Christina, at Operation Home did the ABSOLUTE right thing by attempting to strip and restore a set of beautiful mid century tables. Unfortunately, she made the same mistake many make...the absolute wrong finish. Poly. Sadly, she regrets it...been there, done that!
That is the great thing about DIY projects...live and learn! The fact that she tackled this project with an "I CAN DO THIS" attitude is what DIYing is all about and as we work from project to project, we learn what works and what doesn't! There are soooo many tutorials online about this type of project and at times it can be overwhelming. Who wouldn't be confused?!
This is the process that works for me and I hope it works for you!
I am first and foremost a die hard "wood fan." I believe in treating it with with love and respect...especially old pieces that are constructed of wood we just don't see much any more in new, affordable furniture...walnut, cherry, mahogany, teak, rosewood.
A great deal of MCM furniture was constructed of teak, walnut or rosewood and those pieces are my "first love." I infuse as many of these pieces as I can get my hands on into my decor. I have refinished MANY MCM pieces over the years and feel like I have developed a pretty good "process." Just do a "search" for "mid century" on my site...you will find many of the projects I have worked on over the years...my Lane Acclaim tables, television cabinet, barrel chairs, office chair, coffee table...and sooooo much more!
So I am going to share a few of my "die hard" rules for refinishing ANY old wood furniture. Doesn't matter in the end if you are going to paint or stain...if you are going to strip it first, this is the process that works for me! You may think you do not have to strip if you are going to paint...not always the case. I have stripped many pieces before I painted them for a number of reasons! Usually because it has a heavy finish on it or layers of "unstable" paint....regardless it is NOT as daunting as it sounds! And if you ask me, regardless of whether you are going to paint or stain, you will get a superior result if you first strip the piece down to bare wood!
Friday I stripped the dining room table I shared here. It was literally caked with old varnish so it is the perfect piece to share! You can really see the difference in the "before and after" pictures at the end!
It is truly an AMAZING piece but has me a bit stumped. I know how to strip it...I just don't know what type of finish I want on it right now. Or if it will even work with the plan I have in my head for this room. I still have these mid century chairs I want to refinish and I'm just not sure how it will fit in with them! Oh well.....
The table base has heavy, crackled varnish. At some point someone had stripped the top and the inserts, but not the base. So it was caked on pretty thick. It would seem like a daunting task to most, but honestly, it is the same process whether the piece has a little or a lot of old finish...well, not exactly, but we will get to that!
Remember, not all my "rules" apply to all furniture...and sometimes you have to use your judgment.
1) Refinish vs. Paint: The first thing you have to decide when "rehabbing" a piece of furniture is how can the piece be "enhanced?" Sometimes you really can enhance a piece by painting it, especially if the piece has a lot of water damage or broken or "bubbled" veneer that needs repair or missing trim pieces that have to be replaced. Or it is just an "outdated" piece with little value so it needs a POW of color!!! Those pieces may be better off painted. If a piece is solid and sound and stripping and refinishing it will ENHANCE or preserve the piece, it is not a hard process.
2) THERE ARE NO SHORT CUTS WHEN STRIPPING FINISHES...whether it is painted or stained! None...and if you don't do it right, your new finish will look like crud and you will have wasted your time. Settle in and do it right!
Word of warning...you are working with chemicals! WEAR GLOVES, EYE PROTECTION, LONG PANTS AND CLOSED TOED SHOES. Trust me...splash this stuff on yourself and it will leave a mark!
Also, do not do this in any grass you are fond of...and put something disposable (paper, plastic, whatever) under the piece to catch all the drips and gunk!
If the existing finish (whether varnish, shellack, poly or paint) is really "heavy" I first coat it with a bit of Citristrip. I use a cheap "chip" brush to apply it. After letting that sit a bit, I scrape it with a flat, plastic scraper. ALWAYS scrape with the grain. You are probably wondering how you "scrape" all the turned legs and carvings...patience, I'll get there ;)
Sometimes the finish melts right off, other times it is pretty stubborn...just coat it again with the stripper, let it sit a bit, and then scrape it again! It may take 2-3 applications to get all the "heavy" finish off.
If the piece doesn't have a real heavy existing finish, you may not even want to use the Citristrip...use your judgment!
After removing the really heavy old finish or the majority of the paint, mix 1/2 acetone and 1/2 lacquer thinner and use it to scrub the entire piece with steel wool. This is also the best way to get the heavy finish and gel stripper off turned legs and etchings. I use 0000 steel wool and that lets me really scrub the piece without worrying too much about damaging the wood! This will melt the varnish right off the turns and carvings and remove the stripper you couldn't scrape off as well! Work from the top down, and don't be afraid to use this mixture liberally!
THIS is the real process for removing ALL the old finish!
Here is a little secret to properly stripping furniture. Toothbrushes. Seriously, use a toothbrush to get into all the corners and crannies...just dip it in the acetone/thinner mixture and scrub away! They are tough enough to scrub out the crud but won't hurt the wood! Have you ever seen a piece of furniture that has been refinished and all the corners and joints are dark...that's because they didn't get all the old finish off...use a toothbrush and you won't have that problem!
