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Achieving the Perfect Top Coat on a Stained Table Top

This weekend I worked on getting the perfect finish on a dining table top. It has a veneer top which makes it difficult to stain evenly and top coat. I kept getting streaks in my top coat and was about to pull out my hair in frustration. I’ve had to sand and restain, sand some more, apply another layer of top coat, and sand again; well you get the picture. I’ve finally managed to get a streakless finish and thought I would share what I’ve learned so you don’t make the same mistakes I did.

I used java gel stain from General Finishes which is an oil based stain. It’s thicker then regular stain so more like a paint in texture, but I love how it provides even coverage more than regular stains and you can use it like paint in some situations. Oil also penetrates more deeply than water based stains which sit more on the surface. Always wipe on some mineral spirits on the surface you are applying the gel stain beforehand. This will give you better and easier application as you are wiping the stain on and off. It avoids the splotchiness which can occur. I used a foam brush to apply the gel stain, worked in small sections at a time to wipe it off with a lint free rag in the direction of the wood grain. Keep going until all of the surface area has been covered. It must dry for 12-24 hours before top coating with an oil based top coat or 72 hours if you are using a water based product as we all know oil repels water so a longer drying time is needed for the oil to be absorbed.

I let it dry for a day and used Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane in Satin. It is an oil based top coat. I love how oil based top coats make the wood look richer so I chose to use it and also because I had used the oil based gel stain. It has a yellowish tint which gives the stain an amber hue. I’ve heard wonderful things about General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Urethane as being easier to apply so I will try that next time but this is based off of my experience with the Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane.

I used a wide foam brush to apply it. You an also use a good quality synthetic bristle brush. Do not use a roller or you will get air bubbles. I applied one layer, over lapping my strokes and going in one direction. I let it dry for 6 hours and applied another layer. I began noticing streaks under my bright lighting. I used a 3M Scotch-Brite pad and wet sanded in between layers as it dried. You should get a white powdery residue and not gooey or it means it hasn’t dried long enough. Sand in one direction. I did this by hand. You wet sand by wetting the pad with water as you sand. this helped eliminate the streaking. After I had applied 3 regular layers like this with my foam brush, I thinned the polyurethane with some mineral spirits so get it more in the consistency of a wipe on poly. I used my foam brush to apply it again. No sanding in between this time as it was not needed. I allowed it to dry 2 hours or more before applying on another thin layer. Finally I had achieved the perfect glossy top coat.

That sounded like a lot of work because it was. I’m hoping my experience makes it easier and less frightening for you to create a perfect stained and sealed table top. Dining room tables can be intimidating to refinish but with the right technique, they don’t need to be.