How to refinish oak tables

Updated April 17, 2017

Oak is among the most popular and versatile woods on the market. Its great strength, hardness and resistance to insects and fungi make it a common choice in furniture design and architecture. Furniture pieces such as tables and wall panels are especially attractive in oak because of the specific grain markings that appear when oak is quarter-sawn. To restore your oak table to its original beauty, you need to know how to properly refinish it.

Clean your oak table thoroughly by using a soft sponge and a commercial wood surface cleaner dissolved in warm water. Allow the table to dry completely.

Apply a generous amount of wood stripping gel to your oak table. Use a paintbrush to spread the gel over the surface in a thick layer. Leave the rich coat of stripping gel to work on the oak wood for at least 15 minutes. Consult the label on the gel to see the exact period of time that the manufacturer recommends.

Scrape off the old wood finish. Use a plastic putty knife or a similar tool to scrape off the old finish residue, making sure not to damage the wood beneath. Don’t worry if at this point your oak table looks messy and almost ruined at times. The surface has to be removed to return the piece to its former glory.

Clean the chemical stripper residue from the oak table with a soft cloth dampened in turpentine. Check the instructions on the package of the stripper because some manufacturers recommend using ordinary water instead. Allow the surface of the table to dry thoroughly.

Treat the whole surface of the oak table with a medium- and then fine-grit sandpaper. Be patient and thorough, making sure to cover the entire surface. Make the whole area smooth and even.

Rub pigmented grain filler paste into the wood with a soft sponge. Leave the grain filler paste to dry before removing the excess with a putty tool.

Treat the oak table with fine-grit sandpaper once again after the grain filler has settled. This time make sure to move along the grain lines to emphasise the oak’s natural pattern.

Apply a coat of wood primer or sanding sealer to the oak surface so stain will be absorbed evenly, using a roller or a wide paintbrush.

Apply a layer of wood stain to the oak wood table, using a soft natural fibre paintbrush or a rag. The longer you leave the stain to penetrate the wood, the darker the wood will become.

Remove excess wood stain with a clean, dry cloth and allow the oak table to dry thoroughly.

Apply the topcoat of your choice to the oak table surface. You can use lacquer or water-based polyurethane for the topcoat, depending on the effect you want to achieve. Use lacquer for a high-gloss finish, and use polyurethane for a more satin-like finish. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for these products. Allow the wood to thoroughly dry and the topcoat to harden.


The chemical method of stripping the old finish is easier and faster than the mechanical one, which is exclusively done by sanding. Consider adding a light touch of a darker shade by using a slightly darker grain filler paste.


Always remember to wear a protective mask when refinishing and sanding a wood surface.

Things You'll Need

  • Sponge
  • Liquid wood cleaner
  • Wood stripping gel
  • Paintbrush
  • Putty knife
  • Cloth
  • Turpentine
  • Sandpaper
  • Grain filler
  • Sponge
  • Wood primer
  • Wood stain
  • Paintbrush or rag
  • Lacquer or polyurethane top coat
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About the Author

Based in New Jersey, Robert Raphael has been writing health and technology articles since 1993. His work has appeared in “Natural Living” magazine and “Extreme PC” magazine. Raphael received the Jonathan Melman Literary Award in 1994. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Brandeis University.