Help finding the right wood table finish for a busy kitchen

shayle15December 16, 2009

I am looking to purchase a wood kitchen table. I have a friend who has a table that has a catalytic conversion finish. It shows a lot of scratches and from what I have read - you must refinish the whole table to get rid of them. I am looking for a wood table that can handle a lot of traffic - is somewhat distressed so that when there is a scratch - one could polish it with an oil or wax and the scratch would look like another distress. (I'm looking for a darkish color.) Some wood people say that the catalytic finish is the best and others say a stain and wax finish is best. HELP! What do you think is best for my use?

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The finish is not as important as how the table is made.

Solid wood can be stripped and refinshed when it starts to look bad.

About the only finishes that can easily be repaired are shellac and lacquer.
Shellac is not suitable for a table that gets daily use, since even water will spot it.
A good lacquer finish is more resistant, but can be damaged by moist heat and alcohol.
Shellac and lacquer can be easily repaired since new coats dissolve into the old coats.

Polyurethane can be repaired with another coat of the same finish, but there can be problems getting a new coat to bond (light sanding helps) and leaving 'witness' lines in the finish were the damage was.

Catalyzed finishes are also very hard to re-coat without stripping (like poly). Their big advantage is faster setting and curing for commercial manufacture.

Varnish also has these problems.

As long as you have solid wood, use the table till it looks bad, then strip and re-finish.

While occasionally veneered wood can be stripped and refinished, it is a real job to clean off old finish without lifting the veneer or damaging the thin layer of wood (sanding through or thin).

    Bookmark   December 16, 2009 at 2:58PM
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To follow on to what brickeyee says, not all catalytic finishes are the same. This is a broad class of finishes. There are some that I have worked on that takes a lot to chip them, but they can be chipped. They cannot be repaired as nothing sticks to them. Standard strippers do not touch them. I have tried rubbing out scratches on some of them to literally no effect after nearly an hour of buffing with various compounds.

And as to your original advice, as Bob Flexner says, "A wax finish is the closest thing to no finish at all." It provides virtually no protection whatsoever. To take whatever advice this person gave you with a grain of salt.

Have you considered Formica-type tables (HPDLs)?

    Bookmark   December 16, 2009 at 8:49PM
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And to follow on those two, it might help to make a distinction between a finish that's made up a stain with a clear coating on top, and one that has the pigment mixed into the clear finish. If the stain is under the clear then the clear can be lightly scratched without affecting the color significantly. On the other hand, if the color is integral to the coating then scratching the coating changes the color and stands out more.

Yet another complication (as if you hadn't had enough already) is that some finishes do poorly with exposure to heat and/or moisture. Shellac and wax, in particular, are rather intolerant of heat and moisture, so if you're not going to be using placemats and coasters then something like polyurethane or a conversion varnish will be a better choice.

As Bob suggested, wax doesn't really protect the table from much of anything -- it just makes the wood shiny, and helps moisture bead up on the surface if the wax is thick enough. It also requires regular maintenance; don't choose wax if you're not okay with adding a periodic task to your to-do list.

Rather than relying on stain to darken the table, you might consider using a dark wood like cherry or walnut; that way it will stay dark even when it gets dinged and scratched.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2009 at 8:27AM
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What you describe in the way of resilience/repairability is actually what we have with our maple table that is simply oiled. It's been beat up from opening coconuts and stained from reading the paper, coloured on and spilled on, and my husband just went over it with a cabinet scraper (far superior to sanding - no dust!), re-oiled, and it looked like new. I re-oil periodically.

Maple isn't dark, of course, but I'd echo going with a darker hardwood... and then just oil it.


    Bookmark   December 19, 2009 at 8:30PM
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Thanks so much.

    Bookmark   December 20, 2009 at 10:49PM
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