A Finish for the Top of a Dining Table – Lost Art Press

Our breakfast table has an oil/wax blend on it and has survived just fine.

Almost every week on the Open Wire, we get asked some variation of the question: What finish should I use for the top of a dining table?

My answer is not going to be the most obvious one (polyurethane/varnish) or the most durable (conversion varnish or – shudder – bartop). Instead, my preferred finish comes from the fact that these three qualities are most important to me:

1. I want a finish that is easily repaired, even if that means it is less durable.

2. I want a finish that looks better the more it is used.

3. I want a finish without dangerous solvents or heavy-metal driers.

So why do I not like the highly durable finishes, such as conversion varnish, lacquer and polyurethane/varnish? They all have poisonous solvents, which the woodworker (me) has to endure. The finishes are safe (enough) after they have cured. Also, these finishes look great until they reach a tipping point, but then they deteriorate and look terrible. And they are difficult to repair. Usually you have to strip the finish and start over.

What about shellac? It is easy to repair and doesn’t have to use a dangerous solvent. Correct. Shellac is OK for tabletops. It is easy to repair. Usually you just have to pad on some more shellac. But when it deteriorates, it looks like crap – just like lacquer and polyurethane/varnish. If I want a shiny, high-style finish, then I will definitely use shellac. And a good coat of wax.

So what meets all the criteria? Several finishes.

1. Paint. Don’t immediately discount it. Paint is durable, can be non-toxic, looks better when it gets beat up. It is easy to repair (add more paint). Most woodworkers are horrified at the idea of painting a tabletop. I am not.

2. Some sort of oil, wax or combination of oil and wax. These finishes are so safe they can be edible. Beeswax and raw linseed oil are used to coat our foods – or even used as food. They are not durable at all. But they are easy to repair (add more oil and/or wax). And they look better the more they are used.

3. Soap. It is completely safe. Easy to renew/repair. But it offers almost no protection. It is used in many Scandinavian countries on furniture, woodwork and floors. My desk has a soap finish and I can attest to the fact that it looks better with age. After almost 10 years it has a glow that no finish can give you on the first day.

A worktable finished with soap on the tabletop.

I don’t expect you to follow my advice. It takes time to realize that all these fancy film finishes are really short-term solutions. If your spouse really wants a durable finish on a tabletop, here’s what I would do:

Mix any oil-based polyurethane/varnish 50/50 with low-odor mineral spirits. Wipe on a thin coat. Wipe it until it is just barely there. Let it dry. Scuff-sand it a little with #320-grit sandpaper until it is smooth. Then add another very thin coat of the mixture. Repeat five or six times until the finish starts to build. It is time consuming. When it fails it will look like crap. But it will protect the tabletop for a good long while. (Perhaps until you come to your senses and switch to an easily repaired finish.)

This table was built in 2006, and the top was originally finished with sprayed lacquer. It looked great for a day or two…until some nail polish remover was spilled on it. It looked like crap until earlier this year, when – finally – Megan and I sanded off the old finish then applied a couple coats of soft wax. It could probably use another coat now thanks to some scratches – but that’s easy.

— Christopher Schwarz

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