Refinishing lacquer table top

franksmom_2010January 27, 2013

I bought this vintage Drexel dining table that has a lacquer finish. I haven't done anything to it other than a wipe down with mineral spirits and tested one tiny spot with lacquer thinner. It's in very good condition, except for the finish on the top.

This is the condition of the top:

There is one tiny spot (smaller than a pencil eraser) that is down to bare wood, and one spot (smaller than a golf ball) in the last pic where it looks like something disolved the finish and stuck to it. Nail polish remover on a cotton ball, maybe?

Anyway, what do you think of this plan? Wash with soap and water, then wipe down again with mineral spirits. Quickly brush it down with lacquer thinner to smooth out all of the crackling, then follow with a fresh top coat (or two, or how many?) of spray lacquer.

When I tested to see if it was lacquer, the color on the rag was a pale amber, so I don't think it's one of those finishes that has all of the color in the lacquer.

If a quick once over with thinner doesn't smooth all of that mess out, plan B is to strip it all off with thinner, then apply new finish. Again, spray lacquer in a can, like Deft?

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Personally, I'd just jump to plan B and strip off the top with a chemical stripper. Do not attempt to just "sand this off" as you'll quickly go through the veneer. I think this is just too much bad finish to try to cover it up. In the same amount of time you'll spend trying to get it to build and look good, you could have stripped it.

Then apply top coat of choice. While the original is lacquer, a wipe-on varnish would be fine and the most foolproof to apply. Aerosol lacquers (I use them daily in touch up work) just don't build very fast. Lacquer's main advantages are very fast dry time and ease of repair. But it's not the most DIY friendly. You could use a brush on lacquer such as Watco Lacquer or Deft Lacquer in a can if you are stuck on using lacquer.

If there's any chance that Pledge or another furniture polish containing silicone oil has ever been used, you'll want to seal it in with a couple of coats of dewaxed shellac sprayed on. If the finish fish-eyes, you know you have silicone oil in there.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2013 at 2:08PM
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Thanks so much!

Sanding was never an option, because the top and edge banding are all veneer, so I know better.

The finish doesn't have to be lacquer at all. If I use a wiping varnish, what would you recommend? I just used a wiping poly to finish our fireplace mantle, and that was easy as pie, but I don't know if poly is the best choice for a table top.

I just bought unfinished chairs that I plan to stain to match the table, so they'll need finishing, too, and I was thinking of doing them with a wipe-on finish anyway.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2013 at 2:53PM
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If you want a urethane varnish, General Finishes' "Arm-r-Seal" works well. Ignore the label that says "urethane and oil blend." It's double-speak for "varnish."

But you can convert any brushing varnish to a wipe on varnish by simply diluting it. Alkyd and phenolic varnishes are alternatives to urethane. Pratt & Lambert #38 and Sherwin Williams Fast Dry (not polyurethane) are alkyds; Waterlox is phenolic.

Here is a link that might be useful: Wipe on Varnish primer

    Bookmark   January 27, 2013 at 7:26PM
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That was a great article! And I poked around and read a few more.

Problem is, I still don't know what kind of varnish that I want. I know that poly is the current darling of the finish world, and some people think it's the greatest thing ever and others think it's crap.

From what I have read, for a dining table and chairs that will get almost daily use, I don't think poly is the best choice, although it wouldn't be the worst choice, either. We also have cats with claws, so scuffs and scratches are to be expected, and I imagine that any finish for this use will occassionally need touching up.

I have read that Waterlox is one of the best, and people who have used it (including average DIY types) have had great success.

Arm-r-seal also has good reviews, and it looks like it's almost half the cost of the Waterlox. It would also be easier for me to purchase locally.

What is the benefit of using alkyd vs. urethane vs. phenolic?

    Bookmark   January 27, 2013 at 9:10PM
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"Personally, I'd just jump to plan B and strip off the top with a chemical stripper. "


Lacquer is so easily repaired and coated with another layer it is not worth the risk to strip it if it is ovarall in good shape.

