How to Refurbish or Refinish a Table Top

how to refinish a table

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Overview
  • Working Time: 6 hrs
  • Total Time: 72 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $40

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 and finish you're working with, 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 worn considerably over time. The clear varnish top coat had become irreparably cloudy and needed to be stripped completely. As for 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. 

The key to success with this type of project is taking your time to complete each step thoroughly. Using wood stripper is preferable to sanding when you have a lot of finish to remove; it means less labor and, often, less damage to the wood. Give the stripper time to do its job, then scrape and sand carefully to bring the natural wood surface back to life.

Always wear eye protection and gloves and work in a well-ventilated area when using wood stripper/paint remover.

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What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Metal putty knife
  • Tack cloth
  • Paintbrush

Materials

  • Environmentally friendly stain and finish stripper
  • Plastic wrap
  • Mineral spirits
  • Paint and stain remover
  • Steel wool
  • 100-, 150-, and 200-grit sandpaper
  • Wood stain
  • Protective top coat

Instructions

  1. Apply the Stripper

    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 well 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 most recommend a thick layer.

    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. 

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  2. Cover It All With Plastic

    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 otherwise 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. 

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  3. Wait Until the Varnish Separates

    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 scraping off and reapplying of the stripper. 

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  4. Scrap Away the Finish

    Gently scrape away the top finish with metal putty knife. 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. 

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  5. Reapply the Stripper as Needed

    Repeat the entire process of applying stripper, covering with plastic, and scraping the surface, as needed, until the entire top coat has been removed.

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  6. Buff With Steel Wool

    Coat the table with a heavy-duty paint and stain remover to begin removing the wood stain. Let this sit overnight to let the product lift a lot of the color out of the wood.

    Rub the wood with mineral spirits to clean the table and buff away the majority of the stain. The longer the stripper had been sitting, 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. 

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  7. Sand out Remaining Stain

    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 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. 

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  8. Prep for Stain or Sealant

    Clean off any dust using a tack cloth to make sure the surface is ready for staining. Any dust or debris will get stuck in the stain.

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  9. Apply the Desired Finish

    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. 

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  10. Sand Between Coats

    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 ensure 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 protective top coat. We added a few coats of varnish to create a glass-like finish that is water-resistant and suitable for outdoor use. Remember, light coats with a light sanding in between. Let the final coat cure completely before using the table top.

    If the table will live outdoors or be exposed to a lot of direct sunlight, be sure to use a top coat finish that is designed for outdoor exposure and is UV-stable. Many wood finishes are easily damaged by moisture and sunlight.

    how to refinish a table
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