How to Repaint and Refinish a Table Top

Upcycle older tables with paint and refinishing for a fresh start

how to refinish a table

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Project Overview
  • Working Time: 5 - 10 hrs
  • Total Time: 4 days - 1 wk, 1 day
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $40

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, that 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.

how to strip and refinish a table top
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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

    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.

    Warning

    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.

    stripping varnish from wood
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  2. 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. 

    how to remove varnish from wood
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  3. 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. 

    refurbish a table
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  4. Scrape 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. 

    refinish table
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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 whole top coat has been removed.

    how to remove varnish
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  6. 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 more gentle than sandpaper but abrasive enough to scrub away at a stubborn stain color well embedded into the wood. 

    how to remove stain
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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 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 that you do not dent, nick, or misshape the wood. 

    how to refinish tabletop
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  8. 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.

    how to restain a table
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  9. 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. 

    Tip

    If painting the table, apply the recommended number of coats the manufacturer suggests and give the paint time to cure without cheating on time. Use paint formulated for furniture. The best options are latex, acrylic, chalk, or milk paint. To protect the paint job, use a varnish or top coat.

    how to refinish a table
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  10. 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.

    Tip

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

    how to refinish a table
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Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. What You Should Know About Using Paint Strippers. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.