How can I refinish a kitchen table in my one bedroom apartment?
August 23, 2015 6:36 AM   Subscribe

I recently moved into my first apartment (hooray!) and I've inherited a few pieces of furniture I'd like to take care of. First on my list is a kitchen table that needs to be refinished. I only have a small balcony and sometimes it gets dusty outside. Is it possible to refinish this table with such a limited setup?

My main concerns are that leaving the table outside to cure after applying polyurethane will trap dust and dirt in the finish. Or that it might rain. And the fumes given off by the curing process are toxic.

Is it possible to do this sort of thing without a garage?
Can the table be sanded on the balcony and then moved inside to apply the polyurethane (and letting it cure next to the screened balcony door, with a large box fan pointing outwards)?

I realize the time commitment involved in this project and am willing to go without a kitchen table for a week.
posted by lalunamel to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, this is possible. Sawdust from sanding (assuming you aren't using a chemical stripper), is going to be your biggest headache. If at all feasible, I would sand it down in a parking lot or somewhere outside.

The number of coats of stain, and number of coats of poly you choose to apply will determine how long this total restoration takes. Doesn't have to be a week. You may be able to find low VOC stain, which could help.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 6:56 AM on August 23, 2015

I've stained and poly'd big pieces (bookcases, TV stand) entirely indoors with Minwax stains and their polycrylic finish (brushed on, not aerosol). I didn't find odors or fumes to be a problem. Their safety sheet indicates that long-term overexposure should be avoided, but IMO finishing a table isn't a big deal. Their polyurethanes are a different story, though, and I wouldn't use those indoors.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:28 AM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Or use shellac instead of poly. The finish isn't as water resistant as poly but it is repairable without stripping down to bare wood and the solvent is an alcohol. it is also fairly forgiving to errors in application (because you can blend the finish). You can use 190 proof Everclear to dissolve your shellac flakes.

You still want decent ventilation so you don't get rip roaring drunk when applying and curing drying. An open window and maybe a fan if it is really still is sufficient; I just slide open my shop door when applying it.

Wax the table with a (preferably silicone free) paste wax after for maximum durability and good looks.

Don't use shellac if you anticipate a lot of spilled drinks (like on a bar top) because the alcohol will strip the finish.
posted by Mitheral at 7:53 AM on August 23, 2015

Look for water-based finish.
posted by amtho at 8:25 AM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I refinished a small dining table and 4 chairs one winter in my studio apt. The messiest part was sanding. I used a drop-cloth and lots of newspapers to cut down on dust. It's doable, just take your time and clean up as you go, sanding on the balcony will be great if you can. Your idea for applying the polyurethane sounds good, the fan should cut the odor a lot.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 8:40 AM on August 23, 2015

I've done a very similar project inside my apartment. The sanding dust did get on the walls a bit but I just wiped them down after. I finished with poly inside and lived to tell the tale, just opened the windows and turned fans on. If you use a wipe-on poly (or just dilute regular poly 50/50 with mineral spirits and then wipe it on) and do lots of thin coats (like 6), you won't have to worry as much about dust getting in the finish.
posted by goingonit at 8:49 AM on August 23, 2015

Why not just oil treat it? I have oil-treated my kitchen tables, and it is lovely, easy to clean and natural. Basically, you can use any oil, but I bought a special oil for oak. However, I am working on a side table where I just use the cheapest stuff I can get, and it is working very well.
Use a wood-stripping cleaner after sanding, apply oil, let it dry. Then reapply two or three times, each time allowing time for drying. You can use the tables after 24 hours, then do the reapplication anytime you know you'll be out for 24 hours.
posted by mumimor at 8:51 AM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oil finishes are a great option indeed, mumimor! I also have a side table that I finished with pure tung oil which cures more durably than linseed, so less need to reapply. And non-toxic, so no worries about fumes (it does smell like rancid vegetable oil for a few days, though...)

Make sure, if you're worried about fumes, to get pure oil rather than an "oil finish" which is often diluted with mineral spirits!
posted by goingonit at 8:58 AM on August 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have done similar things in a studio apartment. It can be done, but it's really kind of a pain.

I'd much rather wished I had borrowed a friend, or a sympathetic mefite's garage
posted by furnace.heart at 9:15 AM on August 23, 2015

I've used a water-based varnish that has held up very well on a butcher block counter, which sees heavy use. No clouding at all.

Sanded down to 320 before the first pass, tack, apply very thin coat with a rag, buff down the grain and tack again, thin coat, buff and tack, final coat. It's five years on now, still going strong.

Did this all in place, in a small kitchen with poor ventilation. There was some smell, but it was not overpowering or dangerous. The whole process took about two days, with a coat every 12 hours or so.

Dust control, as you note, is important. I used a shop vac after sanding including vacuuming the surface prior to going over it with a tack cloth. Tacking is really important to getting a good finish.

A small cheap "toolbox" shop vac will be a great help to this and future refinishing projects.
posted by bonehead at 9:47 AM on August 23, 2015

Tack cloth, wait, tack cloth,...
posted by Freedomboy at 2:07 PM on August 23, 2015

i did this very thing last year, granted it was only a table top but still. i sanded, stained and applied several ultra thin coats of poly urethane, all in my living room. the greatest thing in my favor though is that my living room has a door that shuts as well as a ceiling fan. it did smell a bit but i just stayed out of that room.

polyurethane is gross and smelly but if you just want a durable finish that you don;t need to maintain or worry about it does the trick. you might also try Restor-A-Finish if the table you want to save already has a nice finish that's just damaged in a few spots.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 6:56 PM on August 23, 2015

Response by poster: Everybody, you're spot on!

I sanded the table outside and have so far applied two coats inside the apartment with the balcony door open. Fumes aren't a problem and I put a tarp down.

Lookin' good!
posted by lalunamel at 7:05 PM on August 26, 2015

Response by poster: For posterity: table complete
Totally worth it.
posted by lalunamel at 6:53 PM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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