Re-finishing a table and chairs, or How I learned to hate chairs.
We were recently given a table from the delightful Moira Katson, writer extraordinaire, and decided it would be a great opportunity to put all of our years of HGTV watching to use. The table had a very dark finished veneer, and many years of love and use had left it a bit worn. After perusing many, many photos of tables we decided to re-finish the top of the table in a lighter wood color and paint the legs a distressed white. Painting the bottom of the table turned out to be an excellent decision, as it is far less work to prep a table surface for paint than it is to re-finish a dark veneer into a lighter color. Sanding and painting the chairs also required less waiting time than refinishing the table top, but sanding and painting every single surface of an entire set of chairs will leave you cold and dead on the inside. Just saying.
Note: Most of our steps were determined by picking up the item we liked in the store (such as wood stain or paint) and reading the can for directions and tips on how to use it and then how to seal/finish it (both the stain we bought and the paint we bought came with suggestions for a second product to finish them with, so we just followed along humbly). Be sure to follow any safety instructions the products list.
1) Re-finishing the surface of the table:
First we tried to strip the veneer using a chemical stripper. This was as misguided as it was unsuccessful. The chemical stripper just removes the lacquer or protective sealant over the top of the veneer; not the veneer itself. What we *actually* wanted to do was remove the sealant and the top dark stained part of the veneer, leaving the lower un-stained portion of the veneer to be re-finished. In the end the chemical stripper wasn’t even enough to remove all the sealant, so it didn’t matter anyways.
Chemicals having failed us, we next moved on to power sanding. This turned out to be an excellent plan. Be sure to use proper protective equipment! We used a 120 (‘Fine’) grit and with a few hours of elbow grease we sanded off the sealant and then down through the stained aspect of the veneer. Fortunately for us, the veneer was thick enough that the dark stain only penetrated part of it, and beneath that there was still light colored veneer covering the plywood table.
Left: a failed chemical removal. Right: Power sander glory
As we sanded deeper through the stained veneer, the color gradually lightened until the raw veneer was exposed. Different areas of the table had stain that penetrated deeper, however, so there were some areas that stayed darker than others. You can keep sanding deeper in sections where the stain penetrated further down, but you risk an uneven surface and going all the way through the veneer and exposing the plywood below. We might have done that a few times. Don’t tell anyone.
Here you can see the layers of stain as it was sanded through
Sanding done, the next step was to wipe off the dust with paper towels, then a finishing wipe with tack cloth (sticky cloth that picks up any remaining dust).
The raw veneer was fortunately a very light tone
To re-stain the table, we used a gel stain which was a bit darker than the raw veneer (but far lighter than the original stain). The gel stain is spread onto the surface of the wood, then the ‘excess’ is wiped off with clean cloths after about 3 minutes. This is slightly trickier than it sounds, because you have to wipe off evenly or you will get some areas that are more heavily stained and splotchy, and if it dries too much you cannot wipe it off. If you really mess up (which we did in a couple spots) you may need to re-sand an area (by hand is enough to take off the extra color) and re-stain.
The stain required 24 hours before we could seal it with polyurethane. The polyurethane was then applied over the entire table top. The polyurethane had to set for about half a day before we could lightly sand it and apply a second coat (note; sanding the polyurethane looked like we were destroying it, but the second coat made it all pretty again). 24 hours later the polyurethane was set and the table top was done! If by chance you are applying polyurethane in a garage, make sure one section of the table isn’t in direct sunlight and 15 degrees hotter than the rest of the table because the polyurethane will dry unevenly and you will have to re-do it. I mean, a friend told me that.
2) Refinishing the table legs and base
While all that was going on with the table top we were also re-finishing the rest of the table. We lightly sanded the legs and base of the table by hand (to help the paint to stick to the veneer), then once again paper toweled and tack clothed the surfaces to remove any trace of dust. We painted the base and legs with two coats of a chalky white paint. Our plan was to hand distress the table anyways, so we weren’t too picky about painting it perfectly. (Note; some paints are made to be distressed, so if you are interested in distressing an item make your life easy and chose a paint made for the job!).
We put the legs back on before painting
Once the paint had dried for 24 hours, we distressed the surface using sand paper. Focus your distressing in areas that naturally get bumped and chipped over time; corners, edges, places where chairs bump the table, etc. Start small; you can always add more distressing, but if you go too far you have to re-paint.
Once we were happy with our distressing, we cleaned off the dust again and we sealed the paint. The paint we chose recommended Miniwax as a sealant, which was a new experience for me. It is literally a wax that you rub over all the painted surface with a clean cloth, and allow to dry for a few minutes. Once dry, you go over it again briskly with a clean cloth to polish it. The polishing part worked pretty slick, but be prepared to have your hands very waxy during the initial application. Actually, be prepared to have everything you have ever known be covered in wax. But really, it gets all over your hands. Maybe a smarter person would have worn gloves.
3) Refinishing the chairs
We had 4 old wooden chairs (mis-matched) which we wanted to use for this table. As the chairs were not stained the same as the new table top, we knew we would need to give them an update to make the dining set work. As the chairs were pretty cheap to begin with, we did not think it would be worthwhile to try to refinish the wood to match the table top. Instead, we decided to paint them in the same distressed chalky white as the rest of the table.
The process for refinishing the chairs was the same as the table base and legs: sand, clean off dust, paint, paint again, distress, clean off dust, seal. Here’s the thing; chairs are way more annoying than tables. Tables have large, flat surfaces. Chairs have a million little rounded edges and ledges and corners. It takes much longer to sand, clean, paint, and seal a chair than a table. And there are So Many Chairs.
From the top: Sanded but not cleaned chairs, Painted chairs, Distressed chair
Once the chair purgatory was over we went and bought new cushions. We continued our not-quite-matching scheme and got different colored cushions for each of the different chair types. Originally we were going to make our own cushions and buy our own fabric and everything, but then we found out IKEA had cushions for our chairs for $5 each. And we were Done with dealing with the chairs.
And that was our live-action HGTV episode! We're really happy with the results, and it was way cheaper than buying a new dining set. The total cost of supplies (paints, stains, sealants, brushes, masks, gloves, etc) was ~$100 since we were able to borrow a power sander. I have a new-found appreciation for working with furniture. And a new-found hatred of chairs.
(PS be sure to check out Moira Katson; writer of novels and donator of tables)
(PS be sure to check out Moira Katson; writer of novels and donator of tables)