Staining a worn piece of furniture can radically improve its appearance.

By Nancy Mattia
October 19, 2020
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Peter Sandback American-made table
Credit: Bryan Gardner

If you've got a solid wood table that's in good shape (nothing broken or cracked) but could benefit from a makeover, consider refinishing it. A flat surface like a table with no ridges, scrollwork, or cutouts is easiest to do and should take only a few hours of active time over a weekend (the rest of the time you're waiting for the stain or finish to dry). Before getting started on bringing the table back to life, read manufacturer's directions on all refinishing products. Here, we delve into the basics.

Clean the table's surface and legs.

You're going to make a mess so set up your project in a well-ventilated place where you can get dirty. Wash the table with a mild cleaner and water, and use a clean rag to wipe off any dust, dirt, and grime sticking to the existing finish.

Strip everything off.

You can remove old paint and varnish by sanding or using a chemical stripper. "Sanding is a good method only if you have quality sanding equipment and are experienced in its use," says Lowe's project expert Hunter Macfarlane. "If you're trying to remove an old finish by sander, the process will be extremely tedious." Belt and disk sanders can remove finishes quickly, but since they're capable of removing so much material, Macfarlane says it's very easy to sand too deeply and ruin the piece. "For this reason, chemical strippers—commonly referred to as paint strippers—are an effective means of removing paint and varnish quickly and easily."

Besides adequate ventilation, wear rubber gloves and protective breathing equipment when using these substances. "To ensure a smooth surface, I recommend going back through and sanding the piece after using a chemical stripper so that your table is ready for stain," he says.

Apply the stain.

Follow the wood's natural grain as you liberally apply a liquid stain with a clean rag or brush. Allow it to sink into the wood then use another rag to wipe off any excess. Once the coat is dry, lightly sand with a 220-grit paper; wipe off any dust with a tack cloth. Apply a second coat, and let dry. "The longer the stain is allowed to penetrate, the darker the color will be," says Macfarlane. However, this only works to a certain extent since you have to remove the excess stain each time. You can keep repeating these steps until you're closer to your desired color.

Brush on a clear finish.

Once the table is completely dry (it could take up to 24 hours), apply polyurethane. "It's an extremely durable finish that's resistant to both water and alcohol," says Macfarlane. It's best to apply several thin coats, and use 220-grit sandpaper between coats. "One of the most common mistakes people make when using polyurethane is trying to apply thick coats," he says. But this can cause running, wrinkling, and sagging, so be sure to avoid this as much as possible."

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