How do I seal this table surface?
June 17, 2009 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Dining room table + open grain wood + real life = :( Please help me to not destroy my one nice piece of furniture.

I scored a really beautiful vintage dining table off Craigslist - it's a Danish modern piece in great condition, with fantastic lines and the cleverest hidden leaves and some seriously elegant construction. I love it.

The table surfaces are all of some beautiful open-grained hardwood. Lovely! But it's apparently very porous/sensitive in places (even a warm coffee cup leaves a ring). I don't mind using coasters if I'm just setting something down for a second, but I want to feed people on this with some regularity and without fuss. Plus, we live in a teeny open house, so it meets laptops and books and and bits of little projects throughout the day. What can I do to protect the table top?

1) It would assume it's got SOME type of finish on it already, but the top isn't really smooth or satiny-feeling - it's got texture along the different areas of wood, which I don't mind and would actually like to preserve.

2) I don't really want to abuse it - I can continue putting down a long runner for serving platters and of course continue to use hot pads and trivets for hot things, but I'd like for someone to be able to put a wineglass down by his plate without feeling bad.

2) I would REALLY hate to use a tablecloth (or placemats).

3) I am a furniture idiot.

So, can I wax it? Seal it with something? I don't mind if I have to redo it every once in a while, and I'm not necessarily worried about preserving value. I want to use and enjoy and share this lovely thing in daily real life, is all.

Or if this is a terrible idea or a futile hope, please tell me so - and how you manage to keep the dining table surface good-looking.
posted by peachfuzz to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you get a sheet of glass or plexiglass cut to fit the top and place that over it? That way, you can still enjoy the spectacular lines of the table, but you don't have to worry about accidentally dropping a Tic Tac on it.
posted by scarykarrey at 11:41 AM on June 17, 2009

So do I assume that it is not varnished in any sort of ways? Never been? Your cure is probably a mix of beeswax and linseed (flax) oil. Use raw flax oil, nothing processed. You slowly heat both (I think I remember it's more or less 50-50, but I'm not sure), stir everything together, and adjust the mix until, when cool, a smooth paste is obtained that can be rubbed into the wood grain with a bit of cloth without much difficulty. Rub previously untreated wood several times over a period of a month or so, later just use the rub for touch-up. I'm using this for open-grain musical instruments and their stands.
After that, you still should avoid hot and wet right on the table top.
If the piece was previously varnished, on the other hand, it probably fares best by re-varnishing, using the proper materials.
posted by Namlit at 11:48 AM on June 17, 2009

Carnauba wax, varnish, tung oil, acrylic are all good candidates. Wax would probably be the easiest.
posted by torquemaniac at 11:54 AM on June 17, 2009

One word: polyurethane.

This really only has to be done once, and other than just coating the thing in plastic, it's about the most durable finish you can get. It's cheap too, and can be done with a minimum of fuss. But the big plus is that once it's on there, the surface is almost indestructible. Obviously if you drop something heavy on it it's going to mark, just like it would if it was bare wood, but it's going to be basically impervious to liquids. It also doesn't need subsequent waxing or touch ups: once and you're done.

But I think your first step is probably to find out whether or not anything has been done to it. Mixing finishes, even Namlit's seemingly natural solution, is generally a bad idea, and if you've got a varnish or shellac on there already, that limits your options unless you're willing to strip it first. This probably involves having someone take a look at it, unless you can mine various DIY sites/books/stores for more info. Maybe take a leaf or detachable part into your local hardware store or something?
posted by valkyryn at 12:00 PM on June 17, 2009

It is probably Teak (most older danish stuff is). I too scored one off Craigslist this year! It is my one nice piece of furniture too. do NOT use Polyurethane. Teak needs to be oiled. I use a lemon oil on mine, so it smells nice. Teak is not going to take any kind of sealed finish, as the wood has an oily texture. If you seal it, it will peel off.

Say no to wax, varnish, polyurethane

Say yes to lemon oil, tung oil, or head to your local big box remodeling store and you can buy oil specifically for teak.

I have a piece of glass for the top of mine too, as I have two kids and even oiled I don't want milk spilled all over it. When I use the leaves, I take it off and put down a vinyl tablecloth, then cover that with a nicer cloth one.

these have actually gone up in price quite a lot in the last year or two. We must not be the only ones who find them beautiful
posted by midwestguy at 12:07 PM on June 17, 2009

Seconding the glass. It's surprisingly cheap and it can be cut to fit perfectly to where you won't even notice. Plus, you won't have to put chemical gunk all over it.
posted by resurrexit at 12:07 PM on June 17, 2009

Based on your description, it's probably been sealed with boiled linseed oil, or tung oil, or some oil blend ("Danish Oil"). Oil finishes aren't particularly durable, but they are easy to apply -- and reapply.

