Paint or Stain? Fill Holes or Leave as Is?

beth0301August 9, 2014

I am refinishing/repurposing this old work bench in to a desk/work table for my office/craft/homeschool room. It's going to house a computer full time, a sewing machine part time and the rest will be available for writing/book work. I will likely find a cool desk pad for the writing area so that they divets in the wood don't cause problems with tearing papers but it likely won't be very large.

My original plan was to paint the whole thing white with chalk paint, distress and wax but now I'm having second thoughts.

I spent 3 hours yesterday sanding the top to remove years of paint drips and blobs of old epoxy/glue and even though I do have a little more sanding to do, I am getting close enough to make a final decision on the finish.

After I sanded, I washed it all down and was really impressed with how the wood top looked against the white (not yet distressed) base so I got to thinking about staining the top only instead.

The problem/question is the number of holes that were drilled in the top over the years during its former life. I like the character of the smaller ones but there are three sets of large holes that I sort of feel are too much. They are not random and are perfect circles (drill holes), quite large and I'm questioning if they add character or simply look tacky.

IF I paint the top, I no doubt will fill the large holes. If I stain, however, I know that the fill will show. I've spent a long time on wood working forums and realize that filled holes, especially that large, always show through the stain. How much they show, whether they are barely noticeable or stick out like cheetah spots, depends on a lot of things and isn't totally predictable.

From a aesthetic point of view, given that I WANT a rustic repurposed look would you fill and paint the top? Fill and stain and hope that they don't stand out too bad? Leave them and stain and just deal with the added "character"?

I will also post the pix in the woodworking forum and see if there is additional advice on making them blend in should I decide to fill and stain, but for now I'm looking for opinions on the appearance/feel of the piece.

The room has wood floors made to look like wide plank barn wood. They came out pretty good, complete with old square black nails I put in after staining for effect. The only downside to the floor is the color didn't come out quite like I wanted and has a funky taupe/almost but not quite green cast to it. I was going for a weathered gray but the combo of the natural wood color and the yellowish tint of the varnish gave it a different shade that I was hoping for. To me, this makes lighter woods, or any wood with a really warm tone such as oak, look terrible in there. The only wood color that I think looks ok is darker, browner tones.

I only mention that because as pretty as the natural color it is now is, I would not go with that color of stain in that room, it would not be complimented by the cooler toned floors.

This post was edited by beth0301 on Sat, Aug 9, 14 at 10:57

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These holes are on the center plank on one end. If they weren't drilled in such an obvious pattern maybe they wouldn't bug me so much. The smaller holes are fine, I love the character, but these are quite large and obviously not random.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 10:40AM
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These holes are on the other end. There are also holes opposite them shown in the next pic. In other words, it's not like I can just turn this side towards the wall and put a plant or some kind of decoration over them to hide them and there would still be holes showing.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 10:42AM
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these holes are on the same end as the ones above on the opposite side. Again, it's the pattern that bothers me. If they were just random holes here and there I would just leave them but there's something about them being so obviously man made, as opposed to occurring naturally with use over time, that makes me consider filling them.

This post was edited by beth0301 on Sat, Aug 9, 14 at 10:53

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 10:45AM
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and finally I will also add that the guy who built this for his workbench did so out of salvaged wood that already had some screw/nail holes in it. There are random ones scattered around the table top. They do not bother me, I actually like them. They are a lot smaller. Most are very random except for right down the middle where there is a line of them. Even being in a line and so many clustered together, I still don't mind them. I guess because they are small? Anyway, here they are. I suppose if I were to paint I might fill them, or maybe some of them, because the fill wouldn't show under the paint. Staining however is a different matter as it will almost certainly show the fills.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 10:51AM
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I would probably embrace the holes as part of the table's history--- recent though they may be. Filling them will be obvious, and I wouldn't try unless you can get wood plugs in them and sand them down to the same level of the table and then refinish the top. I think the plugs would look fine and if you need them to create a solid surface for writing you should. They'll be visible but not obnoxious if you use the same or similar wood.

It's a fabulous table and looks like it will be really useful as well. Regardless of what you end up doing with the holes you could always tell anyone who asked it was a playground for giant carpenter bees!

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 11:03AM
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If it were mine, I'd stain the top only. I would also embrace the holes, they add character and interest. Maybe you could add a few square nails like you did on your floor too. Good luck!

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 11:16AM
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That's the nice thing about reclaimed wood and rustic design: marring makes it more charming.

