the grain of the wood for a smooth finish.

Keep an eye out for incredibly detailed parts of the table--these may become problem areas later on as you try to remove the paint or finish from these sections.

Hopefully this is a no-brainer, but if you get to cleaning and realize that the table you’re working with is laminate (meaning there’s no grain and the table feels perfectly smooth), that’s plastic--stop right here and don’t even try refinishing it.

A roll of sandpaper
Sandpaper comes in a range of grits--for this project you’ll want both coarse grit (around 120-grit) and fine grit (200- to 360-grit).

Step 2: Remove old paint and varnish

There are two ways to complete this step: sand paper or paint stripper. Both have their pros and cons: hand sanding can be tedious, while paint stripper requires lots of ventilation. At the end of the day, the choice is yours.

If sanding, complete the initial sanding using the coarsest grain sandpaper (100-grit) and then pass over the surface again using 150-grit and finally 200-grit. If you decide to use a belt sander to speed up the process, still complete the initial sanding by hand--and be careful not to gouge the wood. 

Once everything is sanded, you’ll want to clean the table just as carefully as you did in the first step. You don’t want clumps of sawdust clogging up your varnish.

If you decide to go the paint stripper route, be sure to follow the proper precautions. You’ll need to be in an area with plenty of ventilation, and you’ll need a pair of thick rubber gloves and some goggles to protect your eyes from the powerful chemicals. 

Apply the paint stripper using a brush, covering the table in an even coat. Follow the instructions on the back to know how long you should wait after application (generally 15-20 minutes) before moving on. 

After the paint stripper has done its job, you’ll want to go in with your scraper or putty knife and remove the paint, which will be loosened from the surface of the table. This will be quite messy--have trash bags on hand.

If you’re still noticing remnants of finish or are removing multiple layers, you’ll be repeating this process again. Once you have all of the paint removed, use a fine grade sandpaper to even out any remaining irregularities. 

Helpful hint: if you’re looking to restore old furniture, these methods of paint removal can also diminish the patina found in old wood. Instead of removing the old finish, look for products that will restore your table to its old shine. 

A razor is used to scrape off excess grain filler
Scrape off the remaining grain filler using a plastic scraper if you’re a novice. Image courtesy of Wilson Burningham

Step 3: Fill the grain

To achieve the smoothest possible finish, woods with an open grain structure will need to be filled. This step is for those looking for a smooth, shiny finish. If visible texture doesn’t bother you, you can skip this step.

When choosing between oil-based and waterborne fillers, it’s important to recognize that waterborne fillers are much newer than oil-based and well liked primarily because they’re so easy to clean and dry. Oil-based fillers, while they take more time and care, they remain stable and are easier to color-match.

Choosing the right color grain filler is an in-depth process. Depending on your desired look, you may want to go with a clear filler or may find it rewarding to get the filler color to match your wood color. The easiest thing to do is purchase a quart or two of CrystaLac Clear Waterborne Grain Filler--it’ll dry clear and save a lot of extra color-matching steps. 

Once you’ve chosen your filler, you’ll want to work it into the grain using a stiff brush or rag and let it dry. Then, use your plastic scraper to remove the excess filler and then lightly sand the surface to smooth it. 

A cup of coffee on a rustic table seen from above
For a more rustic look, a splotchy stain isn’t a bad idea--it can give your table an aged look. 

Step 4: Stain or oil

Wood stain will color the wood of your table to help achieve a desired effect. There are three primary types of stain: oil-based, water-based, and gel. 

Oil-based won’t affect the grain, which may lead to a smoother finish. Water-based is easier for novices to apply evenly and is more environmentally friendly--good for those with young children who might be chewing on their newly refinished tables. Gel is a thicker stain and enables you to control the final product easier.

Oil-based stain is more durable, but it should be noted that it has a powerful odor and needs to be cleaned using mineral water solutions. If using this type of stain, remain in a highly ventilated area. 

Once you’ve chosen your stain, this is where you want to make extra certain you have a drop cloth covering anything you don’t want permanently discolored. You should also consider changing into clothes you don’t mind never wearing out again.

Apply the stain as evenly as possible--wipe off any excess immediately to avoid having it sink into the receptive grain. Follow the grain of the wood when you stain. 

If you want a darker color, allow the stain to sink in for longer or apply multiple coats. If you’re applying multiple coats, make sure each has dried completely and then lightly sand with 360-grit sandpaper between applications to maintain a smooth surface.

If you prefer a more natural look and feel, consider using furniture oil instead of stain. Oil will protect the wood, is easy to reapply in the future, and will bring out rich colors without an added shine. 

Water falls from a neon yellow cup
You don’t want your table to get water damaged--using a durable seal will help prevent all your hard work being ruined by a spill.

Step 5: Seal

If you’ve chosen to use furniture oil, you’re finished! Congratulations on refinishing your table. If you used stain, however, you still have one more step to complete.

A protective clear coat finish will protect the wood of the table, especially dining room tables receiving a lot of wear and tear. 

Polyurethane and wax are the most popular finishes. Wax will bring out a warmth to the wood and protect it from water damage--it’s also easy to reapply on a regular basis.

Polyurethane or polycrylic finishes are durable and can be purchased in a range of sheens depending on the amount of shine you want. Water-based polyurethane is more environmentally friendly than other finishes--the milky white color will dry to a clear finish.

If using polyurethane, paint on in long strokes going with the grain of the wood. Make sure that your coats remain thin as thick coats may ruin your finish by causing wrinkles or sagging. Polyurethane requires at least two coats depending on the brand, but four is recommended for dining tables. 

You’re Done! Now What?

What to Do Now That You Know How to Refinish Furniture

A salad on a dark stained table
Say good-bye to tablecloths! Make sure everyone can see your hard work. 

Once you’ve finished all your coats and let them dry, your table is sealed and ready for use! Make sure to brag at every dinner party about how you refinished your own table--consider taking photos throughout the process and compiling an album to highlight this momentous achievement.

Don’t stop at your table, either. The steps above can be used to refinish most types of wood furniture--with the exception of carved, detailed wood.

Add your newly finished table back into your dining room and enjoy the fresh look it creates. There are plenty of new interior decorating opportunities to test out!

Aug 3, 2020

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