How to Refinish an Antique Coffee Table

Varnished wooden boards.
  • 5-10 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 25-250
What You'll Need
Quality paint remover
Eye protection
Old clothes
Sharp putty scraper (the sharper, the better)
Assorted grades of quality sandpaper
Steel wool (grades from 00 to 0000)
Wood stain (if desired)
Hard floor wax

Refinishing an antique table takes time, patience, and a lot of care. After all, an antique isn’t just another piece of furniture; it doesn’t have merely style and function, but character as well. Therefore, you have to be careful not to eliminate any of the qualities that made it so meaningful in the first place. Use quality materials, read the manufacturer’s instructions, and, with a lot of care, you can restore your antique furniture to its former glory.

Step 1 - Examine the Piece

Under a good light, closely examine the piece of furniture you’ll be refinishing. See how tight the joints are. Make sure all the wood is in good condition, and nothing is rotting. Look for cracks or missing plugs, screws, or other pieces. Re-glue any loose joints, replace any missing screws and buy or rebuild any missing pieces.

Step 2 - Remember Safety

Be sure to wear eye protection, gloves, and old clothes when working with paint remover. If you’re using a caustic paint remover, wear a dust mask.

Step 3 - Remove the Old Finish

This is probably the most important step in refinishing an antique and should be done with a high-quality paint remover and great care. Apply thin coats of remover and gently scrape off layers with a sharp putty knife. The sharper the knife, the easier the work will go. When the paint remover has done all it can do, use a piece of sandpaper, no coarser than 100-grit, and carefully remove any remaining old finish.

Make sure you remove all the old finish from joints and hard-to-reach areas. The more of the old finish you remove, the better your new finish will look. If necessary, use steel wool in the 00 grades to get around difficult areas. After using the 100-grit sandpaper, work up to the 220-grit and strive for as smooth a finish as possible.

Step 4 - Apply the New Finish

Most antique woods have their own unique coloring, so you might want to skip putting a new stain on a piece of antique furniture. This is an optional step.

Begin by mixing a solution of 50% varnish to 50% mineral spirits. Using a quality brush with evenly balanced brush strokes, apply this solution to the hardest-to-reach pieces of the coffee table. Don't forget to do the undersides as well as the topsides of all pieces.

When the antique table is thoroughly dry, apply a second coat of 100% varnish. Allow this coat to dry overnight. The next day, rub this coat out thoroughly using 0000 steel wool and then wipe the table down with a dry cloth. Apply another coat of varnish, rub it out with steel wool, and wipe again. Apply some hard floor wax to finish the table—and the job.