Refinishing a table can be a time-consuming process; luckily, you have several choices on how to proceed. Depending on the table top and finish you're working with, you could get away with lightly sanding or repainting it to give it a new look. To refinish a table top considerably worn by time, you likely need to strip the clear varnish top coat since varnish tends to get yellowed or irreparably cloudy. Working with varnish remover usually adds at least three more days to the project.
You can also transform a table top from a color stain that you no longer like or no longer works for your home. For example, to change the color of this table top (pictured) from a reddish-orange hue to a natural teak color, you will need to strip the varnish and stain and refinish it over a few days. Your methods for removing varnish and stain can vary.
Wood Stripping vs. Sanding
Wood stripping is a chemical process and is preferable to sanding when you have a lot of finish to remove; it means less labor and, often, less damage to the wood. Sanding is a physical process—using no chemicals—but leaves behind a dust particulate matter that suspends in the air and makes a mess.
Here are the various steps to strip, sand, remove color, and refinish a table. For the best results, take your time to complete each step thoroughly.
Equipment / Tools
- Metal putty knife
- Tack cloth
- 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
Apply the Stripper
Sanding is typically used for varnish and stain removal methods. In this example, sanding wasn't used because the varnish was thick, and sanding would have removed too much wood and made the table top look uneven or imperfect. Sanding also creates a ton of dust and can make a mess.
If you have the time to let it sit, an environmentally-friendly stripper works well on stubborn varnish surfaces without damaging the wood.
Apply 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 and avoid inhaling the fumes. Always wear a face mask, eye protection, and gloves when using a wood stripper or paint/stain remover.
Cover It 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.
Let the first coat sit under the plastic wrap for about 36 hours until the varnish separates from the wood.
Wait Until the Varnish Separates
Once the varnish starts separating, it bunches together, looking worm-like or streaky. Wait until most of the table looks like this to save yourself an unnecessary extra step of scraping off and reapplying the stripper.
Scrap Away the Finish
Gently scrape away the top finish with a metal putty knife. If you're using an environmentally friendly stripper, you might still have patches left on the top coat. Also, the first coat usually does not remove or lift any of the stain out of the wood.
Reapply the Stripper as Needed
Repeat the entire process of applying stripper, covering with plastic, and scraping the surface, as needed, until the whole top coat has been removed.
Buff With Steel Wool
Coat the table with a heavy-duty paint and stain remover to remove 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 it will lift the stain.
In this example, steel wool was used. It is gentler than sandpaper but abrasive enough to scrub away at a stubborn stain color well embedded into the wood.
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 old stain, and prep the wood for restaining.
Start with 100-grit sandpaper, then switch to 150-grit and finally 220-grit. In this example, it was hand-sanded. You can use an orbital sander, but be gentle, so you do not dent, nick, or misshape the wood.
Prep for Stain, Sealant, or Paint
Clean off any dust using a tack cloth to ensure the surface is ready for staining. Any dust or debris will get stuck in the stain.
Apply the Desired Finish
Depending on the finish you select, follow the instructions on the can for your desired finish—be it stain, paint, or varnish. You can skip stain altogether and go right to a protective top coat. In this example, a thin coat of a natural teak stain was used.
Sand Between Coats of Stain Then Apply Top Coat
If staining, be sure to let the stain dry completely. In this example, the stain sat for 24 hours and then was lightly sanded with 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. The table in the example got a few coats of varnish to create a water-resistant glass-like finish suitable for outdoor use. Remember, lightly coat the table and give it a light sanding in between coats. Let the final coat cure entirely before using the table top.