What kinds of dining tables can stand up beautifully to hard use?
February 24, 2020 5:29 AM   Subscribe

MeFites previously talked us out of a veneered, 'engineered wood' dining table. We’ve been looking for solid wood instead, for durability. But our heavy use and our cats are making even that seem questionable. If you've got a heavily-used table that you don't baby, that you've had for years, and that still looks great, what is it? What would you suggest for us?

We’ll use the table several times per day for both eating and work, and we want it to last. We don't want to have to use placemats every time, or to jump up before the end of the meal when we drip something on the way to a plate. We have cats whose claws ruined a prior table's dark-stained wood veneer.

We looked at solid wood tables with catalyzed varnish, but the salesperson said that they'd be a problem without placemats or with cats’ claws. As we talked with him, we started leaning towards waxed, reclaimed barnwood tables instead, hoping that way we could embrace scratches and mars as aging instead of damage. But when we looked at that with another salesperson, she thought it was too soft for us and we'd be better off with the catalyzed varnish we'd already disqualified.

We don't like the look of glass. We need something narrow: 36" is a little too wide for the space but bearable if it’s all we can find, but 33"-34" is better and what we’ll get if we have something custom-built. We’re less constrained for length, and would prefer 78” (or even more if it’s via extensions). We want legs where they won't bump anyone’s knees, probably on the corners, and prefer no trestles, crossbars, etc. Aesthetically, the table from last time is still our favorite: simple but with a little refinement (e.g., the little angled bevel down the legs, the profile of the top’s edge; the leg color), kinda contemporarified farmhouse or rustic, not heavy looking or chunky. But it’s durability that’s most on our minds now. What would you suggest for us?
posted by daisyace to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Formica is sure out of style these days, but I think for your purposes it would be unbeatable.
posted by fritley at 5:39 AM on February 24, 2020

There's definitely something to be said for a surface where you can embrace the scratches. We bought a table from Pottery Barn with a distressed finish, and it has been a lifesaver. It's what made it okay to laugh when I came around the corner to find our 60lb greyhound standing in the middle of the dining room table. She left a few huge scratches jumping down. We paid a ton of money for that table, and had it been ruined by that I would have been so upset. But we just stained the scratches and they blend right in with the rest of the rustic finish.
posted by thejanna at 5:53 AM on February 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have you considered Hickory wood? We had one custom made using hickory 10 years ago and it has held up amazingly well against feline incursions.

And it has a GREAT rustic look.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 5:55 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We have a distress-friendly lifestyle and our approach overall has been to go second-hand/antique. First, we can see what’s lasted or get things that have distressed well. Second, if we do knock it around, well, we can pass it on both because it was inexpensive to start and we kept it out of landfill meanwhile.

Right now we have an oak round/oval table with a hard shiny finish that’s done well with cats, kids, and swords and Sai getting thrown on it.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:04 AM on February 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Reclaimed barn wood too soft? Depends how it's finished. I have a custom barn wood table finished with epoxy + polyurethane and it's like a rock. If it was done with just a lacquer, then it wouldn't be nearly as tough.
posted by allegedly at 6:16 AM on February 24, 2020

The solid wood dining table we had in my family growing up had like ten coats of polyurethane on it and it was bulletproof. We never used coasters or anything and it looked the same when I left for college as it did when I was two.

My husband and I bought a reclaimed barnwood table a couple years ago and we really like it, though whatever the carpenter treated it with does require a little babying to prevent rings etc. It also has knots, wormholes, etc. so it's a little uneven, which is fine if you don't intend to do a lot of paperwork at it but if you are someone who does your taxes at your dining table that's one strike against barnwood. Also, food particles get stuck in the rough bits, that's a pain. I have to qtip and vacuum them out sometimes.

So I'd say: get an unfinished solid wood table, and just polyurethane the everloving shit out of it.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:30 AM on February 24, 2020

I mean, you could always do concrete. Pretty easy to do custom, can look really cool, is pretty cheap, and will unquestionably be hard. You can make it work so that it's not heavy-looking, either.

Short of that, harder wood, like maple, will be your best bet. Antique is probably better. The lumber from 100 years ago was old-growth, and it's sturdier than contemporary lumber, much of which is from trees planted to replace the ones that were logged 100 years ago. Other hard woods, like oak and walnut, are probably going to be good, too.

