Introduction: How to Refinish an Antique Oak Library Table
I bought this antique oak library table at an estate sale for $75, it was in pretty rough shape and needed the top refinished. Halfway through the project, I realized how beautiful the wood underneath was and changed direction to strip and refinish the whole piece.
I ended up using CitriStrip and denatured alcohol to remove the old finish and most of the color. Then, I restained everything to even out the color and sprayed on a few coats of lacquer, buffing out the final finish with 0000 steel wool and paste wax.
Step 1: Finding a Diamond in the Rough
My wife and I love going to estate sales. It's been a staple of our Saturday mornings for most of our time together. Besides being able to bring new life to things that were obviously loved, I find so much joy in rescuing furniture that just needs a new breath of life. If you've ever thought about refinishing a piece for your own home, or resale, it's a really rewarding process and not that difficult of a project to tackle. Personally, I love giving new life to something old.
Step 2: Start With Stripping
I originally planned to only strip and refinish the top of this table, and try to restain to match the base. Collecting the tools of the trade, I started with Klean Strip Kwik-Strip and mineral spirits. I bought a cheap plastic scraper to remove the stripper, and a package of Scotchbrite pads to clean up the residue. The last things were a few colors of stain to try and match the original color, wipe on polyurethane and paste wax.
The most important thing to remember when using chemical strippers is to brush on a generous coat, and let it sit. It's easy to want to continue to work the chemical into the surface, but it works best to brush it on and let the chemical do the work. Kwik-Strip takes about 15 minutes to work and should be scraped off before it dries. I used a plastic scraper to remove the old finish, and most of the color, working in small areas from one side to the other.
Step 3: Cleaning Off the Residue
Once the surface was stripped, there was still a considerable amount of residue from the stripper as well as some remnants of the old finish. I started with mineral spirits and a Scotchbrite pad to loosen the remaining finish and remove any remaining stripper. Removing all the residue is critical to getting a good finish. Honestly, this was much more difficult to remove the remaining stripper residue than I was expecting, and that made me reconsider the chemical cocktail I was using. Not to mention the smell inside the house was less than pleasant.
Step 4: Time to Pivot... New Chemicals
After stripping the top, I wasn't entirely happy with how much effort was required to clean up the remaining stripper. Additionally, mineral spirits didn't seem very effective at removing the remaining finish. So, after some research I switched over to Citristrip and denatured alcohol. Briefly, different solvents work on different finishes. I assumed this was a varnish, and so mineral spirits should have worked well; but denatured alcohol works well on shellac - to be honest, I have no idea what was on this piece... but this combination worked very well.
Citristrip takes about 30 minutes to work, and should be brushed on thick and allowed to work without overly brushing before scraping. Using the same plastic scraper, I was able to remove most of the finish. The residue left behind is very sticky, but wipes off very easily with the denatured alcohol and a Scotchbrite pad. This combination worked so much better than my original plan, and didn't smell nearly bad enough for as well as it worked!
Step 5: Getting the Color With Stain
I typically don't like to stain wood, I think the color and the grain of natural materials can speak for itself. On this piece, stripping couldn't remove every remnant of color, and in some places the appearance was less consistent than I would like in a finished product. While I originally planned to try and match the original color, the beauty of the wood underneath made me choose a lighter tone.
Using 'Early American' color stain from Minwax, I wanted to even out the color and conceal any variation leftover from the stripped finish. Staining is pretty straight forward, just follow the direction. I wiped on the stain over the entire piece using a clean, lint-free, rag; letting the liquid sit for about 15 minutes to absorb into the wood. I find that multiple coats is less effective in getting good color absorption than just waiting longer on the initial coat.
Before the stain is dry, wipe off any remaining liquid with a clean, lint-free rag. I fold a larger rag over several times so that I always have a clean surface to work with. Once no more color comes up, leave the piece to rest for at least 8 hours to let the stain dry. Trying to finish too soon can cause the pigment to leach up into the finish. The longer you can wait, the better the result will be.
Step 6: Finishing and Protecting
Originally, I planned to finish this piece with wipe-on polyurethane. That is a very good choice for surfaces likely to encounter moisture, but it does have a tendency to yellow with age. Instead, I changed to a spray-on lacquer finish. Lacquer is a fairly durable finish that can be easily repaired and does not yellow over time. Lacquer actually dissolves the coat below, minimizing the need to sand between coats, and improving the quality of the finish as multiple layers are built up. I sprayed three coats over the top and legs, letting each coat dry for at least 30 minutes between recoating. Any obvious drips or rough areas I smoothed over using 0000 steel wool.
Step 7: The Final Finish
The last step in building out a beautiful finish was to buff out the entire piece with paste wax and 0000 steel wool. Using steel wool in this step breaks down any minor roughness left from the finish, and the paste wax acts as a lubricant to avoid adding any scratches. Additionally, the paste wax will fill in any coarse grain that reads through the finish and leaves a very nice feel to the wood.
After buffing, let the paste wax sit for about 20 minutes, or until a light haze has developed, and then buff the final finish out with a clean, lint-free, rag. I have found that after buffing, leaving the piece to sit for at least 24 hours is best. This lets the last of the solvent in the paste wax evaporate and the wax to harden into a beautiful finish.
Step 8: The Finished Product
This was a fun project, and being able to spend my time on something that has been loved in the past and will be loved in the future. If you've ever thought about refinishing a piece for your own home, or resale, it's a really rewarding process and not that difficult of a project to tackle. Personally, I love giving new life to something old.
Thanks for reading!
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