How to Refurbish or Refinish a Table Top

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Stripping and Refinishing a Table

how to refinish a table
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Refinishing a table can be a time-consuming process, and there a several ways to go about it. Depending on the type of table top, you could get away with lightly sanding or repainting the table to give it a new look. 

We wanted to refinish a table top that had been compromised with age. The varnish top had become irreparably cloudy, so the top coat needed to be stripped completely. As far as the stain, it was too red and didn't match other wood in the home.

This table was meant for outdoor use on a boat, so we first wanted to remove the damage, but we also wanted to transition the color from reddish orange to a natural teak color so that it looked more nautical. We successfully stripped the varnish and stain and refinished the table top over a few days. 

Find out what methods we used and why, and follow along with us as we go through the steps of refinishing a wood table. 

Gather Supplies

how to strip and refinish a table top
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  • Stripper that works on varnish and stain
  • Mineral spirits
  • Stain and a top coat of choice
  • Paintbrush
  • Plastic wrap
  • Steel wool
  • Metal putty knife
  • Sandpaper
  • Gloves, eyewear, apron, and respirator

Apply Stripper

stripping varnish from wood
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A typical varnish and stain removal method is sanding. However, we didn't want to sand the varnish off of this table because it was thick and doing so could remove too much wood and make the table top look uneven or imperfect. Sanding also creates a ton of dust and is a lot of work. 

We have found that an environmentally-friendly stripper works excellent on stubborn varnish surfaces without damaging the wood if you have the time to let it sit. 

First, we layered on a very thick layer of a stripper. Follow the manufacturer's directions, but generally, they suggest that a thick layer is best. 

Wrap in Plastic

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Since this stripper takes a long time to work, the best way to ensure it has time to do its job is to wrap the table top in plastic wrap. This wrapping keeps the stripper wet enough long enough to lift thick layers of varnish that are tricky to remove. 

We let the first coat sit around 36 hours under the plastic wrap until the varnish started to separate from the wood. 

Wait Until the Varnish Separates

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If the wood table top has a varnish coating, eventually you will see the finish start to bunch together and look like worms. Wait until the majority of the table looks like this to save yourself unnecessary scrapping and recoating. 

Scrap Away the Finish

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Gently scrape away the top finish. If you're using an environmentally friendly stripper, you might still have patches left of the top coat. Also, the first coat usually does not remove or lift any of the stain out of the wood. 

Repeat Stripper as Necessary

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Recoat the table top using the above steps until the entire top coat has been removed. This method is a relatively gentle way to remove varnish with minimal odor. However, you should still do this project in a well-ventilated area like an open garage. 

Buff With Steel Wool

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Once the varnish is removed, coat the table again with a heavier duty paint and stain remover. Let this sit overnight, which will help lift a lot of the color out of the wood.

After that, take some steel wool and buff in mineral spirits to clean the table and buff away the majority of the stain. The longer the stripper sits, the more the stain will be lifted. 

We opted to use steel wool here because it is gentler than sandpaper but abrasive enough to scrub away at a stubborn stain color that is well embedded into the wood. 

Sand out Remaining Stain

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Once you remove the majority of the stain, move to sandpaper. The sandpaper will smooth the finish, remove more of the red stain, and prep the wood for restaining.

Start with a 100 grit sandpaper, then switch to 150 grit and finally sand with 220 grit. We opted to hand sand because we don't have a lot of experience with orbital sanders and didn't want to dent, nick, or misshape the wood. 

Prep for Stain or Sealant

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After the sanding process is complete, clean off any dust using a tack cloth to make sure the surface was ready for staining. Any dust or debris will get stuck in the stain.

Apply Desired Finish

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We recommend following the instructions on the can for your desired finish. You might skip stain altogether and go right to a protective top coat. In this case, we applied a thin coat of a natural teak stain. 

Sand In Between Coats

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Be sure to let the stain dry completely. We let our stain sit for 24 hours and then lightly sanded with a 220 grit sandpaper to maintain a smooth surface. Don't skip this step if you want your table to look as smooth as possible. 

Once staining is complete, apply a top coat of choice. We added a few coats of varnish to create a protective glass-like finish that is water resistant and suitable for outdoor use. Remember, light coats with a light sanding in between. 

Enjoy Your Refinished Table Top

how to refinish a table
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We hope this tutorial helped you refinish a table top! Take your time and don't try to rush this project. In the end, you will have a refinished table that makes you proud.