How to restore a vintage wood table, a DIY tutorial explaining how to strip off an old finish, clean and repair the wood, then add a stain and protective finish.
I need to make one clarification before I start with the tutorial. There is a difference between “restoring” furniture and “refinishing” furniture. To truly restore a piece of furniture you need to research and duplicated exactly the way the furniture was finished when it was first made. You would have to use exactly the same stain and the same finishing agent. I did NOT do that for my table. I used staining and finishing products that would make the table look similar to how it originally looked. So, technically I “refinished” the table, not “restored” it. However, often when people share refinishing projects online, they coat the furniture in paint or another finish that is very different from the original look. So when I refer to “restoring” the table throughout this post, please understand that in the world of restoring antiques I am technically “refinishing” it.
I was lucky to learn how to restore furniture from my mom. As an interior designer, she loved updating and rearranging all of the rooms in our house. Refinishing and restoring furniture is much less expensive than buying new, so that’s what she did. I always loved watching an old dresser or chair totally transform as she refinished it.
Today I’m sharing what I know about restoring wood furniture, including two new solutions I learned while restoring this table.
The following have links to the specific brands I used, if you’re interested. They are also affiliated links, which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase one.
- Stripping Pad
- Mineral Spirits
- Quikwood for repairs
- Wood Stain
- Polyurethane (or another clear finish)
- Sand paper in different grits
- Cotton Rags, lots of rags
- Tack Cloth
The Table Before Restoring
I have my great-grandmother’s beautiful mahogany dining table from the 1940’s. I love it’s simple, mid-century style, but it was starting to show it’s age.
The finish started to crack and peel in places, and the wood underneath was getting stained by food and use. There were chips and even a couple of places where the veneer had started to come off. It desperately needed to be restored.
Strip the Finish Off the Table
I use a stripper to remove the finish instead of trying to sand it off. I remember once sanding the finish off of a piece of furniture, and my mom commented, horrified, “Your sanding off part of the furniture!” Ever since then, I use stripper to remove the finish unless it’s a piece of furniture that I don’t care if I sand off a layer of the wood. Plus, I’ve found that stripper really cleans the wood so it will stain much easier.
I used Citri-strip stripping gel to take the peeling finish off my table. First, I painted the stripper on one section of the table, let it sit for a few minutes, then used a scraper to scoop the stripper and finish off. I had to repeat the process a second time to get all the old finish off.
That mixture of stripper and old finish is really nasty. It will stain anything it touches and it can only be cleaned up with mineral spirits. I scraped it into an old yogurt container. Later, when it dried and hardened, I threw the whole thing away. I usually throw the brush away too, so I only use really cheap brushes with stripper.
The rounded and detailed parts of furniture are harder to strip. I painted the stripper on with a brush and scraped off as much as I could. Then I scrubbed each area with a stripping pad. (Stripper is nasty stuff and you should probably use gloves when touching it. Sorry for the bad example in the picture.)
Remember to only strip one section at a time. The stripper/old stain mixture is hard to get off once it starts to dry. You want it to remove it when it’s nice and liquidy, then clean it off with mineral spirits before it can dry.
Clean up the Table
I wiped the table down once more with mineral spirits to remove any stripping residue. This is my favorite part of restoring wood! When the wood is wet, it looks just like it will when it’s all finished. There’s a lot to do before then, but it gratifying to see a glimpse of the final look.
Once the mineral spirits dried, I realized I had a problem that I’d never dealt with before. Since the old finish had been coming off for a while, the exposed raw wood beneath had become dirty and gray in spots. The stripper didn’t clean those up like I’d hoped.
I spent several weeks researching how to clean or fix these spots. During that time, I covered the table with a plastic cloth and stuck it somewhere safe. I did not want to start trying fixes until I knew what I was doing. One wrong step with raw wood can wreck the furniture irreparably.
I found that oxalic acid will clean the gray dirt out of wood without damaging it. There are many products that contain oxalic acid, but my favorite is Bar Keepers Friend. I tested it on an old patio bench that I was refinishing to see if it worked—you can read more about it that here. I used a scrub brush to clean the patio bench because the wood was really rough anyway. When I cleaned my vintage table, I used a soft cotton rag, and tested it in an inconspicuous spot first. When I cleaned the table top, I worked slowly and carefully, with very little cleaner and water, cleaning it softly over and over until I got out all of the gray.
