Skip to main content

How to Refinish a Table or Coffee Table for a Beginner

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Tori is a 28-year-old, three-time animal mom and DIYer living in Northern Atlanta with her boyfriend.

This article will break down step-by-step how to strip, sand, and restain wood furniture (specifically tables and coffee tables)!

This article will break down step-by-step how to strip, sand, and restain wood furniture (specifically tables and coffee tables)!

A Project That Just Takes Time and Patience

When I moved into my townhome apartment two years ago, we needed furniture—desperately. Luckily, I found a beautiful burnt orange corduroy couch and chaise lounge set that I loved and matched the colors I wanted in the living room. That set came with a gorgeous coffee table, and I got all of it for only $120!

It has a gorgeous burnt orange finish, and black wrought iron legs with a storage area underneath the table. They matched so well, and I really loved the colors! But, after two years of kitties, spills, and general wear and tear, it has now come the time to redo everything. Now that I'm about to move into a new place, I'm especially motivated to do these projects. My first victim is the coffee table.

The coffee table is one of the highlights of my living room, but with all of the nail polish remover spills, stains and scratches from the previous owner, and general wear and tear I decided it was time for a new finish and a new look. But I'd never refinished anything before! I knew nothing about sandpaper or wood grains, or types of stains or what kind of supplies I needed.

For about a month before I started the project, I had to do research online on several websites to compile all of the information I would need to do it and do it right. I became a little frustrated because I wanted to be able to just go to one place to get the information I needed to be able to do a perfect job. After all, I really love this coffee table and didn't want to mess it up. I thought, "If I'm having this frustration, maybe there are others who are having the same frustration." And at that moment I knew I wanted to write everything down so that I could refer back to it and others could use it to complete their own wood staining projects.

At first, the project really intimidated me because all the websites I went to made it seem so complicated. But after I compiled all of my research and started actually working on the project, I realized it's not as hard as it seems! It just takes time and lots of patience. As I was doing this project, I wrote everything down so I wouldn't forget anything when relaying the information for this article including the types of products I used (because that can be intimidating too).

This is the old finish. I really liked it, but it was stained up and nasty from food spills, nail polish remover, pen marks . . . you name it and it was on here and had ruined the finish.

This is the old finish. I really liked it, but it was stained up and nasty from food spills, nail polish remover, pen marks . . . you name it and it was on here and had ruined the finish.

See that big cloudy spot in the middle? Yeah, my cat knocked over the nail polish remover bottle when I was doing my nails. Not cool, Zeus!

See that big cloudy spot in the middle? Yeah, my cat knocked over the nail polish remover bottle when I was doing my nails. Not cool, Zeus!

Things to Know Before You Get Started

  • This is definitely not a "finish in one weekend" type of project. Make sure you have the time and are committed to doing it.
  • Keep children and pets away from the project. The fumes are dangerous and so are the chemicals. You don't want them getting into things they shouldn't (or have the cats track paw prints through your drying stain!!)
  • Make sure you are wearing long pants, shoes that cover your feet, and have long gloves to cover your arms and protect from splashes and chemicals.
  • Try to have all of your supplies at the same time (I had to run to Home Depot several times because I didn't have all of the supplies I needed, and ended up wasting time).
  • Doing this project outside is fine if you need to, such as on a patio, but you can't do it when it's raining or humid outside because the humidity and the rain will affect the way the wood takes the stain (expanding, contracting, all that jazz). If this is where you are doing this you must wait until the humidity and rain is gone before you can start back up again.
  • It is best to do this in a well ventilated place (the fumes will get you) that is somewhat temperature controlled and protected from the weather (so you can still do the project when it's raining).
  • I've recommended specific products that I used for my project and they work great. But keep in mind that all furniture is different, and the brand I used may not have the color you want.
  • In my staining portion I chose to use the one-step type of wood stain, which is an oil based stain with polyurethane mixed in. The reason is because that was the only kind which had the exact color that I liked. If you don't find the color you want in that brand, or you want to do a different type of stain but don't know what to choose, I recommend going to Home Depot or Lowe's and taking a look at the different brands and kinds of stain. There are sample flip cards in the staining area so you can see what each stain they sell looks like. Make sure to talk to the paint department's representative and get their recommendations on products to use - they really know their stuff!
  • Whatever stain you choose, keep in mind you will have to buy the polyurethane separately anyway. The polyurethane is the protective coating that keeps from damaging the stain and the exposed wood. It's also what gives your table that shine. I discovered while staining my table that having the polyurethane mixed in was nice, but it sure didn't hide any blemishes I had caused by uneven strokes. I could still see everything! So, no matter what you use, always finish with a polyurethane coat or two.
  • Be safe and make sure to follow all of the safety precautions and disposal instructions on the supplies you will be using. The stripping, afterwash, conditioner, and stain are all flammable and need to be stored properly. The components you use to apply each also need to be disposed of properly. Follow the instructions on the back of the cans for proper disposal and safety instructions.

