Find out how to refinish a table to give it a well-protected, durable, natural looking wood finish.
This oak table makeover might seriously be the biggest labor of love I’ve tackled for our ranch house. It was a dated Craigslist find… But I loved the size (it’s enormous!), the real oak (yay, hardwood!), and the parquet look on the top (which remind me of our floors when we lived in Paris).
It weighs about a million pounds, though, and it had a lot of old varnish and stain that had to go. I knew I wanted a casual, raw wood look to bring the more elegant lines of the table into the more casual feel of our ranch kitchen and dining room.
So I stripped the whole thing down to the raw wood and worked hard to find a way to give the table a durable finish while still keeping the (mostly) natural wood look. It’s not perfect; I have yet to find a way to give a truly durable finish on a piece without changing the look at all, but I feel like I came pretty close on this table.
Dining Table Makeover
I’m going to walk you through how to refinish dining tables below, but if you’d like to replicate the look, be sure to read the extra info below the tutorial for more tips and details!
- contractor paper and/or plastic drop cloths
- chemical resistant gloves, safety glasses, and protective mask
- citrus stripper, chemical stripper, and mineral spirits
- rags, cheap paint brushes, plastic putty knife, and steel wool in varying grades
- metal or glass containers
- palm sander with different sandpaper ranging from 100-300
- gray wood stain
- wipe on poly
How to refinish a table
How to refinish an oak dining table for a natural wood look
Lay down protection for your floors, ensure you have proper ventilation, and gather all necessary supplies.
Use the citrus stripper first to remove the bulk of the old finish, then use the chemical stripper to remove the final traces. The effectiveness of each step will depend upon the type of finish on your piece. *See this post for a full, step by step tutorial on stripping off old stain and varnish
Starting with 150 grit sand paper, give the entire piece a light sanding with a palm sander. Gradually move to higher grit papers (220, even 300) until the piece is as smooth as you would like. As you can see, this step should remove the final traces of the stain you treated chemically.
*Note: be sure your table is solid wood, not veneer before sanding heavily… Veneers need to be treated much more delicately.
Clean the entire piece until it is free of sanding dust. I started by blowing it off with an air compressor, then wiped it with dry rags, and finished with a cloth dipped in mineral spirits. If you are struggling to get the piece truly clean, try a tack cloth as a final step.
Tip: Once clean, place your furniture on blocks or paint cans to keep it far from any dust or dirt from the floors.
Apply wood stain in the direction of the wood. I used this gray stain to counteract the orange tones of the wood. Work in small areas. Allow the stain to sit for 10-15 seconds and then wipe off with a lint free rag.
When the stain has fully dried, apply a matte wipe-on poly. I applied three coats according to the package directions for a durable finish. Be sure to wait the recommended drying time between coats.
As you can see, it does darken the wood slightly (on the left), but it stays a nice neutral color, rather than pulling orange. (Also, the sealer is still wet in this image; the difference is actually even less once the sealer dries).
How to get a raw wood look on oak
A few more thoughts on the process…
If you’ve done any furniture refinishing, you know that the application of sealer (whether it’s wax, polyurethane, or varnish) can change the look and color of the wood. There are few things more frustrating than stripping a piece of furniture until you love the look and then having it change completely when you go to seal it!
The problem with oak is that it tends to lean orange when hydrated and sealed. In order to avoid that 70’s and 80’s orange oak look, you’ll want to counteract the warm orange tones with cool ones.
A gray or white stain is generally your best option. You can see on this little test section below what a difference this fast drying gray stain makes when sealer is added. On the left, I tested some gray stain; on the right, it is simply the raw wood. (The slightly darker shape is mimicking the effect of sealer.)
Where the wood is completely raw, the sealer makes it much darker and more orange. Where the gray stain had been applied, the sealer merely darkened the wood slightly, but did not change the color noticeably.
Tip: to counteract orange tones in wood, apply a gray or white stain or wax.
That’s why I used this stain on this oak table before sealing.
How to test sealers on raw wood
Speaking of testing stain and sealer, I have a little trick for you. A great way to test what wood will look like when sealed is to squirt a little isopropyl alcohol (or rubbing alcohol) onto the wood. This will allow you to see the color changes that sealer will likely induce, but the alcohol will dry quickly and not require any additional cleaning or stripping.
Tip: squirt alcohol onto the raw or stained wood to test the potential color change effect of applying a sealer.
HOw to seal and protect a dining table
One of my most popular posts ever is a tutorial for achieving a raw wood look on refinished furniture. Unfortunately, though, that tutorial uses a wax finish. While wax finishes are excellent (in my humble opinion) for dressers, nightstands, cabinets, and other surfaces unlikely to get wet, I would not recommend a wax finish for a dining or kitchen table.
I’ve actually had wax finishes on dining room tables in the past, but they are high maintenance and very difficult to keep looking good, especially on the top of the table. I think the best finish for dining tables, especially if you are trying to achieve a natural wood look is a satin or matte (as non-shiny as you can find) polyurethane finish. Oil based finishes will typically be more durable than water based finishes.
And my favorite water resistant wood surface option these day is a wipe-on poly, rather than brush on. It is easy to apply and easier to get a smooth, natural looking finish with wipe-on polyurethane.
Tip: avoid wax finishes for dining tables. Instead, use a wipe-on polyurethane in matte to achieve a similarly smooth, non-shiny, protective surface.
I hope you found this tutorial on how to refinish a table helpful! You can pin it below for future reference, or check out any of my other furniture projects here.