You can try painting on lacquer thinner to smooth the surface, followed by a few coats of solvent based Deft Clear Wood Finish (actual lacquer).

It will melt into the existing lacquer just fine.

If you use gloss you can then rub it to whatever sheen level you want.

This post was edited by brickeyee on Mon, Jan 28, 13 at 10:19

    Bookmark   January 28, 2013 at 10:18AM
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Doesn't look "in good shape" to me. Fracturing / peeling, fissures, bare spots, dirty, potential silicone oil contamination.

> Lacquer is so easily repaired and coated with another layer it is not worth the risk to strip it if it is ovarall in good shape.

Really, brush on some stripper, cover with a sheet of plastic, come back in an hour an scrape it off. Wipe clean with recommended neutralizer and/or acetone or lacquer thinner, let dry overnight and you have a sure good base for your new coats. No more work to do it right and reduce the risk.

Poly's attributes, plus and minus, are listed below.

Phenolic (Waterlox) tends to be more garnet colored, that can be a distraction on light woods or enhance dark woods. It's quite water resistant.

Alkyd is generally lighter in color (good for light colored woods or natural finishes), especially if made with Soya vs. Linseed oil.

The same guy that wrote the article above, just said on another forum, " Unfortunately, poly has become the go-to finish for almost all amateur/hobbyist woodworkers because it is all that is available in the local hardware and big box stores, and it is by far the darling of the woodworking press. While poly has its place, its only significant attribute (other than being available everywhere) is its extreme abrasion resistance. But, on the down side, poly tends to take on a plastic look, especially when applied too heavily. It also yellows dramatically over time, is highly subject to UV damage and is difficult to repair. So, if you aren't going to walk on it; if you don't need the abrasion resistance, why put up with the shortcomings?"

    Bookmark   January 28, 2013 at 7:11PM
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Eh. I was going to use lacquer thinner to strip it anyway, so I could certainly try brushing it out, first, just to see what I get. I've got nothing to lose but time.

Still haven't made a decision as to what kind of varnish if I go that route. Other than no poly. Does anyone have experience with Arm-r-seal?

    Bookmark   January 28, 2013 at 9:40PM
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Arm-r-seal is a wiping poly varnish.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2013 at 10:44PM
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Oh well good grief! Here I thought I had it all figured out! So then why are there all of these posts all over the net gushing over how fabulous it is, and how much better it is than Minwax?! Not just one brand vs. another, but I had the impression that it was apples and oranges.

Is there an acceptable non-poly varnish that is sold in the big box stores? Is Waterlox a better choice?

    Bookmark   January 28, 2013 at 10:54PM
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Non-poly varnish sold in big box stores? Not likely. Minwax has gobbled up most of the shelf space. Varathane got what's left.

You might find Cabot 8000 series (used to be McCloskey's Heirloom, then things got assimilated into Valspar). 8000, 8007, etc only indicate the sheen level (gloss, satin, etc.) Lowe's is a major customer of Valspar's but I've not looked for it there. I got a can at my corner Do-it-best hardware store a few years ago.

The easiest to find would be Sherwin-Williams "Fast Dry Varnish" that you can find, but might have to ask for, in their neighborhood stores.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   January 29, 2013 at 1:12PM
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Behlen's rock hard Table Top Varnish is still out there.

The mere act of trying to strip a finish from a veneered piece can result in all sorts of bad things.

Ifg you are worried about fish eye, all the striping you do is unlikely to solve the problem.

Fish Eye Eliminator (pure silicone) can be added to the new finish to eliminate fish eye.
Just remember you have now contaminated every tool you use applying the new finish with silicone.