Avoid pine (which reclaimed barn wood most likely is), which is a softer wood. You can gouge pine with your fingernails.

My mom used to have a table that was predominantly ceramic tile, with a frame of probably poplar. If you do a darker color (hers was white, not recommended), it could probably do what you're asking for. That's a way to get a harder surface than wood while still looking kind of rustic.

Whatever you buy, it's pretty easy to learn how to maintain it. The mayonnaise trick for marks, etc.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:40 AM on February 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

My parents also had a ceramic-top table with probably 8-ish inch tiles. Theirs had a curvy central support column that flummoxed at least seven cats over the years. The only downside was that the (white) grout lines tended to accumulate crumbs, and occasionally my mother decided they needed to be scrubbed with a bleach-based cleaner, but that was the extent of maintenance.
posted by teremala at 6:48 AM on February 24, 2020

Another option would be butcher block. I was in this eatery the other day and really liked their tables. (The grilled cheese and beer is pretty good, too!)

I have a butcher block-topped kitchen island on which I've done all my daily cutting, slicing, dicing and chopping for 14 years; the only care it gets is an occasional light sanding and mineral oil wipe, and it looks fine. It shows knife marks, but that's part of the character. In a dining table application the scratches and wear and tear would be much less. You could probably have one custom-built for you by a cabinet maker. Or look at outfits like this that can ship you a table from lots of size, shape, finish, and base options.
posted by beagle at 6:48 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have an antique cherry table (late 19th/early 20th c.) that came with some gouges, but has proven remarkably cat-proof when it comes to claws.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:23 AM on February 24, 2020

When I re-did my kitchen I got pine live edge slab countertops. Literally, 3 inch thick solid pine with the edge but not the bark. They were cut down to 24" deep(wish I'd asked for 24 1/2" but whatevs.). I finished them with waterlox(couple coats of thinned, then several full strength coats) and they are very water-resistant. The pine is relatively soft, but if it gets banged up, it can easily be sanded. It's been in place for 5+ years, has a few dings. I got the pine from somebody in Raymond, Maine, he might have other wood. If you like, I can find his info.

My dining table is a heavy oak library and was used by a printer. It was deeply stained with ink, and we disassembled it, sanded it, varnished. It's held up well, but can be sanded if needed. You can't do this with veneer, but solid wood can be sanded many times. A good finish helps, and wax really helps stuff slide rather than scratch.

You can get brackets for sawhorses, and make a base, or watch Craigslist to find a table base to re-purpose and get someone like Presumpscot Woodworks to make a beautiful tabletop. Steve at Presumpscot has done building projects at my house, reliable and skilled. Even finish birch plywood is an option if you like DIY.
posted by theora55 at 7:33 AM on February 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

As an added option, I go to my local fabric/craft store every few years and get a new panel of transparent vinyl sheeting, and put that on the table all the time. Now I don’t have to worry if things get spilled on the table. I think 12 gauge is about the right thickness. It’s cheap and easy, and when it gets holes or stained, it’s easy to replace.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:41 AM on February 24, 2020

Start checking Craigslist, flea markets, thrift shops for a solid, already distressed table. Wood isn't all that popular these days, so some great wooden tables can be had for a song. You could also commission woodworkers on Etsy to make your table top to your specs. Some work with reclaimed wood.
posted by Elsie at 9:27 AM on February 24, 2020

Best answer: As you've found, the drawback to a hard finish on a stained surface is that once it's damaged, it looks like hell and is difficult to fix. If you get an unstained wood the scratches won’t be as noticeable. With a linseed or tung oil, more finish can be applied at any time. It'll be worn, but get more attractive over the years.

