How NOT to Strip a Table
In the early 1970s and nearing retirement, my grandparents decided to purchase a small cabin (and a boat!) a little over an hour away from their western Wisconsin home. They had quite the social life back then, with an array of family and friends rotating through to play card games, go boating, and sign the meticulously kept guest books.
As we approach 50 years of ownership, some things have changed. Cabin decor is now managed by my aunt, while my father is in charge of cabin maintenance. The boat is considered "vintage," and is a regular conversation piece when we take it to the lake. The guest book is much emptier than it was back in the day, so we now encourage all guests to write a full paragraph to help fill it up. One thing, though, that hasn't changed, is this table:
Rumor has it, the table came with the purchase of the cabin in 1970 and was considered "old" then. In the past 48 years, it has possibly seen a coat of fresh paint and the addition of support braces. That's it.
In addition to the unpainted support braces, the tabletop was warped and stained, and the paint was very, very chipped, and not in that cool "distressed" chip way, either. More the "check out how well this neon orange color from the '60s goes with the turquoise color this table was in the 40s'" way. And so, after my plans were approved by the decor manager, I refinished the table.
The plan was to strip and stain the tabletop, and give an new coat of white paint to the legs. I debated what to do with the legs for a long time. The problem is that the early layers of paint are almost certainly oil-based, which is why the white (probably) latex paint is chipping off. The only real fix for this problem is to strip the table legs completely, like I'm doing with the tabletop. But do you see those grooves?? It would take forever, and frankly, I just don't love this table enough for that. So I settled for just plopping another layer of white on them, and having to recoat in a couple years when it starts chipping off again.
My dad, the cabin maintenance manager and generally a trustworthy source of handiness tips, recommended that I strip the tabletop with a belt sander (which we already had) instead of chemical stripper (that we would have needed to purchase.) So with my dad's (un)trustworthy Harbor Freight belt sander and 36 grit sandpaper in hand, I got to work.
It started out well. Here's a picture from about a minute of sanding:
I kept going...
At this point I had clogged up not one, but two new 36 grit sanding belts. The sander moved so fast that instead of tearing the paint off, it melted it, clogging the belt. That's what all the grey in the picture is: white, turquoise, and neon orange paint melted together. At this point, it was apparent that unless I wanted to go through 10 sanding belts, the belt sanding method was not going to work. As a sidenote, it was also about at this point when my dad said "Oh yeah, I remember running into this problem with the garage in the early nineties. I forgot about that, sorry." Thanks a bunch, Dad.
Chemically stripping the table was also probably out at this point: who knew what the stripper would do to the melted grey mess that was now attached to my table? So my dad goes into his massive garage (he has a habit of building monster garages on every property he owns. This is his 3rd, if you were wondering) and pulls out this contraption:
Yes, that is a wire brush attached to an angle grinder! It is apparently super dangerous and can quickly take a huge chunk out of your arm, as evidenced by the fact my dad was not inclined to let me, a 28 year-old regular operator of power tools, use it. So instead, I have a bunch of pictures of him attempting to strip the table with this thing.
The angle grinder brush thing was moderately successful- it got enough of the paint off the table that when I tried the belt sander again, it didn't clog a fresh belt. I ultimately ended up with this:
Note the mess in the lower right hand corner. Here it is up close:
We suspect that this table was used as a cutting board in it's early days. I sanded as much as I could to get rid of the jagged bits, but I would have been sanding for quite awhile to get rid of the knife marks, so I didn't really try.
After fully sanding the table, it looked like this:
I sanded for quite awhile with the 36 grit sandpaper to make sure that the boards were even, and that the tabletop was flat (unlike when I started.) If you were curious, when I was done sanding the cutting board area looked like this:
You can't see it in the pictures above, but there were considerable marks from the 36 grit belt sander sandpaper. I used my orbital sander and sanded with 50,80, 120, 150 and 220 grit sandpaper in an attempt to get rid of them. I wasn't successful, and it was really obvious when I stained the tabletop.
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If I was going to do this again, I'd try a higher grit sandpaper with the belt sander instead of the orbital sander, and see if that helped remove the marks. I'm not too upset about them though; it adds an appropriate distressed look to the tabletop, and blends in with all the cutting marks that were there anyway.
I stained the tabletop with some Minwax English Chestnut stain that I had sitting around, and topped it off with 3 coats of Waterlox Original. The Waterlox was left over from my countertops, which is why I used it. That stuff is expensive, and I don't think I'd recommend purchasing it for such a small project (you'd have so much leftover, and it does not keep!)
Finally, I painted the legs. This was the project of things we already had (I bought nothing to refinish this table!) so the legs were painted with this random paint my dad had in the Monster Garage.
The finished table:
Despite the giant hassle of the belt sander/angle grinder brush thing to strip the table, I am so pleased with how it turned out! It was a quick and free(!) project that brought new life to a table that was at least 70 years old.