Q: I have a solid oak dining table with finish that has worn off in several places. I use Johnson paste wax on it a few times a year, as directed by the furniture maker. This doesn’t help the worn places. What can I do to restore the finish?
A: There might be a way to touch up the worn areas, or you might need to refinish the table. The best approach depends partly on how much finish has worn off and what type of finish it is — and partly on whether you are seeking a quick fix that makes the table look better or are willing to tackle a bigger job to be sure of getting a “like-new” look.
If only a few small areas are worn, try evening out the color by rubbing on a tinted wax, such as Howard Citrus-Shield Premium Paste Wax ($16.50 at amazon.com). Golden Oak or Dark Oak would probably work best, although this wax also comes in Walnut, Mahogany and Neutral.
Or you could try using a product that combines solvent, oil and stain and is designed to penetrate into faded finishes and restore the original color, such as Howard Restor-A-Finish in Golden Oak or Dark Oak ($8 at amazon.com). Restor-A-Finish works with wax, oil, shellac, lacquer and varnish — but not polyurethane. To identify the finish, go through a series of tests: Scratch it with a fingernail (it leaves a mark on a wax finish), add a drop of linseed oil (it dissolves into an oil finish), or dab with denatured alcohol (it quickly softens shellac but takes a while to soften lacquer). For the final test, dab it with acetone on a cotton swab. Varnish will get gummy (as would shellac, but you will have already ruled that out). Lacquer will come off completely, but acetone won’t have any effect on polyurethane.
If the finish isn’t polyurethane and you want to try Restor-A-Finish, choose among the nine available colors to get the closest color match. You can mix colors — Golden Oak with Dark Oak, for example — but before you buy two cans, you might want to test whether the lighter of the two colors makes a substantial difference. If you think you might want to apply a clear finish over the whole tabletop later, wipe off excess Restor-A-Finish immediately, rather than letting it soak in, and avoid using polyurethane for the clear coat.
If trying to disguise the worn areas doesn’t work, or if you want to skip all the testing and just tackle refinishing, begin by looking under the table and figuring out whether you can detach the top from the legs. If you can carry the top outside or into your garage, you can support it on sawhorses and do the messy work there. Leaving the legs behind makes the top easier to maneuver (and you probably don’t want to refinish the legs anyway, especially if they have intricate details).
You have two options for removing the old finish: sanding it off or removing it with a chemical stripper. Sanding has the advantage of avoiding nasty chemicals. Stripping has the benefit of resulting in a more level surface because there is no danger of sandpaper digging in unevenly depending on whether it’s hitting the old finish, which is relatively hard, or bare wood, which is softer.
Even if you think your table is solid oak, inspect it carefully before proceeding because it could have an oak veneer over particleboard or other material. Even tables that appear to be made from wooden planks glued together are often made with veneers because veneered tabletops tend to stay flatter. Check by following a line where two planks on the table appear to be glued together. If the line does not continue around the edge of the tabletop and across the bottom, it’s probably veneer (unless a piece of molding has been attached, in which case you can still check whether there are matching straight lines across the top and bottom).
If you decide to use a chemical stripper on a veneered table, do a test first to make sure the stripper doesn’t dissolve the glue that holds the veneer in place. Sanding a veneered table also takes special attention: You need to make sure you don’t sand through the veneer, which might be paper-thin.
To sand off the old finish, a coarse grit — around 80 — will quickly get through to the wood. Then you need to get out the scratches you made with finer and finer grits, moving from 100 to around 220.
Whether you strip or sand, once you have removed all of the finish, wipe off the dust or stripper residue (following instructions on the stripper label if you are using that).
You then have the option of whatever finish you wish. If you want to darken the color before you apply a finish, consider applying a wood conditioner first so the stain more evenly colors the wood.