How to Refinish a Wood Table {and Remove Water Stains}

October 19, 2022

How to refinish a wood table with water stains and damage.

I turned our water-stained wood dining table into a gorgeous piece that is protected against food and liquid!

If you have a real wood piece of furniture that has stains from food and drinks, this tutorial will help you bring it back to life. I'm SO pleased at how this ended up!

We got our dining table years ago at a local store in Indy called Urban Underpriced. I loved that it had a solid wood top, not just veneer. The wood planks have all the knots and imperfections that I think gives furniture character. 

Unfortunately, we quickly realized there was little to no protective coat on the tabletop. At first it didn't bother me much, but after five years the stains were all over: 
water rings on wood table

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We also had wine stains, oil marks and even some nail polish remover: 
oil water stains on wood table

It was a mess! 

I finally got to it a few weeks ago and the refinishing process went so smoothly, I was kicking myself for waiting so long! 

Why does a project go so easily when I think it will be time consuming, and take forever when I think it will be a few minutes?? Every. time.

1. Sand down imperfections and water spots

Before sanding, I wiped down the table well. You want to make sure there's no residue on the surface that might gum up the sanding pad. 

If you have any stuck food, use a putty knife to remove it before sanding. 

I used my cordless orbital sander for this job -- I've gone to battery-operated for almost all of my tools now, and they make DIY so much easier!:
using sander on water stains

The orbital sander has a round sanding area that speeds up the process. 

I used to have problems with these sanders leaving skip marks -- it would drive me crazy! After all that work, seeing those little imperfections was so frustrating. 

I figured out the cause of those skip marks were from pushing too hard on the sander. If you let it do it's job, the process is much quicker and easier! 

Here are some basic tips for using an orbital sander: 

  • Start with a coarse grit sandpaper (I started with 80) and move to finer one (120 grit) for your last pass.
  • Let the sander do the work! Do not press hard on it or you will get the dreaded those skip marks. Let it glide across the surface, and only add a bit more pressure on problem areas. 
  • Sand with the grain of the wood.
  • Place the sander on the surface and then turn it on. When you start sanding while it's running, you might damage the wood or get the marks I was talking about.
  • Empty the dust collector often to keep the dust in the air to a minimum. 
I was pleasantly surprised at how little dust settled nearby. I had to wipe down a few things, but overall the collector attached to the sander does a great job. 

That oil mark pictured above took a few more passes than the rest of the table, and I had to add a little pressure while working on that spot. I like to tilt the sander just a bit so I can use the edge of the pad on problem spots like this. 

2. Clean your surface well after sanding

After sanding, you'll want to do a good cleaning to remove all of the dust before staining or treating the wood surface. 

I vacuumed first, focusing on the grooves between the planks: 
vacuum sanded wood

A tack cloth is the best way to remove the remaining dust, because it's sticky surface grabs everything, but isn't wet. 

I didn't have one handy, so I used a microfiber cloth instead: 
cleaning sanded wood

If you're planning to stain the wood, using a slightly damp rag is OK. Getting the wood wet will open up the wood after sanding, which can help it accept the stain a little better.

But I prefer not to use anything wet, because it can make the imperfections pop up again. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't...but on more porous wood like this one I didn't want to take a chance. 

3. Choose your protectant

I wanted to keep the natural look of the wood so I wasn't going to stain this piece. This is how the table looked after the sanding and cleaning: 
sanded wood table

My absolute favorite way to treat most wood projects is with Tung oil. I've shared how I've treated our butcher block counter with Tung oil and it's held up beautifully for years! 

I use polyurethane on surfaces that don't get as much wear and tear -- like shelves or built ins. On tables and counters I much prefer the natural finish and look of Tung oil. It gives you the durability of other varnishes, but also really brings out the natural color of the wood.

Over the years, I've used both pure Tung oil and a "finish" version that has some additives, and both hold up beautifully. Pure Tung oil has no additives, but takes longer to dry. 

There are SO many benefits of Tung oil:

  • The finish doesn't yellow or darken over time.
  • It gives a protective, natural sheen to the wood finish. I find glossy polyurethanes show scratches and scrapes more.
  • Tung oil is eco-friendly and made with crushed seeds from Tung tree nuts.
  • Pure Tung oil is food safe and non toxic. You can use pure oil on cutting boards, utensils or wood bowls. (Let it cure before using.)
  • It's easy to apply with just a soft cloth.

4. Applying Tung oil

I use a foam brush when applying polyurethane coats, but Tung oil is even easier!

Just pour it on the surface and wipe it in with a lint free rag, with the wood's grain: 
applying Tung oil to wood

I recommend wearing gloves during the application! 
  • Use a generous amount and wipe it into the wood. You'll see the results instantly! 
  • Wait 10-15 minutes and then use a clean rag to wipe up any excess and buff the surface (rub the oil into the wood).
  • You can do a light sanding with a fine steel wool in between coats, but if you prepped well, that isn't necessary most of the time.
Dry times can vary based on the humidity and product you use. 

