Furniture Refinishing: The Table From Hell

You may or may not know that I signed on to do props for a production of The Merchant of Venice. Now you do. This required me to find a VIT, very important table, which would be integral to the scenes that involve the gold, lead, and silver boxes. After looking for what I will only call a while, I managed to find a fitting table.

It was a gorgeous and quite nice table at one point. It has 3 delicate legs capped in brass paws. It has a lion pull ring for the drawer. It was made out of red oak and from what I could tell originally stained with a mahogany stain. If I had to guess, it had a decorative marble or granite top. It’s also well-made so I would guess it was originally fairly expensive.

I would like to think that some elderly couple loved this table when they got it in their younger years. However, when the original owner chose to get rid of it, this table fell on harder days. First, the decorative top was missing and I was left with a sub-top that the person who sold it to me had PLASTERED of all things and then painted white with KILLZ EXTERIOR HOUSE PAINT. Actually, they didn’t stop at the top, they also painted the entire table with exterior house paint that I can be pretty sure was Killz brand by the chemical composition, but we will get to that in a minute. They then coated the exterior house paint with another layer of house paint in an awful dark brown. Also, because one of the legs was not particular sturdy, they did a hack job on gluing it back together, then painted over the glue without scraping it. This table was such a hot mess I guess I didn’t think to photograph it until I started trying to strip the paint. I used the toughest stripper that I could find… 4 times. I was able to successfully bubble up some of the paint and carefully use a brush to get it off.

Pro Tip: these are some super serious chemicals so you need to be careful and wear 2 pairs of gloves, one of which need to be super long industrial/kitchen gloves. The stripper will chemically burn your skin.


The biggest problem was that white “primer” they used, it just kept thinning in the stripper instead of coming off. It was really quite awful. To make the problem worse, all the detail work was ridiculously difficult to sand by hand. I ended up borrowing a detail sander and using several attachments later to get it where it needed to be. I was really worried about the scraping the wire brushes did to the wood, but the nylon brushes kept getting chemically burned and became too soft.


After hours of hand sanding with a block on my Saturday afternoon, I ended up with:

2013-01-22_17-06-46_247Not at all what I was hoping for on this project. Worse still, the glue that had been used on the legs melted with the stripper and I was left with a seriously wobbly table.

1358726163353Over the next week or so I periodically sanded it bit by bit. With all the detail this project was infuriating.

When I finally had the whole thing sanded, I was ready to stain the project. I was secretly hoping that I could somehow use tongue oil on the beautiful Red Oak underneath.  It wasn’t in the cards, so I had to stain.

I wanted something close to the mahogany that I knew this was originally finished with. I headed to Lowe’s looking for a Rustoleum Ultimate Stain. I had used their Ultimate Poly on the bar project and I was really impressed.

Pro Tip: For this project, I discovered that my Lowe’s has dollar small cans of stain that have been returned in addition to dollar sample size paints in the bargain bin at the paint department. Over the course of a few visits over two weeks dealing with other show props, I hoarded 5 different stain colors, and 7 paint colors all at $1 each for small projects and for stain mixing and testing.

After some initial testing, I went with a mix of Cabernet and American Walnut in about a 1/4 to 3/4 ratio. This would allow the red in the Cabernet to come through while also darkening the walnut a little.

I had to use several (read as about 10) coats of stain to get the deep penetrated color. The stain seemed to sit on top of the wood rather than go in. It also developed some odd flaking on early coats, which you can see here:

1364755330725My main concern was that the stain did not go on evenly and had a granulated texture. This reminded me of varnished antique furniture from the 30’s I grew up with. This is probably great if you want to refinish a piece to have it look authentic, but I was a little bummed. I actually ended up doing about 3 more coats after this pic to try to even out the tone.

Also of note: the hardcore wood glue I bought didn’t stand up to the wonkiness of the table and I ended up relying on small nails to keep the legs as sturdy as possible. You can see one of them in this pic. I had the table upside down and held by stretch ties to keep the legs in place.

Overall, because the piece became really dark after the many layers of stain, I felt the need to accentuate some of the detail with gold. I actually used cheap gold acrylic paint in Venetian Gold (for The Merchant of Venice, see what I did there?). The acrylic did not like to go over the stain and condensed, leaving bubbles of unpainted mess. It took about 6 careful and generous coats to make the project work.

Because it was cold and wet outside, I actually had the table in the living room on a thick sheet of plastic. I also repainted the top with one of the $1 paint samples I got to make it a nice white.


The finished product came out quite nice. Note I added *no* polyurethane to the project because the stain was already so glossy.

Now for some details:

1364763796539I used the gold to accentuate the groves in the legs and the detail on the ring.

1364763783442I took this to show a little of the drip as I touched up the stain *after* painting the gold. It wiped off with a paper towel with no problem.

1364759034898See, drips are all gone in this one.

1364759008852Brasso for the claws came later because I got a new lion head pull that was shiny.

The finished product was a star of the show, check it out:

11799_10200438046926342_311158384_n RodrigoThis photo appears courtesy Rodrigo Barajas and The Baron’s Men


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