How do I refinish a much-abused table?
March 19, 2005 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I need advice on how to refinish a dining table that is badly damaged. The table is walnut and about 50 years old. The wood is very dry, enough so that the grain is visibly raised, and the finish has been completely gone for years. The stains are dark (including one large spot stained by persimmons).

I've been told that sanding a table this dry is a problem because it will splinter. Since it seems reasonable that I will have to sand it, do I have to counteract the dryness first and if so what is the best way to do that? Secondly, I know that persimmon juice is used to stain wood (intentionally), so I'm assuming this will be especially tricky to get out. Any tips there? Lastly, the table has leaves which are beautiful and not at all damaged, and I'd like to try to match them if possible. These appear to be oiled but not stained. I'm willing to put some effort into this and I have access to tools, but if it sounds like more than an enthusiastic but untrained amateur can handle I'd appreciate being told that too.
posted by cali to Home & Garden (6 answers total)
Best answer: This is a topic probably better suited to a good book or a salty old woodworker in person but I'll give it a shot.

I don't think the dryness of the wood will cause splintering with sanding. You'll want to be careful around the edges but that's about it.

The stain? No clear idea. If you're lucky and it's not deep, maybe a little sanding.

If you think the table has an oil finish, then you're probably fairly lucky, as oil finishes are easy to repair, compared to built up finishes like shellac, laquer or polyurethane (which you would almost certainly have to remove completely and reapply. If you'd like to keep the oil finish, that's fine, but keep in mind you will have to keep reapplying oil fairly frequently. Perhaps once a year or more. Oil finishes are easy to apply, reapplying oil once a year will probably only take you an hour.

So, try a little light sanding. I'd start no lower than 220 grit. If this isn't doing it for you perhaps move down to 150 or 180. You don't want to produce noticable depressions in the table. Mechanical sanding is what you want for the surface be it a random orbital sander, a 1/4 sheet sander, etc. A belt sander would probably be too aggressive. If the stain disappears readily, apply an oil finish (I like tung oil or unadulterated linseed oil (that is, no varnish in it). You might even consider walnut oil. There are a few products I like which are a mixture of tung oil and varnish, that are pretty good and will provide a similar look with a more protective surface. These go by the name Seal-a-cell and armor-seal I think. I can never remember which is which but one is more protective than the other. It comes stained or clear, get the clear. This is what David Marks usually uses on his show (on DIY network) to finish furniture.

if the stain does not come out... man, I don't know. Bleach is a possibility but you'd end up bleaching the wood too. Might want to consult a professional restorer for that stain.
posted by RustyBrooks at 3:33 PM on March 19, 2005

FYI the raised grain is probably not due to dryness, but because the table got wet at some point. Wood absorbs water, and the area between the grain absorbs differently than the grain, and the areas swell differently. This causes the raised feeling. To counteract this, wet the whole table with a sponge that is just barely damp. Do this before perhaps after sanding with 220 and before sanding with 320. The wetting will raise any grain that is not already raised, and the sanding will sand those bits off. This will to some extent prevent this from happening again.

If your table does not have visible cracks then I would say there is probably not a dryness issue.
posted by RustyBrooks at 3:36 PM on March 19, 2005

And in case it was not clear, wet the table with the sponge, allow to dry thoroughly over night, THEN sand with 320.
posted by RustyBrooks at 3:37 PM on March 19, 2005

Best answer: Refinishing isn't that hard, there are lots of how-to books out there. Basically, you will strip the remaining finish with a chemical stripper, sand, then apply a finish. A wiping varnish is easiest, I like Minwax Antique Oil--you just wipe it on with a rag and buff. Sanding shouldn't damage the surface unless the veneer is coming loose--is it? Buy a random orbit sander (less than $40) and go lightly, starting with a medium sandpaper and working down to finer grades.

The persimmon stain will be the challenge. There are products to bleach wood and remove stains, I haven't used them and have my doubts. If you can't bleach it out, you might try and stain the tabletop a dark color to match the persimmon--but it will be hard to match perfectly. The best option might be to regard the stain as a treasured character mark. Invent a colorful story about how it got there, back in grandpa's day...

For more advice on refinishing wood, check in at the Finishing and Refinishing forum at Wood Magazine, there are real experts there.
posted by LarryC at 3:44 PM on March 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Oxalic acid is used to bleach stains from wood.
posted by substrate at 7:51 PM on March 19, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks all, especially for the forum link. Sounds like there might be a little trial and error involved, if I run into trouble I'll know exactly where to ask the next question.
posted by cali at 11:02 PM on March 19, 2005

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