Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism

Refinishing tables


First, apologies for the long hiatus. Spring is always a very busy time at my job, so I fell behind on both house projects and updates! A lot of the up and coming projects require some ventilation, too, so they had to wait for spring weather. But I’ve had this one in the queue for a while and finally finished the project, so now I can finish writing it up for you!

Backstory: I acquired my dining room table for cheap from craigslist about five years ago. It’s a heavy, cherry dining table (with two leaves!) in a classic, elegant design. Soon after purchasing and precariously driving it home tied to the roof of my parents’ car, we repaired a dog-chewed table leg foot (my dad used wood putty to reform the foot and then stained it to match the table) and rewaxed the top surface. I also scrubbed it with a nice polishing wood cleaner several times over and successfully drew out any cigarette odors remaining in the wood from the previous owners. (Really, owners of wood furniture, do you have to smoke indoors? And then resell your furniture?)


The dining set, in my old apartment immediately after I bought it.

Anyway, the furniture wax polish never seemed to do a great job: wet rings from bottles and glasses, hot items placed on cork trivets or cloth placemats, spilled liquids, warm cat prints, and cat claw scratches all seemed to go right through the wax and damage the finish. I was thinking of rewaxing it again someday soon, but the timeline was accelerated when I spilled half a bowl of near-boiling chicken soup through and under a plastic placemat and created a big white rectangle in the finish.


One side of the table, with assorted moisture stains and rings. Some of the rings predate my ownership of the table.


The newest chicken soup stain, with some older white stains and scratches.

I didn’t entirely understand what was going on at first, so I initially tried stripping the wax with various products: a white vinegar solution, 409 surface cleaner plus a serious scrubbing with a scrubby dish sponge, a commercial wax remover with mineral spirits. The 409 did the best job of removing all the existing wax from past polishing coats, but it did not remove the scratches or white rings/spots/(rectangular placemat shapes). Further research revealed that the wax wasn’t the culprit (though stripping it was not a bad idea): the underlying finish was old and no longer performing its job, so the damage was to the finish itself.

My research had showed that I needed a restoring oil product and ultra fine steel wool. Unfortunately my local hardware store was out of the shade I wanted for the refinishing oil, so I did some dry removal of the damaged finish with the steel wool while I waited for my internet order to arrive (note: it was cheaper to order the refinisher online, anyway!). The dry sanding revealed that the finish was indeed extremely old and damaged: once exposed, I could clearly see hairline cracks throughout the finish. I was able to remove most of the damaged/stained white marks.


Dry sanding scratches and white stain marks. Action shot!


Same area, rotated and after sanding out the stain (but not the scratches). It’s gone!


The whole table after dry sanding. The chicken soup stain was on the front right side. (Note that this picture was taken in the evening, with just artificial light and the shades closed. That is why the lighting looks yellower.)

The product I had ordered was Restor-A-Finish, in cherry (the walnut was not warm enough and a little too dark, but the cherry was probably a smidge too red. This did not end up mattering). Once it arrived, I had to wait for a warm enough day to have the windows open for several hours while doing this job, because this is an oil-based, fumy product that is not safe to breathe in enclosed spaces. But it is worth the fumes. I went back with the steel wool and gently worked the refinishing oil into the whole table, first working in a circular motion with particular focus on visibly damaged areas, and then working in the direction of the wood grain over the whole table to restore the entire finish. I then went back over with dry, lint-free disposable rags and worked the oil into the table and wiped it clean. Then I left the fan on and windows open and took a nice long nap.

After my nap, the table was fully dry (and looked excellent!). The instructions on the refinishing product said to wait half an hour before adding a wax polish, and I ultimately waited an hour or two before starting the waxing step. I used basic old furniture polishing wax, nothing fancy. I put a little bit of the wax in a microwave-safe bowl and microwaved it for five seconds at a time until it was just slightly warmed and softened (but not melted, not even a little. I recommend being careful doing this: waxes are flammable and should never be overheated. It also would not work very well for waxing furniture if it was fully melted!). I did this because the temperature was a little chilly with the windows open, so the wax was quite stiff. I am also a petite person, and I figured that a warmer wax would penetrate nooks and crannies and coat the table more evenly without requiring a lot of physical strength. Having waxed this table once before, I do think it was easier to apply this way. For the application, I used a clean, dry paper towel to scoop out a little bit of wax and a time and rubbed it into the table, alternating between circular motions and working it in with the grain. I removed any excess, wiping with the grain of the wood, and then took the dog for a nice long walk around the neighborhood.

When I got back to my stinky house, I started buffing off the excess wax. I don’t have a buffer or buffing attachment for a power tool, so I did this by hand with clean, dry disposable rags. Because of my lack of enormous physical strength, this was the hardest part of the job. Instead of doing one really hard buffing job, I instead came back to the table to keep buffing it incrementally over the course of a couple days, until the rags were coming out clean. I did a final buffing with a cloth fleece rag, which did a great job for the final touch. I touched it up with a polishing cleanser (I like the Method wood cleanser), and voilà: a refinished table!


The refinished dining table, with dog for scale. (Note that this picture was taken midday on a sunny day with the shades open, so the lighting is different than in the last picture.)


That chicken soup stained area.


Author: Lumberjack Lynne

Geologist by trade, redesigning my little piece of property so it's greener, friendlier, and my very own.

2 thoughts on “Refinishing tables

  1. Lynne, this is awesome. We need to refinish our table; do you want to mail me any of your leftover supplies?