DIY Network

How to Refinish an Antique Coffee Table

Learn how to remove paint or varnish from an antique table or coffee table without having to use a traditional paint-and-varnish remover.

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remove paint or varnish from an antique table

Step 1: Apply Paint-Remover with a Brush

Traditional methylene chloride paint-removers are thick and contain wax to help slow evaporation, and can be applied to remove paint or polyurethane from wood surfaces. This type of finish remover is typically applied using a brush.

apply paint remover with brush

Step 2: Remove Dissolved Paint

After a few minutes, the remover begins to dissolve the paint or finish. It can then be scraped off using a putty knife. Removing paint and varnish in this way can be a tedious and messy process.

Safety Alert: Always wear eye protection and protective rubber gloves, and work in a well ventilated area, when working with finishes, solvents and other toxic chemicals.

remover dissolves paint or finish

Step 3: Apply the Furniture Refinisher - (Optional)

If the finish on your antique table is worn, hazy or scratched, there are options other than messy paint-and-varnish remover. You may want to try a furniture refinisher -- a blend of solvents containing lacquer thinner, acetone and acetate. This product can be used to soften an old lacquer finish without using methylene chloride.

Apply the furniture refinisher to a small area using extra-fine steel wool.

apply furniture refinisher

Step 4: Wipe Away the Dissolved Finish

Before the refinisher has had a chance to dry, wipe away the dissolved finish using a clean rag or shop towel.

Repeat the process on the same area, using a clean rag or extra-fine steel wool cloth dipped in refinisher, to remove any remaining finish. A soft cloth or fine steel-wool will allow you to work the remover into the corners and crevices.

Depending on how many times you repeat the process, and how vigorously you rub, you can remove only the top layers of the old finish, or you can remove all of the old finish -- all the way down to the bare wood.

Continue this process to remove the old finish from the entire piece of furniture

wipe away dissolved finish

Step 5: Apply a New Protective Finish

The refinisher will evaporate quickly. Once the old finish has been removed, and the refinisher has evaporated, you can apply a new protective finish. Rather than using a lacquer finish like those originally used on many antiques, we opted for a more durable polyurethane finish for the coffee table.

use a durable polyurethane finish

Step 6: Apply a Polyurethane Finish

Apply a polyurethane finish using a rag rather than a brush.

Furniture refinisher can also be used to remove old finish from doors, cabinets and wood paneling.