2nding Elsie that if you like the existing apron and legs, you could get a solid wood top made to replace it. Personally, I'd go for pine. It's cheaper than hardwood and will develop a deep patina. Pine also tends to develop a harder surface as it ages.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:49 AM on February 24, 2020

This may not be a huge help since we live in New Mexico, and our home is built in the local southwestern/pueblo-ish style, so stuff like this looks very natural with the style of our house. Our kitchen table is similar to this one, and we just give it a coat of beeswax periodically, and if it gets scratched, it just adds to the look.
posted by antimony at 10:00 AM on February 24, 2020

I have the most wonderful table from this company. Last time I checked they still had it, at a price I couldn't afford, now they seem to have dropped it, but they still have great stuff. My dream is to have two of these together, that I can fold out to make a big table, either a big square, or a long table. But I guess I'll have to wait for that jackpot.
My work table is a plain door without handles, on four legs from a megastore. I think any contractor would be able to get you the door, in any format.
posted by mumimor at 10:01 AM on February 24, 2020

If you like the look of wood but want something durable--you could get an inexpensive table (like from IKEA) and then lay wood-look porcelain tiles on the top--maybe finish with a bit of wood trim around the edge or just seal the edges.
posted by agatha_magatha at 10:26 AM on February 24, 2020

Did the cats scratch up the previous table's legs, or the top, too? If the former, a table with metal legs could help with that; if it's the latter, maybe just go all-in all-stainless steel (or other metal) protected top and legs. (You'd avoid using vulnerable wood, and lean into the 'sleeker' design element you like.) There's this, Casement Black Solid Surface Dining Table, all-black option. Maybe metal legs with a porcelain top (like the wood-look tiles on this table, as agatha_magatha mentions). Rectangular porcelain stoneware table at Archiproducts.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:38 PM on February 24, 2020

Our only nice piece of furniture is a big 4x8 mango wood dining table that we’ve had for about a decade. We have three kids and a dog and there has been a lot of abuse over the years including a few big scratches. The strong grain means a heavy coat of wax or oil eventually makes pretty much any damage disappear.
Edit: this isn’t our table but looks really similar if you want a visual.
posted by q*ben at 1:33 PM on February 24, 2020

Best answer: It's on the spendy side and wider than you'd like, but we got this great walnut table from Room & Board. We have two toddlers who like to bang utensils on it and the gouges are hardly noticeable. Once they're a bit older, I'll probably just plane down the surface a bit and refinish it.
posted by phooky at 6:01 PM on February 24, 2020

I’d get something already distressed - an antique, farmhouse style table with a finish that is already rough/matte/worn. Then you can add cat scratches and water rings and writing impressions and stains and it will just add to the feel. The two just above this seem to have that vibe.

There is no fine wood finish that can hold up to cat claws and hot/cold cups without coasters/placemats and writing on the surface without a mat underneath and still look new.

Alternatively, buy whatever table you want and have a thin glass protective top made for it!
posted by amaire at 7:38 AM on February 25, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you for the great leads, everybody! I'm liking the idea of grainy, variegated wood (to hide scratches) left its natural color so there's no stain to scratch through, or wood with a polyurethane coating.

What might appeal even more would be something already nicely worn, or made of a rugged material like ceramic composite, but our narrow-yet-long size seems to be ruling those out (and some faux-distressed ones that might otherwise be good look too faux to me). So if anyone has specific possibilities for those, I'd be interested.
posted by daisyace at 8:52 AM on February 25, 2020

Just one tip that's worked for me but will be location-dependent - I live near a fairly large antiques market and have stopped in and talked to dealers about the size and shape of things I'm looking for. Sometimes they've had something in inventory somewhere, but even more often they do give me a call later when they find that thing. It does take time and patience but it seems like you've been working on this a while!
posted by warriorqueen at 9:27 AM on February 25, 2020

Response by poster: One more follow-up question: Why don't major furniture sellers seem to offer polyurethane on their wood tables instead of other varnishes, if it's so much more durable?
posted by daisyace at 11:46 AM on February 25, 2020

Response by poster: Well it's been a loooonnnggg time coming, but in case anyone checks back, we did go with a custom-made table, and we finally just received it! We found someone local who put a polyurethane finish on a reclaimed wood top and distressed legs. It fits the space perfectly and has a leaf to extend it (not shown). We're hoping that with the top being already poly'd and variegated with some filled nail-holes, scratches will be preventable and/or less noticeable and/or easily maskable. Lots less expensive than the Crate & Barrel one we'd liked, too (and we stole that one's leg bevel for this design). We're really psyched about it, so thank you for all the help!
posted by daisyace at 8:18 AM on July 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wow, that is a fantastic-looking table!
posted by Lyn Never at 10:09 AM on July 18, 2020

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