Once the table was clean, I wiped down the whole pieces of furniture with mineral spirits again.
Repair the Wood
In the past, I’ve used wood filler to fix any chips or damage on furniture. But wood filler doesn’t stain very well, and I recently learned about Quikwood that looks and acts like wood once it hardens. I decided to give it a try. I’m sure I’ll get better at using Quikwood with more practice, but overall I was happy with how well it turned out.
Stain the Wood
I found a brown mahogany in gel stain. I’ve never used gel stain before and decided I’d try it after reading several great comments about it.
The first coat of stain went on beautifully. I wiped a thin coat of it on with a cotton rag. The old, raw wood soaked up the stain really well. Remember to always work with a wet edge when staining. That means stain one part of the furniture at a time so you’re not applying wet stain next to dry stain.
The second coat of gel stain did not look as good. It streaked really badly. Normal oil-based stain does not streak. It slowly builds up more and more color with each coat as the wood absorbs it. I should have used oil-based stain.
Lesson learned. After some research I learned that gel stain is best when you want a really thick coat of stain, so thick that the wood grain barely shows through. I don’t think I will ever use gel stain again.
To get rid of the streaking, I wiped the whole table down with mineral spirits while the stain was still wet. Then I applied a coat of oil-based red mahogany I had. It evened the stain out beautifully, but it did make the wood a little more red than I wanted. I could live with that.
Finish the Table with Polyurethane
There are many finishing options for wood: polycrylic, paste wax, Danish oil, and more. Polyurethane is the strongest and most durable, and because a dining room table has to take a lot of spills, scrubbing, heavy dinnerware, and other abuse, it needs a really reliable finish. Polyurethane is the finish used on most hardwood floors too.
Once the stained wood was completely dry, I prepared the table for it’s protective finish. Prepping is important, and if you skimp on it, your finish will show it. It’s worth the extra time. First, I wiped down the table with a damp rag. Once the table was dry, I vacuumed it, especially in all the crevices. Finally, I wiped the whole thing down with a tack cloth. A tack cloth is an oily piece of cheesecloth that removes every bit of dust and debris.
Right after the table was cleaned, I used a finishing sprayer to apply Minwax satin polyurethane to the table. You can also use a high-quality brush to apply polyurethane, but it’s a little more work. Either way, clean your equipment with mineral spirits right after using it to keep it clean and ready for the next time you need it.
I waited a few days for the first coat to dry completely, then lightly sanded the whole table with 320 grit sand paper. Sand very lightly because you don’t want to sand off the finish, just smooth it out. Then prep the table again, just as thoroughly as before.
I applied a second coat, waited for it to dry, sanded with 400 grit sand paper, and wiped it down. I applied a third coat of polyurethane to the entire table. Most of the table was done at this point, but I wanted one more coat on just the top of the table where it gets the most use. When the third coat was completely dry, I sanded just the top with 400 grit sand paper and added the final coat to the table top.
Polish the Hardware
The wood table was finished and looked great, but this mid-century piece has brass tips on each of the six legs, and they were in bad shape too. I tried to polish them with brass polish, but after an hour of working on just one, it still looked pretty bad. I needed something stronger.
Oxalic acid, which is the active ingredient in Bar Keeper’s Friend, also cleans tarnished metal. I feel like I am constantly finding new uses for my Bar Keeper’s Friend. I scrubbed the brass feet with Bar Keeper’s friend, being very careful not to damage the surrounding wood. It cleaned off most of the tarnish. Then I went back with my brass polish and cleaned off the rest and shined them up.
The shiny brass table feet look great and very mid-century.
Update: I found a way to keep them shiny, so I will never need to polish them again! Check out How to Keep Brass Shiny.
My Restored Table
My great-grandmother’s table now looks like it did when she first bought it from Craddock Dependable Furniture, or pretty close. It looks perfect in our mid-century home. We can fold it down to save space.
Or add the two leaves that I restored at the same time.
And the wood will be protected as my family eats at it every day.