However, I agree that the holes that look drilled loo just that - drilled. You can get wood filler at the hardware store that matches up to the stain color you plan on using.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 11:32AM
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I think the drilled holes look like they were there for some purpose in the table's history so they don't bother me. The pattern just indicates that something was attached that is no longer there.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 11:43AM
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I'd leave as is. To me it looks like someone did a project and just drilled right through the table.

As is, the table looks really low. Can you sit at it or will you need to raise the legs?

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 1:43PM
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I, too, think it looks great as is. I would probably go ahead and stain the top and use for a while to see if the holes were bothersome. If so, then you could try filling them after the fact.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 1:49PM
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I had some small holes in my kitchen cupboards that I wanted to fill so was able to get small dowel rods, cut them to the right length, glue them in the holes, sand and stain. Can hardly tell they are there. Can you do that with some of your holes that are the same size....dowel rods cut to length and glued in. Smaller holes just leave.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 2:10PM
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Two thoughts:

  1. I like the idea of plugging the bigger holes. You could go the dowel route, or, better yet, you could get some tapered wood plugs. They come in a variety of sizes and wood types. They are tapered, so you put a little glue on them and pound them in with a mallet until they are flat or nearly flat (and then plane/sand them flat). They provide a tighter fit than a dowel. You might consider getting them in a nice, dark wood, like walnut, which will look better than the exposed, light end of a standard dowel. You could even drill a few more holes to distribute the "character" of the top. If you plug the holes, it would be best if you could drill out the existing holes slightly to give them a clean edge and a tight fit for the plugs, without gaps at the edges. If the holes are of such a size that it is hard to find pre-made plugs of the correct size, you can get dowels in woods like walnut and oak in diameters up to 1-1/4" at woodworker stores like Rockler.

2. In addition, because you will have a desk pad and maybe a keyboard and monitor covering part of the top, you can choose orientation of the table and where things are placed to hide or reveal as much as you want.

I think it will look great.

Here is a link that might be useful: Wood plugs

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 2:39PM
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I agree with pal -- the drilled holes indicate a past story and are part of the charm too. I wouldn't fill any of them. If they create a problem, use a desk pad or a clear glass or acrylic top. I think wood filler would detract from the top -- even wood plugs, If you really NEED to fill some of the holes for functional reasons, I would probably try the wood plug idea over filler.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 3:42PM
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Could the holes be used (or even enlarged) to guide wires from lamps/electrics/electronics????

Just wondering ......

And I would not fill them -- I would use them ......

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 4:08PM
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I'd fill the large holes, either with epoxy wood filler or a plug, reason being that if you want to write on paper while sitting there, those holes will be a problem.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 5:02PM
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People pay a lot of money for that kind of distressing.

I like it and would leave it as-is. I'd do a very light or "natural" color stain and a matte/low satin varnish.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2014 at 5:08PM
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I would fill them - with wood plugs or filler - for the practical reason that they will tend to accumulate crud and make using the workbench difficult for your intended use. Other than that, I would make no attempt to hide them.

When upcycling, you have to embrace the wasabi!

Looks like there was a tool attached, or someone drilled too deep on a project.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2014 at 1:02PM
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Many of those holes are in a pattern or have some symmetrical layout which suggests to me that they were once used to attach equipment, such as a vise, or woodworkers bench dog, etc., to the table. I'm still voting for using plugs. Wood filler has it's place, but, in my experience, not when you have so many and such large holes.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2014 at 1:12PM
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I would leave them.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2014 at 1:38PM
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It doesn't have to be either / or. You can plug the holes that might interfere with your work surface, and leave those closer to the edge or anywhere they don't present a functional problem. Under no circumstances would I use wood filler, as the holes are far too big for it to look decent, and if the wood top contracts even slightly with cold weather the filler may fall out.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2014 at 1:57PM
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Though I thought I'd take the advice of the majority here and embrace the table's past, I did end up filling and painting. It all boiled down to what worked and what didn't, which some times you don't really know until you just dive in and find out. After some prep work for a light staining (leaving holes) I realized there were other practical considerations and needed a nicer surface in order to make it practical.

It's chalk painted (well not boutique chalk paint, my own sorta like it version that looks very similar) white with reasonably heavy distressing and a matte clear sealer on the top only. It's working great so far, though the room is too far from finished for photos.

I added "feet" to raise to to a more workable height and made sure to sand (and sand, and sand and sand again) between each coat and at the end, especially over the nail heads and edges and where to board lines are on top.

Thanks for everyone's input!! You guys really are the best advice going. ;)

    Bookmark   September 18, 2014 at 10:58PM
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COMPLETELY OT, but I am relieved to hear you are homeschooling. This Common Core garbage is so bad. So very, very bad.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2014 at 11:25PM
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