Sunday, January 17, 2016

Table Topping

Let's talk table topping. Is that a naughty euphemism? I can't keep up these days, but I suppose someone could check Urban Dictionary and see if they want.

         One of the most frequent questions I get on all my social medias is 'How do you finish your wood tops?". While I was refinishing this vintage mahogany veneer round tabletop for a client I thought I'd photograph it step by step to show you my method for refinishing wood surfaces. I've mostly learned this through trial and error and there are certainly many other methods, but this is my go to. It's both relatively quick and fairly easy, and because the results are consistently so damn good.

like I said, SO DAMN GOOD

First I sanded the table top. I use a Dewalt orbital sander, and I start with 80 grit paper. I remove the surface fully. Sometimes this takes hardly any time, and sometimes this is a miserable long job and can take hours until I'm cursing the mighty furniture gods that have forsaken me. The finish on mahogany usually comes off pretty easily, I suspect because mahogany is such a dense wood, and so the finish sits mostly on top of the wood, versus pine, which can be a real pain in the ass to sand. With a veneer I have to take special care since these surfaces are whisper thin and there is absolutely no margin of error, if you get through the veneer to the secondary wood or in this case composite, you've messed up...big time. In order to avoid that, always keep your sander flat against the top of the wood. There will be a little demon on your shoulder who will inevitably tell you that you can get that old varnish off sooooo much quicker if you tilt the sander and use the edge, but that black magic will lead you down a dark road fraught with chipped veneer and ruined table tops.

Mid sanding. I always do it outdoors, even in winter as it's such a messy process. 

Once I've removed all of the old surface I go over the table back and forth quickly with a 220 grit paper on my orbital sander. This makes the surface nice and smooth and removes any spurs that the coarse grit paper might have kicked up.

I wipe the surface down with a dry paper towel to remove most of the residual dust. Some woodworkers would tell you that you need to use cheesecloth and be really super anal about getting that surface totally dust free, but I've never found that to be the case. Hell sometimes I just wipe the surface off with my sleeve.

          Also, having just finished sanding in the bitter cold my respirator mask is filled with disgusting condensation and my face is totally jacked from the rubber of the mask, my feet and hands are numb, and I'm questioning why I ever left a cozy warm antique shop to battle furniture AND the elements.


Next is stain. I always use minwax stains. Since I was only refinishing the top of this table and matching it to the original surface on the base, I went with a light color, especially as mahogany takes stains darker and redder than most woods. For this I used minwax golden oak on mahogany veneer.

See how different the stain is on the 'chip' as opposed to on my mahogany table. This is why you should ALWAYS test a little teensy teensy bit on a little teensy micro teensy section, to make sure it's going to be the tone you want.
 Or, don't- you wild child, you. 

I apply the stain with a paper towel (I'm sorry, I use so many paper towels). I apply it generously and evenly along the wood grain, covering the entire surface and then immediately wiping the surface down with a clean towel. I'll continue to wipe down the surface until the towel is coming back almost all the way clean, and then I let it sit for about an hour. On a dry day in the hot sun I can cut that time in half.

  Once the stain has set for a while I apply my first coat of polyurethane. I use minwax oil based polyurethane. Clear gloss is my favorite as it dries the fastest, goes on evenly, and I like how it smells. I use semi and satin if requested by clients but they smell weird and kind of give me a headache. So it's almost always clear gloss when I have my druthers. I apply the poly with a sponge brush. I like the ones from Ace Hardware. The ones from Home Depot are pansy weak and totally suck. Just like with the stain I work with the wood grain. I apply an even coat starting far away and moving towards myself. On a table of this size I'll do one half and then walk around the table and do the opposite side. I do the edges last as they'll have little drips on them from the horizontal surface. Finally I'll go back over the entire table one last time to make sure I've applied the poly smoothly and evenly. It's easy to miss spots. The best way to catch those spots is to walk all the way around a piece looking at it in different light and angels. You may think you've gotten it all but I guarantee you've missed a spot.

Minwax should be paying me for this. Look what a difference polyurethane makes!!

Next I let the surface dry. It's like a magnet for dust and debris and I inevitably forget and put my hand down on the wet surface-that happens at least three times a week. So often I like to apply poly coats right before I leave the workshop for the night. As with paint surfaces, these won't dry properly in temperatures colder than 50 degrees fahrenheit, and will be slower than molasses in January on rainy damp days. Hot dry days are the bomb. I can work outside and get three coats of poly down in one day.

I like to very very lightly run a finger along a surface to check if it's dry and ready for another coat. Any tackiness at all and it's not ready. The first coat, once dry, will be alarmingly ugly and coarse to the touch, like sandpaper. I know there's a scientific reason why the first coats dry like that, I have absolutely no idea what it is. Anyway, to remedy that I lightly sand the top by hand with 220 grit paper. Pro-tip: I use the same piece of sandpaper for an entire surface from initial sanding with the orbital all the way until the second to last coat. With each sanding it gets progressively softer and finer, all the better to hone that smooth surface. A fresh sheet of 220 grit on your final sanding can be too rough, and might mar it.

One coat or another after the hand sanding step

So after I sand lightly by hand I'll run my hand across the table to determine if it's pleasantly smooth. It's a very tactile process all in all. I then wipe the dust off the surface and apply the next coat of poly.
I do this song and dance routine for between five and seven coats. I know the surface is finished when it's smooth as glass. I don't sand the final coat unless I'm going to apply a furniture wax on top. I only apply a furniture wax if I want a less shiny final result.

All in all this process takes about one hour of sanding, ten minutes of staining, and then ten minutes of polyurethane application each coat with 8-12hour drying intervals between each.

And voila, a table that looks brand new!

Bonus (because I got curious): Urban dictionary definition of table-topping. The first one is PG, the second one is not, at all, not even a little. You've been warned.


  1. Thank you! As it's currently snowing and well below 0 here, I'm not going to attempt to practice what you've preached right now. But I promise to post pictures of the final product (a maple dining table for my cottage) some time next summer.

  2. Anonymous1/28/2017

    I have a hard time with Polyurethane because it is a magnet for dust and dog fur floating around my house. What do you do with the last coat to get those particles out?

  3. @1:28 I will have the same issue when I begin. And you can't apply outside because tiny bugs will stick. And I have cats in my house. My basement is my default location because my cats aren't allow d down there.