Tried and True "Varnish Oil" was recommended by Fine Woodworking, and I've used it for a number of projects (including a dining room table). It's all natural, foodsafe, doesn't include any petroleum distillates or driers so outgassing isn't an issue, and has so far withstood moderate use.
posted by notyou at 12:16 PM on June 17, 2009

For day-to-day stuff, we got a couple of yards of clear vinyl showercurtain stuff at a fabric store (Jo-Ann Fabrics, to be precise), because we've got two little kids. I love it---no worries about anything spilled or people setting coffee cups down, it's easy to clean, and you can still see the wood.

The vinyl's like this (naturally you don't have to buy the whole roll) and came in varying thicknesses. i think we got 12-gauge, but thinner would work just fine, I think.
posted by leahwrenn at 1:30 PM on June 17, 2009

If it's teak you must use oil, which also has the benefit of being very hard to mess up -- just add more, or wipe off more.

Polyurethane turns it into a plastic surface. Fine for hardwood floors, but a horrible, horrible thing to do to a cherished piece of wood. That can make any nice furniture look and feel cheap... and it's a nightmare to remove.
posted by rokusan at 1:31 PM on June 17, 2009

As midwestguy says, your table is probably Teak:

Popular in the 1950s and 1960s in a style often known as Danish modern, teak furniture has had a second boom in popularity. Teak is one of the most sought-after types of vintage furniture.

Under no circumstances should you finish this beautiful old table.

I really don't think it needs to be--or even should be oiled:

Teak is easily worked and has natural oils that make it suitable for use in exposed locations, where it is durable even when not treated with oil or varnish.

Clean it with water and a very mild soap that will not strip the natural oils.
posted by jamjam at 1:35 PM on June 17, 2009

The ring thing has little to do with the wood and a lot to do with the finish. As Notyou said, probably one of the polymerizing oils.

On the con side, it's easy to screw this kind of finish up.

On the pro side, if it gets screwed up, you can take it down to mostly bare wood and reapply without too much difficulty.

I would start by visiting it with something like Murphy's Oil Soad and the super fine version of a green scrubby. Then, after it's completely dry, go after it with the oil finish.

The rule I've heard is once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year and once a year thereafter, but that's for linseed oil. If you use a different oil things may be different. For what it's worth, the typical dryers used in oil finishes these days are zinc and cobalt, neither of which is particularly toxic. That being said, the linseed oil I got by just grabbing the can that said boiled linseed oil doesn't contain any dryers at all.

NOTE: (I wish I had a flash tag here) Linseed oil is what gave oily rags a bad name. If you wad up a rag soaked with linseed oil and leave it there, just expect it to burst into flames the moment you turn your back. They don't dry, you see, they oxidize and form a polymer. Like other types of oxidation you may be familiar with, this is an exothermic process. When I'm done wiping something down with oil, I usually take the rag outside and throw it into the BBQ grill. That way, if it does decide to burst into flames during the night, who cares.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:39 PM on June 17, 2009

Sounds like it would be a good idea to have the wood positively identified by someone who knows there stuff before applying any kind of finish.
posted by orme at 1:40 PM on June 17, 2009

posted by Thorzdad at 2:26 PM on June 17, 2009

3rding the glass. Your table stays mint condition and if the glass gets scummy you can windex it.
posted by crinklebat at 10:38 PM on June 17, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the awesome information so far, guys!

My table is something like this one with different details at the joins and overall an airier look, but the finish looks really similar (though a lot lighter/fainter - it doesn't reflect light, for example). Would that be the oil-rubbed finish midwestguy, rokusan, and kid charlemagne reference?

And - there's one very shallow scratch in the center of the table top. Can I sand or buff this out before reapplying oil?
posted by peachfuzz at 9:21 AM on June 18, 2009

Almost certainly oil. A picture of the actual table might help.

As for the scratch -- yes, exactly right. Ease of repair and reapplication are among the reasons oil finishes are popular.

Here's some advice about repairing scratches from furniture maker Gary Weeks. The finish he's referring to is his company's proprietary mix (tung oil+urethane), but the process is the same for any oil finish.
posted by notyou at 9:31 AM on June 18, 2009

Yes, the picture you attached shows a teak table, and that is an oil finish. It would survive just fine if you didn't oil it--in fact, teak is used often for outdoors furniture. BUT without oil, it gradually lightens and turns silvery gray as the natural oils in the wood oxidize and dry. the scratch, as notyou said, can be sanded and reoiled. Don't soak it, just moisten a rag, wipe and then dry it off after a few minutes if you see any pooled up.

I'll second also being VERY careful with your used oily rags. Seal it up in an airtight can if you want to keep risk at bay. an empty metal paint can can hold it if you seal it up tight.
posted by midwestguy at 10:47 AM on June 18, 2009

It's wise to be careful with the oily rags, but I don't think tossing them into an empty paint can is the way to go.

Balled up used oily rags are a fire danger because the oil gives off heat as it dries. A lot of oil in a small space can generate enough heat to cause the rags to combust. To avoid the risk, just stretch them out flat somewhere outside, or dangle them from a clothesline or whatever until the oil completely dries, then dispose of them responsibly.
posted by notyou at 11:43 AM on June 18, 2009

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