Pure Tung oil can take two to three days to dry, but Tung oil finishes that are a blend only take 24 hours, sometimes less.  

5. Add enough coats

The directions always call for numerous coats, but on some pieces I find that's not necessary. I only do one (maybe two) when I retouch our island every year or so, and that holds up great

More porous wood (large pores in the wood) like our table soaks in whatever you apply, so more coats are necessary.  
Our maple counters on the island aren't as porous and take less coats.
I can tell just by looking if I need to add more after the first coat. Use the light and look at the surface at an angle: 
uneven finish Tung oil

See the shinier parts? That's where the finish covered well. The matte areas are wood that absorbed the oil and still needs more coats. 

In total I applied three coats and because I wasn't using pure Tung oil, it took less than a day to dry between coats. 

The result is a water resistant table with a gorgeous satin finish. Like most protective products, it enhances the look of the wood: 
natural wood finish tung oil

My final coat was pretty darn smooth, but as a finishing touch I like to go over it quickly with a piece of paper bag or kraft paper: 
sanding with paper bag

It's amazing how just that paper will knock down the tiniest imperfections and leave you with a perfectly smooth finish!
The best part is that the Tung oil doesn't allow moisture to penetrate the wood:
protect against water on wood

That's why I love it for the butcher block around our sink!

Our wood table is a richer tone can really see the variations and warmth of the wood:
natural wood finish with Tung oil

We LOVE it! 

Here's a reminder of how it looked before: 
water stains on wood

All of the stains are gone and we now have a beautiful wood tabletop!

Our wood dining chairs used to be the same lighter wood as the table, but I spray painted them black a couple years ago. We love the contrast:
wood table black dining chairs

We replaced the tall parson's chairs at the ends with these lower upholstered dining chairs, also from World Market. The cats kept playing on the taller chairs and knocking them over. :)

The new chairs are SO comfy! I love the more causal look for this space: 
wood table with black chairs

Now the cats curl up together and cuddle in them instead of climbing all over! ;) Well...for the most part.
sweet kitties

This refinishing tutorial will work for any wood furniture piece. It will get rid of the water spots and prevent them from coming back!

Have you used Tung oil on any wood surfaces in your home? 

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  1. This tutorial came just in time as I am planning to refinish our pine countertops, a cheap solution 26 years ago when we moved into a very old house. They have held up and the look goes with the rest of the house. I was planning to use polyurethane, but now will return that and get tung oil instead. Thanks ever so much!

  2. Thanks for the info about using Tung Oil. In all the years I have been "restoring" antiques, I have never tried it. Next time I will thanks to your tutorial!

  3. Do you need to reapply the Tung Oil from time to time?

    1. Yes, on our maple island I reapply about once a year. (It still looks great, but you may start to see a bit of wear on some areas.) On the table where I used more coats, I'm guessing I won't even have to do it that often. We will see!

  4. Did the Tung oil change the color of the table? In the “before” pictures, the finish looks more coastal/gray wash to me but in the “after” photos, it seems to have more of a brown finish.

  5. I used tung oil on an old walnut dining table that had been used in my parents’ home for many years. I first had it professionally stripped because it had been sitting in an attic for awhile, but after I restained it I applied about 6 coats of tung oil. The oil gave it a beautiful finish that has stood up to daily use wonderfully! My question is, how can I deep clean several old pieces so I can then apply tung oil? These chairs and small tables have many years of “gunk” on them, and I don’t want to strip them or sand them and damage the wood. Thanks for your advice!

  6. Tung oil sounds interesting though I don’t have anything that I could use it on. I was admiring your dining room rug in this post. Can you share the name of the rug and the source? I’m redoing my dining room and can’t find much that I like. Thanks

  7. What tung oil product did you use on the table? It looks great and your description of your process makes it seem like a very do-able project!

  8. I first used Tung oil when I had Teak Danish mid-century furniture in the 80s and 90s. It was recommended by the furniture company. That furniture never had any stains and looked as good when I sold it in 2013 as it did when I purchased it. I still have the parson's style sofa table that is perfect condition and cannot bring myself to let it go. I still use Tung oil on it every five years or so. I also use it on antique oak and walnut pieces and it keeps them looking beautiful.

  9. I have used Tung oil since the 80s when I purchased some Danish Teak furniture for my mid-century modern house and that is what the furniture company recommended. I sold all but one piece of that furniture in 2013 and it looked like new. I kept a parson's style sofa table and still use it. When the finish starts looking dull (about every 8 years or so) I will use the Tung oil and it's like new. I also use it on some oak and walnut antique pieces as needed and the finish stays beautiful on those as well. It is the easiest and best finish I have found to use on stained or unstained wood.

  10. Thank you. Did you sand and refinish the edges of the table also?


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