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Hi All, 

I'm on another project. Restoring/resurfacing my folks' mahogany table top. I've sanded off all the old varnish, and I'm now considering what surface finish to use. This is a first for me.

Any tips and ideas would be appreciated. 

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Johanne,

My first choice would be Watco Danish Oil Finish in Natural, it'll give the wood a very attractive appeal, and bring out the natural beauty in the wood.

You'll only need to apply a single coat---thourghly wet the area, allow to soak in---wipe off any remaining oil.  It's not practical to apply multiple coats.

Oil finishes are much easier to apply and much more forgiving, over other finishes.

The oil needs to penetrate the wood in order to work properly.

It's very easy to apply and leaves a beautiful satin finish, using a lint-free cotton or micro fiber cloth.

One drawback with oils, is that one cannot achieve a glass smooth finish, like you can with a poly finish.

When thoroughly dry and cured, at least a week, apply a finishing paste wax and buff. 

 

Thanks Ken,

I looked into the Danish oil and find it as a great choice. 

Question: what finish would be best for a dining room table top? Looking for wood protection from fluids/abuse and a glossy sheen. 

While I agree that Danish oil is easy to use and yields a beautiful finish, I think your concern about its durability when standing up to the abuse a dining room table is likely to take is well-founded.  It is precisely because of this sort of abuse that most table tops get a protective finish.  If you like the color and grain-popping you get from an oil finish, you can certainly do that, but it would be a good idea to add a top coat, which gets tricky when you're attempting to apply it to an earlier coat of oil.  You would need to let the oil coat dry for a couple weeks first and then probably add a seal coat of clear shellac to ensure your top coat binds well.  The better option overall is to apply 5 or more coats of lacquer or polyurethane.  You can rub out either finish to a glass-like finish if you want.  I usually spray finishes and have done both lacquer and poly on table tops.  The poly is easy to work with.  Or, you can also build up multiple coats of shellac into a hard, protective finish.  Most of the Queen Anne style furniture was mahogany and finished with shellac -- many such pieces have held up a long time.  You can even mess around with french polishing that final coat of shellac onto the table to get that really smooth, glassy surface -- you'll just need to add a can of powdered pumice to your shopping list.

I could give you a better, more specific finishing suggestion if I knew (1) whether you are trying to achieve a color change prior to your top coat; (2) what your level of experience is working with different finishes; and (3) whether you have spray equipment in your arsenal.

Thanks for the information Russ,

Very informative. I am a novice that enjoys wood working.  I would like a grain popping finish that is well protected; I saw the danish oil finish and thought it was very nice; even tung oil looks great, but I have no experience with these and I'm not sure if they're right for this application. After sanding off the original varnish and seeing this beautiful grain, we want that aspect to shine on. Answering your questions:

1) whether you are trying to achieve a color change prior to your top coat:  considering a light stain such as minwax Colonial Maple or something else to really pop out the grain and bring out the wood's warmth and character.

(2) what your level of experience is working with different finishes:  I've worked with water based poly, and minwax stains, but not oil based poly, nor shellac and lacquer. I've read up on them and I'm willing to try.

(3) whether you have spray equipment in your arsenal: no spray equipment in my arsenal, just brushes.

A last question, what would you use to fill in any small gap or small holes? I have a stainable wood filler.

Looking forward to your reply.



Russ Haynes said:

While I agree that Danish oil is easy to use and yields a beautiful finish, I think your concern about its durability when standing up to the abuse a dining room table is likely to take is well-founded.  It is precisely because of this sort of abuse that most table tops get a protective finish.  If you like the color and grain-popping you get from an oil finish, you can certainly do that, but it would be a good idea to add a top coat, which gets tricky when you're attempting to apply it to an earlier coat of oil.  You would need to let the oil coat dry for a couple weeks first and then probably add a seal coat of clear shellac to ensure your top coat binds well.  The better option overall is to apply 5 or more coats of lacquer or polyurethane.  You can rub out either finish to a glass-like finish if you want.  I usually spray finishes and have done both lacquer and poly on table tops.  The poly is easy to work with.  Or, you can also build up multiple coats of shellac into a hard, protective finish.  Most of the Queen Anne style furniture was mahogany and finished with shellac -- many such pieces have held up a long time.  You can even mess around with french polishing that final coat of shellac onto the table to get that really smooth, glassy surface -- you'll just need to add a can of powdered pumice to your shopping list.

I could give you a better, more specific finishing suggestion if I knew (1) whether you are trying to achieve a color change prior to your top coat; (2) what your level of experience is working with different finishes; and (3) whether you have spray equipment in your arsenal.

