How to protect (but not refinish) old table top

sangenuerSeptember 7, 2011

I'm new to this forum and know very little about woodworking. I have a harvest table that mom my thinks is from about 1920. I don't know what kind of wood it is, but it is solid. It was my family's everyday dinner table for my entire childhood and was handed down to me several years ago. Now my own family uses it every day.

I would like to be able to use the table without having to either use a plastic tablecloth/pad or scold my kids every time they put a glass down and miss the plastic placemat. I'd also like to be able to just wipe up after meals. Any liquid on the table leaves white marks that fade as they dry. Heat also seems to sort of melt the finish (like if I don't use a thick enough trivet under a hot serving dish). I do not want to refinish the table, but I would like to do something to the table top to protect it and toughen it up a bit. My first thought was polyurethane, but I keep reading that it really isn't the best choice for a dining/kitchen table.

I know that I need to thoroughly clean it and then put something on it. What's the best way to clean it without removing the finish, and what should I use as a protectant? I'm not trying to keep a "patina" or anything like that. I love this table but I don't have any pretensions about it being valuable. I just want to be able to use and enjoy it. And I don't want to do anything to the legs of the table. With 12 leaves, I'll be busy enough just getting the table top done.

I generally use Murphy Oil Soap (the concentrate, diluted) and a soft cloth to clean it, and occasionally put Old English furniture oil on it to help even out the look of the finish.

Thanks for any advice you can offer!

Lisa

The table: From 2011-09-07

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Jon1270

Given that you're considering polyurethane, it's not clear what you mean when you say you want to avoid refinishing. Polyurethane (and anything else that would give you the results you're looking for) is a new coat of finish. Chances are good that you'll need to remove the old finish before applying the new one. In other words, refinish.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2011 at 7:43AM
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sangenuer

Is there anything I can do without completely removing the old finish? Wax, maybe? I was hoping to be able to just clean and cover/seal the finish that's there. I love the character that the table top has and don't want to remove it, just make it easier to live with.

Or am I misunderstanding refinishing? I'm assuming that means stripping down to bare wood, sanding smooth and basically starting over to make it like new. Is there some way for me to just remove whatever is on top without going all the way, so to speak? I don't want to have to restain the tabletop or sand every little nick out.

Am I just being unrealistic?

    Bookmark   September 8, 2011 at 10:20AM
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brickeyee

Get a glass sheet cut to match.

Plastic scratches very easily and looks bad quickly.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2011 at 11:04AM
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bobismyuncle

You can get a finish amalgamator, that is basically lacquer thinner. This will dissolve the top coats and smear around what's left, that you can then wipe up with clean rags. Hope's and Formby's are two brands that come to mind. There are a number of companies that make these, often known in the trade as ATM (acetone, toluene, methanol) strippers / rejuvenators / restorers. Some have wax in them to slow the evaporation rate, others do not. I'd recommend if you want to go this route to use a non-woven abrasive such as Scotch-Brite or the Norton or Mirka equivalent instead of steel wool. Steel wool can leave behind minute shards of steel that can later rust and cause you problems.

Technically, this is stripping, though in a gentle sort of way. If the existing finish is 90 years old, it has probably lived a long and useful life and is no longer the best choice to just cover over.

As far as which finish to choose, you have a lot of options. You pick the characteristic(s) you want in a finish and you get the concomitant attributes that go along with it.

Polyurethane, in my opinion, tends to get over used. However, I would not be adverse to using it for an everyday dining table with children. For a beginner, a wipe-on version is easier to master than a brush on version. You can either get your own varnish in a can and thin it with equal parts mineral spirits, or buy a pre-thinned version. General Finishes Arm-R-Seal is a medium-bodied wiping poly. I prefer it to Minwax's version that I think it thinned down way too much.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2011 at 4:23PM
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live_wire_oak

A very similar discussion was posted just a few months ago. You should read the responses to that.

