GIMME SHELTER- Strong finish: take your time, do it right

Dale Wood
Harris Furniture Shop Shop
Q: I have an old coffee table I want to refinish myself, but I've never done it before. Can you guide me through the process?

A: The whole business is a smelly proposition, so make sure you have a well-ventilated place to work, like a garage with the door up. You'll also need a little patience. Although the steps are simple, you'll need to be careful and take your time to get an exceptional finish.

First, make sure the table is made of real wood. If the table has a composite photo finish, it can't be refinished. An older piece, even if it's in rough shape, makes a good candidate for refinishing. 

Use chemicals to remove the old finish, as scrapping and sanding will hurt the wood and show through the final finish. There are several removers to choose from, just make sure the one you buy isn't water-based, which is incompatible with wood. Removers come in both a liquid and a paste. I recommend you use paste, as it is easier to work with.

Now, start at the top of the table and work your way down, wiping or brushing it on evenly. Then take a small plastic scrapper or putty knife and remove the liquid and what it has removed. You may have to repeat this process several times to get all the old finish off. Finally, wash the table down with lacquer thinner to remove the residue, and let it dry for 24-hours. If you need to repair the table, now is the time.

Also, remember to properly dispose of any rags or paper towels you use; don't pile them up or just toss them in the garbage, as they can spontaneously combust and burn your house down! It's best to submerge rags in a bucket of water and dispose of them after they're wet.

Next, lightly sand the table with 220 sandpaper, making sure you go with the grain so it won't show through the final finish.

Now choose a clear or colored oil stain. I recommend avoiding stain and finish combos. Straight oil stain is the best, and you can choose the color off the chart at the hardware store. Apply stain with a soft rag and wipe off the excess. You can adjust how it looks by putting it on fast or slow. Go with light coats, as you can always do more if you want it darker. If you're not happy with the color, simply wipe it off with lacquer thinner and start again. Now let the table dry for another 24 hours.

Lacquer finishes are best if they are sprayed on by a professional, but if you want to do it yourself I suggest you use tongue oil. Simply wipe or brush it on, and allow the table to sit overnight between coats. You'll also want to go over the table with very fine sandpaper or steel wool between coats. I recommend you do at least four coats. However, if you want it done faster, you can also use a polyurethane that you brush on. You only need two coats of this, but you have to be careful you don't leave brush marks.

Now simply let it dry and marvel at your new coffee table.

Dale Wood