Supplies You'll Need

  • Paint stripper: I used Klean Strip Premium Sprayable Paint Stripper.
  • Wood afterwash: I used Klean Strip Paint Stripper Afterwash.
  • Wood conditioner: I used Minwax Prestain Wood Conditioner.
  • Your preferred stain: I used Minwax Polyshades Stain in Pecan.
  • Polyurethane sealer: I used Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane in Semigloss.
  • Breathing mask
  • Safety goggles
  • Compressed air: for cleaning cracks and blowing dust off your sandpaper as needed.
  • Nitrile gloves
  • Hand sander
  • Power sander: not really necessary, but takes some of the muscle out of hand sanding everything.
  • Variety of sandpaper grits: you'll need at least three—a low, medium, and high grit paper. (I used 60, 90, 100, 125, 200, and 400.)
  • LOTS of clean white rags: I used cut up t-shirts.
  • Plastic paint stripping tool: like a putty knife but with sides.
  • Plastic drop cloth: NOT plastic tablecloths—the paint stripper may make holes in the tablecloths and cause varnish to get everywhere.
  • Milk crates: or something else to prop your table top on while you're working.
  • Dish soap, water, and a gentle scrub brush: you can use the kind that you would use to scrub dishes.
  • Wood filler or wood putty: in case you have really big gouges to fill, and then you will also need a putty knife if you have to do this.
  • Protective clothing: shoes that cover your feet, long pants, and a t-shirt that you don't care about.

Note: Make sure you do all of this in a well-ventilated area that is protected from weather, such as a garage.

Project Cost Breakdown

Know what you're getting yourself into when it comes to cost. Don't be blindsided!

ProductWhere You Can Get ItCost

Klean Strip 18 oz. Stripper (Sprayable)

Home Depot, Lowe's, Amazon

$6.28

Klean Strip 32 oz. Paint Stripper Afterwash

Home Depot, Lowe's, Amazon

$6.97

Minwax 8 oz. Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner

Home Depot, Lowe's, Amazon

$11.97

Minwax 1 quart Polyshades Pecan Satin Stain & Polyurethane

Home Depot, Amazon

$12.87

Minwax 1 quart Fast Drying Polyurethane in Satin

Home Depot, Walmart

$9.97

Grease Monkey Latex Free Nitrile Gloves

Home Depot

$2.27

Economy 3.25 in. Paint Remover Tool

Home Depot

$2.99

Linzer 1 in., 2 in. and 3 in. Foam Paint Brush Set (9-Pack)

Home Depot, Amazon

$5.97

Husky 9 ft. x 12 ft. 2 mm Drop Cloth

Home Depot, Walmart, Amazon

$2.98

3M Tekk Protection Sanding Painted Surfaces Respirator (2-Pack)

Home Depot, Amazon, Sears

$4.97

3M Tekk Protection Chemical Splash Safety Goggles

Home Depot, Amazon

$2.97

3M 3.66 in. x 9 in. Pro Grade 60, 100, 150 Grit No-Slip Grip Sandpaper (8-Sheets)

Home Depot

$4.97

Norton 9 in. x 11 in. 220-Grit 3X Sanding Sheets (3-Pack)

Home Depot, Amazon

$3.97

Norton 400 Grit Super Fine Sandpaper Sheets (3-Pack)

Home Depot, Amazon

$3.97

Wal-Board Tools 3-1/4 in. x 9-1/4 in. Plastic Hand Sander

Home Depot

$5.98

-Total Cost of Project -

$89.10 (plus tax)

Step 1: Set Up the Work Area

  1. Put drop cloth down in the work area to catch any residue.
  2. If needed, have something to prop your table top up on and put it on top of the drop cloth. As you can see in the picture, I used milk crates.
  3. Have your safety gear within reach - breathing mask, safety goggles, and gloves.
  4. Keep pets and children away from the work site.
  5. Have a trash can nearby to dispose of used supplies and rags.
settin' up the workspace!

settin' up the workspace!

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Dengarden

Step 2: Take the Table Apart and Wipe Down All the Pieces

  1. Remove any pieces that will impede your ability to stain or sand the coffee table, or that is not getting restained or sanded (For me, this was all pieces of metal that were attached, because the only wood part of my table is the table top.)
  2. Wipe down any pieces you are using to remove any food or other type of residue.
I was only staining my table top, so I took the metal frame off of it. make sure to put the screws in a plastic bag or safe place so you can reuse them at the end!

I was only staining my table top, so I took the metal frame off of it. make sure to put the screws in a plastic bag or safe place so you can reuse them at the end!

Step 3: Do Some Preliminary Sanding

Sand the detailing on your table. My coffee table has a lot of molding around the outside as you can see, so I wanted to make sure this was done well first. I folded up a piece of sand paper and stuck it in the crevices (which also helped clean all the gunk out before doing anything else). If your table has no detailed cracks or crevices you can skip this step.