Here is a link that might be useful: Vuja De

    Bookmark   September 8, 2011 at 5:49PM
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brickeyee

"You can get a finish amalgamator, that is basically lacquer thinner. This will dissolve the top coats and smear around what's left, that you can then wipe up with clean rags."

Make sure you test.

Many varnishes are not soluble in anything once they have cured.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2011 at 7:00PM
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bobismyuncle

Oops, yes, Lacquer thinner will remove shellac and lacquer. These are the two most common production finishes in the last 100 years. Won't do such a good job on varnish or paint.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2011 at 4:51PM
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sombreuil_mongrel

What would concern me about an amalgamator is the stated fact that there are already other things sitting on the finish; Murphy's detestable oil soap, and an oil-type furniture polish. Either of which could play havoc with trying to get an amalgamator to work reliably. I would first do a strong cleaning to remove everything that's not the finish. With a clean surface, the table could be amalgamated or have a wipe-on thinned varnish applied.
Casey

    Bookmark   September 9, 2011 at 7:22PM
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sloyder

would clean the table, and then apply a wipe-on varnish.

Here is a link that might be useful: varnish

    Bookmark   September 9, 2011 at 9:57PM
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sangenuer

Thank you all so much. I had tried searching for similar topics but didn't find the one mentioned. Thanks for linking to it!

I know it needs a thorough cleaning before I do anything, as mentioned by Casey and sloyd. What should I use for that? I've seen some sites where just mild soap and water are recommended, and others who recommend stronger cleaners and/or solvents such as mineral spirits.

Again, thanks for your patience and help. :)

    Bookmark   September 11, 2011 at 2:06PM
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someone2010

Nice table. First thing first. What finish is on there now? In general, any finish that was used prior to WWII would be shellac. Get a small can of alcohol and wet a rag with it and rub a small spot to see if it takes off the finish.
Any job to rejuvinate or refinish a table takes work and time.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2011 at 3:25PM
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bobismyuncle

>What should I use for that? I've seen some sites where just mild soap and water are recommended, and others who recommend stronger cleaners and/or solvents such as mineral spirits.

You really need both, because each takes off different types of contaminants. Without getting too much into chemistry, there are things that clean up with water (a polar solvent) and things that clean up with (non-polar) solvents such as mineral spirits.

If your finish on there now is that degraded, I'd be leery of just adding more over the top. Stripping of some type is needed.

Of course, none of us can see or test the finish, so our approaches may be varying and subject to change as we do "research" (a euphemism for "trial and error").

    Bookmark   September 11, 2011 at 4:54PM
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sangenuer

I have a leaf that's pretty badly warped and split that I can use for testing, so I can "research" without messing with the whole table. A small can of alcohol--what kind? Denatured? Should I use soap and water first to get the surface dirt off?

    Bookmark   September 11, 2011 at 6:08PM
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sloyder

Here is a good link to a document, on furniture revitalization.

http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/fl-hi-500.pdf

Furniture Cleaner:
http://www.rockler.com/product.cfm?page=6354

    Bookmark   September 11, 2011 at 10:24PM
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brickeyee

"Should I use soap and water first to get the surface dirt off?"

Or paint thinner, really about the least harmful of the cleaning solutions you can use.

Water is a problem if there are any defects in the finish.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2011 at 2:20PM
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sangenuer

I read through all the links you all so helpfully gave me, plus some others. I decided to use mineral spirits to clean it, then spot-test with denatured alcohol. If the finish was shellac, I'd try playing around with the alcohol and some new shellac to see what I could do--reamalgamate, overcoat, or what.

I experimented today. The finish is definitely shellac-- denatured alcohol easily melted it. So I took my warped and cracked leaf and cleaned it well with mineral spirits, then used the alcohol and wiped off all the old finish I could. Then I put on a thin coat of shellac--I didn't do a great job, but I knew I was just experimenting. I really just wanted to get an idea of what a finished product might look like. I'm really pleased with how it looks!

The one thing I'm still not sure of, though, is whether a shellac finish is what I want. It looks beautiful. But is it durable? My whole point is to make the table water-resistant so I can easily wipe up spills and that sort of thing. I've read conflicting information about the durability and "wipeability" of shellac. Is it really an okay choice for an everyday kitchen/dining table (with kids)?