This process may take some time...and you may go through several steel wool pads. I usually mix a new batch of acetone/thinner (in a stainless bowl) and use a new steel wool pad on each side...2-3 times...whatever it takes to get it scrubbed clean of all the old finish and stripper! I probably went around this table 4-5 times just scrubbing with the mixture! (This is where one of those low shop stools on wheels is a back saver!)
I can not stress this enough...if you don't take this process seriously and REALLY get rid of all the old finish, you are wasting your time...because you WILL be disappointed. And while this stripping process may seem labor intensive, it is much easier than sanding an old finish off and you are much less likely to damage the piece...which brings me to rule #...whatever, I lost track!
SAND AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE. You should almost always use chemical strippers to remove ALL the old finish and only sand a tad (with the grain...if needed...220 grit) AFTER you have stripped all the old finish. Many old pieces (unlike this table) may have veneer...veneer can be thin and if you sand too vigorously you can do a lot of damage! Also, you will NEVER get all the old finish out of decorative carvings or turned legs (like this table) with sandpaper...not happening!
Also, palm sanders tend to leave little "swirly" marks...and as faint as they may seem, they are going to be glaring after a stain and finish is applied...save yourself the trouble...hand sand with 220 grit paper and steel wool on the ornate areas. SAND WITH THE GRAIN!! Cross grain marks WILL show up in your final finish!
Keep in mind too that once you strip all the old finish, you are REALLY going to see the "character" (grain) of the wood. A lot of old finishes were applied with a "multi-layer" process or were sprayed on and the stain may have been mixed in with the finish...they did this to give the piece a more "uniform" look and hide the "variations" in the wood grain.
If you like a uniform look, paint it because you are going to reveal the "character" of the wood when you strip it down to bare wood!
Also, there is a chance you could dissolve adhesives (glue) that was used on joints...that's not a huge issue...it is best to go ahead and strip and stain the piece BEFORE you do any major repairs...stain will not penetrate glue...so if you get any glue on the wood, it won't stain! (If you are going to paint a piece repair it BEFORE paint...if you are going to stain, repair it AFTER stain)
Okay, I have now spent 4 hours scrubbing off all the old finish (that is how long it took me to do this table!)
Now, wash the entire piece with clean rags and mineral spirits. I have a tenant who works for a commercial laundry service and she brings me old towels I use as shop rags! If you are going to refinish furniture, buy towels and rags at garage sales and thrift stores and cut them up into washcloth size pieces.
Which reminds me...WORD OF WARNING!!!! DO NOT THROW RAGS OR STEEL WOOL IN A TRASH CAN IF THEY HAVE ANY CHEMICALS ON THEM....LAY THEM OUT TO DRY IN THE SUN AND ONLY BAG THEM UP AFTER THEY ARE COMPLETELY DRY AND THEY HAVE AIRED OUT FOR A FEW DAYS! THEY CAN SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUST AND BURN YOUR HOUSE DOWN!!!! (Do not bag them with paper or cardboard and keep them separate from household trash!)
While washing it down with the mineral spirits you may find a few spots that need a little more "scrubbing" to remove the old finish...not a problem...just scrub it, then wash it down with the mineral spirits!
After I removed all the old finish and gave it a light sanding, I stained the top with a brown stain. This table has two inserts and I made sure I stripped those and stained them to match the table.
STAIN: Do not use stain that has a "finish" or "sealer" in it. If you don't like the color, you are pretty much stuck. Use a stain that has to have a finish applied...that way if you aren't real keen on the color you can immediately wipe it off with mineral spirits or even layer another stain color on top of it. In other words, you can make adjustments to the color after it is applied.
Different woods will stain differently. Your best bet is to stain a small "test" patch on the piece and have mineral spirits and a clean rag handy to wipe it off if you don't like the color.
After the stain dries, I personally prefer a tung oil finish. Super easy to wipe on...pretty much "idiot proof." I apply 3-4 coats, sand with 0000 steel wool and wipe with tack cloth between coats! The awesome thing about a tung oil finish is it is super easy to "fix" scratches and wear...just lightly "sand" it with 0000 steel wool and apply another coat of the finish! Here I discuss the (lack of) difference between oils.
I usually "re-oil" the tops of my tables once a year...or as needed.
For many reasons, Christina's issues being one, I NEVER apply poly to stained finishes! I have an old walnut dresser I refinished with poly and I regret it! Someday it will get refinished properly!
My original plan for this table was to stain the top and paint the base...but it is just so beautiful I hate to paint it. For now, I have moved it back into the dining room and I am just going to "mull it over" for a bit...
What to do, what to do...truth is I may not do anything until I get my mid century chairs done.
In the meantime, thanks Christina for inspiring me to "get it done." I hope this information helps you and others...YOU CAN DO IT!