I normally just toss them, or keep expensive things like a spray gun just for use with silicone.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2013 at 4:49PM
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I spray a couple of coats of Seal Coat (100% dewaxed shellac) to seal in the silicone when I expect it. I can normally predict a problem when I apply the stripper. It can fish - eye, too.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2013 at 5:52PM
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Did I mention that the table has two leaves? We plan to use the table most of the time without leaves, but however the table in round form is finished, I'll do the same to the leaves.

But I can practice on the leaves...the one small area of a leaf that I tested with lacquer thinner did smooth out all of the crackling, but it made the finish dull. Is that an indication of anything (the dreaded silicone)?

I think Cabots is sold at my local HD or Lowes. I know they sell their stain, not sure about finishes, though.

So, back to lacquer...other than good ventilation, any other tricks to working with this? Do I need the same kind of warmish/dryish conditions as any other finish? Our weather is fickle right now, so the whole mess may have to wait until spring.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2013 at 10:46AM
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Lacquer dries so quickly that warmer temps (and the higher humidity that comes with them) are often a problem.

I prefer lacquering (brushing lacquer) in my open garage in cool to cold weather to slow things down a little.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2013 at 11:35AM
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Here's the update. I tried brushing on the lacquer thinner to smooth out the finish, and it just didn't work very well. Some of the deeper crackled areas smoothed out a tiny bit, but certainly not enough that I would put a new layer of finish on them. So, on to plan B and stripping the whole top off.

I'm still undecided about a finish. I think brushing lacquer is going to be too fussy and error prone for me. I thought about lacquer in the spray can, but wonder how many coats that would take. I'm guessing a lot.

I had almost convinced myself to buy the Waterlox, but I've seen the varnish in a few videos, and it looks really, really dark. And much too reddish.

Since I'm only refinishing the tops, I think I need something that leans towads amber.

After lots of reading, the Sherwin Williams product is out. Many more negative comments online about this product, particularly as a wiping varnish, so I'm not even going to try it.

The Cabot's products available at Lowes are all poly or spar.

Of the choices available locally, this leaves poly or Formby's. I know many people have an issue with Formby's over the whole misleading marketing of "tung oil" and all, but really, what about the product itself? Does anyone have experience with this? Application? Durability? What color is it? Repairs and touch ups?

If I use a coat of shellac on the top after stripping, can I apply ANY finish on top of that?

BTW, my set of unfinished chairs was delivered. The plan is to sand (gently), stain, assemble (with added glue in all appropriate joints), then finish. Any other suggestions or tips?

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 10:13AM
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The Formby's product is a wipe-on varnish. It's been very long since I used it and even that piece of furniture is long-gone.

Just be sure your shellac is de-waxed. Otherwise, poly and w/b acrylic will have adhesion problems. I like Seal Coat for this type of application.

During chair glue up work hard to keep glue inside the joints. Glue prevents stains from working if the glue smears (called "glue blotching"). If you are using oil-based finishes, you can smear a bit of wax around the joints. The latest Fine Woodworking Magazine has a good article on this. You should be able to find it at a bookstore or library.

Chairs have a lot of intersecting surfaces. It's easy to spray them and a pain to brush finish on. Just do your best to keep a "wet edge" and watch out for runs where pieces meet.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 7:26PM
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Alright, so I stripped the tops, and all of the color was in the finish. No problem, since I'll use the same stain for the chairs. After stripping, I wiped down with mineral spirits and a scrubbie pad, then a final wipe with lacquer thinner. Brushed on a coat of stain, and wiped off.

There are a few places where I must have missed some of the finish, and it looks like this:

And one section of my tabletop looks like this. I thought I was brushing with the grain, but???

How do I fix this? I think it all needs another coat of stain anyway, but what do I do next?

Also, this is what the tops look like after stripping. Any idea what wood this is?

And one last question. I bought the Seal Coat, and the can says it can be wiped they mean like wiping varnish, or???Is there a trick to that? My plan was to quickly brush it on, let it dry, scuff sand, then apply my wiping varnish.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2013 at 4:45PM
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