It doesn't sound like you are looking for a lot of coloration, so I tend to shy away from a stain.  Take mineral spirits and wipe down the surface.  If the color change and grain-pop you get from that is 60% of the way to what you are looking for in a final finish, then I wouldn't use a stain. Instead, you may be better off with a very light wiping varnish/oil blend, finished up with several coats of varnish.  If you can test finishes on the bottom side of the table, great.  My suggestion would be to apply a coat or two of Waterlox (original) with either a brush or a cotton rag (I use a foam brush for Waterlox).  Let the first coat dry for a good 24 hours, then knock it back lightly with a grey nylon pad (or 000 steel wool).  Blow off the dust completely and apply the second coat.  Let that dry 24 hours and see if you are where you want to be for color.  If so, then you can switch to the varnish of your choice and apply additional top coats until you get to the level of protection you want.  I would suggest Arm-R-Seal, probably 4 additional coats.  But you should stick with a solvent-based varnish after putting on the Waterlox; don't switch over to water-based varnish.

The Waterlox is an oil/varnish blend.  It will add a little bit of color and some hardening resins, but in a thin enough medium to penetrate and dry quickly enough to allow additional top coats to be applied more quickly than straight oil.  The Arm-R-seal is also an oil/varnish blend, although much closer to straight varnish.  You may want to test both products side-by-side on the underside of the table.  The less oil you apply, the quicker your finish will set.  So if the Arm-R-Seal gives you sufficient coloration and grain-pop, you can go straight to that instead of applying Waterlox.  But for additional top coats, I haven't found that subsequent applications of Arm-R-Seal really add much more coloration to the wood.  However, to avoid messing with the color you want once you reach that point, you can switch to any good varnish.  If you're a Minwax person, nothing wrong with their regular polyurethane -- not the fast-dry and not the Polycrilic -- just regular poly, of whatever sheen you want (I usually put semi-gloss on a table top, then buff it out).  Your top coats can be applied with a brush, or you can thin it out and turn regular poly into a "wiping varnish" by doing 2/3 poly, 1/3 mineral spirits.

In total, it's going to take a week to finish the table this way, plus you should let it set and off-gas for at least another week before bringing it in the house and putting it to use.

The other approach is to go with shellac.  You'll be able to build up a hard finish more quickly and get a more traditional mahogany color.  Get de-waxed shellac.  Put on a coat of amber, wait 20 minutes, check the color.  Knock it back a little.  If you want more color, another coat of amber.  Same drill.  Once you reach your color, switch to clear, de-waxed shellac and build up successive coats, knocking back the surface between coats with a nylon abrasive pad or 000 steel wool.  If you want to get a glass-like finish on the final coat, check out how to french polish shellac with a little pumice powder.  Shellac is great for tables, especially mahogany because it is (1) a traditional finish, (2) gives the wood a great color, (3) is organic and uses alcohol for the thinner instead of mineral spirits, and (4) dries almost instantaneously, allow you to finish a table like this in a day or so instead of a week.  I prefer to spray shellac for speed and eveness, but you can easily brush it on or wipe it on too.  If you can learn to french polish, there is no better finish on a mahogany table top.

If the holes are small, I would leave them.  There is only one wood filler product out there that is worth a damn, and it's expensive and from Australia.  It comes in a lot of different colors, but no matter how close you match it and how good the product it, it's just not real wood.  To patch pieces like this, I see how close I can get to repairing the imperfection with a hot iron and steam.  If a dent won't come out or a small nick won't close after being steamed, then you have a choice to make:  leave it or try to fix it.  If you choose to fix it, then you have to figure out whether to remove more material and try to fix it with a dutchman.  If you have mahog scrap around, then it may be possible to match the species and get close to the grain, etc. but it's a long shot.  There's putty, but I think it all sucks except for that one company and I'm not willing to shell out $20+ per tube.  There's also epoxy, which is my go-to.  You can tape the hole on the bottom (if it goes all the way through), mix up some epoxy and put it into the hole, leaving it proud of the surface, then sand it back to match the rest of the surface.  Epoxy can also be tinted -- I have various colors of trans-tint dye that I can add to epoxy to get close.  You'll never get it perfect, but you can get it close enough that the eye won't be drawn to the hole.

Good luck.  I hope this helped.  If you're interested in the nuances of the finishing process, I highly recommend Bob Flexner's book on finishing ("Understanding Wood Finishing") and Charles Neil's video series on YouTube.  

I second the Waterlox or poly choices. The Waterlox is durable and easy to repair if needed while the poly is very durable. I've had very good results with both.

Thank you all for taking the time to reply and for the great information and guidance.

It's been a lesson in the reading and I'm researching the methods mentioned.

I'll be starting to finish this week. 

Thanks again!

Jhanne,

My suggestion, for a beginner or novice alike, take the simple route, that you are comfortable doing yourself.

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