Step 4: Prepare and Apply the Paint Stripper

  1. Stripper is dangerous to work with because it contains chemicals that are dangerous to breathe in and can burn your skin.
  2. I used Klean Strip Premium Stripper, which comes in an aerosol can. I find this type of stripper to be the most user-friendly.
  3. Spray from your arm’s length away (don’t hold the bottle close to you), but keep it about 6-8 inches away from the table top and spray in even strokes across the table. Once you have finished spraying, let it sit for 15-20 minutes.
this is what the stripper will look like once sprayed on. be careful!

this is what the stripper will look like once sprayed on. be careful!

Step 5: Suit Up and Scrape

  1. Once the paint stripper has had time to set in, suit up in your safety gear once more. For this step you will need a plastic paint stripping tool, which looks like a mixture of a putty knife and a mini-shovel. Check your stripping tool before you use it to make sure the scraping edge is smooth, with no bumps or bent edges.
  2. Using the stripping tool, firmly scrape along the wood and you will see the varnish come up very easily.
  3. Do not scrape too hard. Apply even pressure across the scraper. If you don't, you might gouge the wood and cause extra scratches that you’ll need to sand out later (I did this by accident along one side of my table, didn’t notice until after I had done the whole side.)
  4. If all of the varnish does not come off in the first scraping. Don’t worry, and don’t scrape too hard to get it all off. Just take off as much as you can without damaging the table.
  5. For really bad trouble spots, spray more paint stripper on when you are finished stripping the table and let it sit for a while more. Then come back and scrape the table until as much as you can get off is gone.
  6. As you are scraping, make sure to pick up any clumps of old stain off your drop cloth and put them in the trash can so you don't step on them. I made the mistake of not doing it soon enough, and I stepped on a large piece of old stain and stripper. It melted the rubber off of my shoe, guys Seriously, make sure to clean up after yourself!
see the difference the afterwash made on the outside rim of my table?! this stuff is the bomb!

see the difference the afterwash made on the outside rim of my table?! this stuff is the bomb!

here it is completely done after the afterwash. Still some splotches - gonna get those out with sanding.

here it is completely done after the afterwash. Still some splotches - gonna get those out with sanding.

Step 6: Apply the Afterwash and Scrub . . . Hard

  1. Once you have as much of the old stain/varnish off the table as you can, here comes the satisfying part where you get to take off most of the spots that are left over from the stripping. You will need what is called “after wash.” It is reminds me of industrial strength nail polish remover, and smells like it too.
  2. If you are not outside, I do recommend a mask for this, and you will need gloves while handling this stuff. I ended up using almost the entire thing no need to skimp.
  3. Pour the after wash in a metal container.
  4. Soak a clean white rag in the afterwash, and scrub away. This is the most labor intensive part and may take a long time, but it really makes your life easier, especially with detailed tables like mine. If your table does not have a lot of details and molding, you probably won’t need to use very much to get the rest of the stain off your table.
  5. If you have some serious trouble spots after scrubbing away with the after wash, don’t worry too much because sanding will come next, which will take away most of the really bad spots.

Step 7: Wash the Table and Let It Dry

  1. When you have finished with the afterwash, take your table outside and scrub it down with a scrub brush, dish soap, and water to clean off the left over residue from the old varnish. Dry it with a clean cloth and lay the wood out to dry for a couple hours.
  2. Once your wood is dry (we left it overnight and picked back up the next morning), you are ready to sand!
here I am, washing the table with trusty dish soap, water and a gentle scrub brush.

here I am, washing the table with trusty dish soap, water and a gentle scrub brush.

Step 8: Sand the Wood

  1. There are some things to remember about using sandpaper on wood if you want it to turn out smooth and spot-free. Sometimes it may be a guess and check for your specific coffee table to figure out what grit you should use. Here is a helpful guide on choosing your grit of sandpaper.
  2. Remember that the lower the grit of sandpaper, the rougher it is. You want to start sanding with a lower grit sand paper to get out any gouges or left over splotchiness from the old stain. I started with a 120 grit sand paper on a power sander, but realized pretty soon that wasn’t doing much to get the gouges out of my table. So I switched to 60 grit and using a hand sander which did a MUCH better job. Power sanders are great, but they can only do so much.With the detail on my table it ended up being better to sand the whole thing by hand.
  3. Go in the direction of the grain of the wood. The grain of the wood will be in the direction that the little lines and curves in the wood are going (refer to the picture on the right for reference). If you go against the grain your table will have odd looking scratch marks all over it that can be difficult to fix later.
  4. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP: After you are done with the lower grit sand paper and have gotten the major blemishes out, you want to switch to a higher grit sand paper to make the surface smoother, and then go up another level after that. I went up to 100 grit and finished with 150 grit. If you only use the low grit sand paper, your table is essentially scratched and not ready for the stain. It will take stain unevenly and cause problems in the future steps.

Step 9: Wipe Down the Table to Prepare for Conditioning

I used pressurized air to get the sawdust out of the cracks of the table first, which isn’t necessary if your table doesn’t have any details like mine does. Wipe the table down with a clean rag as well to pick up any other particles. After you have wiped down your table, now is time to condition the wood.

see the difference the wood conditioner makes? apply an even coat to the whole table.

see the difference the wood conditioner makes? apply an even coat to the whole table.