    Bookmark   September 17, 2011 at 8:28PM
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RRM1

Then, No, it is not the finish to use on anything that gets used like that. But, it is fine to use under most finishes as a sealer coat, especially if there is any smoothing or fine sanding to do to prep it for a top coat. I do a lot of finishing, so I have preferences, but they only seldom involve polyurethane. So, I may not be the person to recommend a finish.

Just a note though: A professional finish, given most applications, would be a sprayed pre-cat lacquer. It isn't the best thing in wet environments, however, and so varnishes most often are used for rough and/or wet environments. Polyurethane is a varnish, it just uses synthetic polymer resins at its core. Varnish is just a resin combined with an oil, usually linseed oil. My personal preferences are for old-school varnishes, or what most refer to as "oil-based" varnishes. There are many out there although, not all good. Someone else will have to tell you the best brands of polyurethane varnish to look for.

I do like General Finishes Wipe-on poly, but I think a wipe-on will be too thin for a table top application.

If you decide to use varnish, the best for harsh or wet environments are marine varnishes. There are several good ones.
Richard

    Bookmark   September 17, 2011 at 10:43PM
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RRM1

One other thing...
stop using furniture polish and Murphy's.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2011 at 11:31PM
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lazy_gardens

Shellac is what is making white rings and softening in the heat. New shellac will not be any more durable than the old.

Remove the dirt, use alcohol and steel wool to get rid of the shellac, then use a modern finish meant for table tops. My preference is a gel polyurethane because it's easy to do.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2011 at 2:21PM
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ladyshadowwalker

shoe polish - really pick a color close, not too dark and use the way you would polish shoes.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 7:37PM
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RRM1

Unfortunately, shoe polish is basically a pigment stain and a little dye in a solvent (naphtha or turpentine)and emulsified wax, and as we all learned in wood shop, pigments just sit on top of the wood, while dyes soak in. Pigment stains are used all of the time, but rely on an in tact top coat to stay fast. Wax, unfortunately, makes it difficult for top coats to adhere. Ergo...

    Bookmark   September 20, 2011 at 9:22PM
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badgergrrl

I think this was suggested before, but, get a piece of glass cut the size of the table top until your kids are old enough to know better. (Or, if you're like me, and your husband still isn't old enough to know better, just leave it on all the time, save for holidays/dinner parties)

And then don't ever buy Murphy's Oil Soap or Old English ever again.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2011 at 12:39PM
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brickeyee

"And then don't ever buy Murphy's Oil Soap or Old English ever again."

Pledge is even worse.

It contains silicone and makes it a PITA to refinish.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2011 at 2:53PM
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sangenuer

So I'm back where I started, with poly. That's what I'm going to do. But first I'll remove the old shellac with denatured alcohol then apply a thin coat of new shellac. A light sanding, then a few coats of poly. I'm guessing some of you will recommend against this. I've read in some places that poly won't adhere well to shellac, but I've read in enough other places that it works just fine. I love the look of the shellac so I'm willing to risk it. I just don't think I'll get that same look with poly alone.

The problem with the glass idea is that I change the size of the table somewhat frequently. I have 12 leaves, so it can go from a small table for four to enough room to seat 14 adults comfortably. I really like being able to just pop in a couple of extra leaves if friends or family come for a meal, or take them all out if we need floor space.

I can't thank you all enough for your help and advice. I've learned so much in this whole process! I'll post pictures when it's done. :)

    Bookmark   September 24, 2011 at 5:23PM
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bobismyuncle

>I've read in some places that poly won't adhere well to shellac, but I've read in enough other places that it works just fine.

Just be sure to use dewaxed shellac. Zinsser's SealCoat is a good choice. Poly does not adhere well to waxed shellac.

General Finish's Arm-R-Seal would be a good choice for a poly. It's a wipe on finish, so needs more coats, but they go quickly and easily.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2011 at 10:43PM
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