Refinish oak table like a pro

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Q: We picked up a nice old oak table at an estate sale recently. Could you point us in a direction where we could find information on possibly sanding and/or varnishing the top or should this be left to professionals?

A: Unless you think you’ve got a candidate for the "Antiques Road Show," this is a perfect job for the do-it-yourselfer. If it is an antique, we suggest you leave it alone until you can find out what you’ve got.

When our mother was newly retired in the mid-1970s, she decided to refinish an old dresser she had. It was a grungy old thing. She spent weeks on that project and it turned out great. Today it’s a family heirloom. It’s with her today in her assisted-living home. If we do say so ourselves, it’s one of the best-looking pieces of furniture in the joint.

You don’t need to hire a pro. Refinish the piece yourself. The first step is to remove the old finish, or what is left of it.

Paint and varnish remover are the key here. There are a bunch of brands on the market and they all do the same thing, which is to soften the old finish so you can scrape it off. Traditional removers contain methylene chloride, a harsh chemical with a noxious odor. They also contain paraffin to retard drying.

When the stripping is done, the piece must be wiped down with solvent to remove the paraffin residue. More modern strippers rinse off with water. We’re a little leery of these because water-based removers can raise the grain of the wood. Wood and water don’t mix very well.

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To strip the old finish, start from the top of the table and work to the bottom. Apply a generous coat of semi-paste paint remover, brushing it on in one direction only. Semi-paste remover is like a gel and will adhere to vertical surfaces. Let it sit for a while until the finish is crinkled. Remove it with soft tools such as a plastic scraper or steel wool. When all the finish is off, wipe the table with mineral spirits to remove any stripper residue. Finally, let the piece dry for 24 to 48 hours after stripping before sanding and finishing.

Safety precautions must be taken when using chemical strippers. Work in a well-ventilated area. Protect finished floors with drop cloths. Wear a respirator, eye protection, a long-sleeve shirt and rubber gloves.

Once the table is stripped, start the finishing process by sanding the wood. Depending on how good a job you were able to do with the stripper, you may not have a lot of sanding to do. Start with 120-grit paper to clean off any finish that may remain and to smooth out any bad places in the wood. Then smooth the whole piece down with 220-grit paper.

Sand with the grain. The quality of your final finish depends on the care you take when sanding. No amount of stain or varnish will correct a bad sanding job. Take the time to do a good job. It makes a big difference.

Because oak is an open-grained wood, consider using a filler to smooth the surface. Grain filler comes as a pigmented paste in a range of colors. If you want to emphasize the grain of the wood, select a color that contrasts with the natural color of the wood or the color you intend to stain it. If you want to de-emphasize the wood grain, select a color that closely matches the anticipated finish color of the wood. …CONTINUED