How to Stain a Vintage Dining Table

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Admittedly, the finish on the farmhouse table – which will ultimately be used as my studio desk – took much longer than anticipated. A handful of road bumps (oh, we’ll get to that!), working around the contractors and shuffling the table from room to room (it was a total guessing game: where will be the least dusty place of them all?) all played a role in making our small (funny!) project turn into a week long adventure.

But, it’s done! When we last left off, we had deconstructed the table only to reconstruct it, this time with extended aprons. After sanding (and sanding and sanding), it looked like this:

Now, the table has a medium-toned, slightly weathered wood finish:

To get the look, we applied two different stains in layers (our first time doing so, and put it on the record that we will be doing this more often!), using this tutorial – for the most part – as our inspiration.

Tools + Supplies Used:
Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner (similar)
Minwax Wood Finish in Special Walnut
Minwax Wood Finish in Weathered Oak
Minwax Polycrylic in clear satin (water-based)
Disposable latex gloves
Stir sticks (we used shims)
Rags for applying the stain
2″ brush, good quality
Extra fine sanding block (220 grit)

pre-stain conditioner | special walnut | weathered oak | satin polycrylic

1| Apply Pre-Stain Conditioner

Using the brush, I applied the pre-stain conditioner before laying down any color, which helps to give an overall even base for the stains. This dries relatively fast, and you can get staining right away (our can’s instructions had us wait 10 minutes).

pre-stain conditioner | 2″ brush

2| Apply First Stain Coat

After stirring the first stain (which you’ll want to do every couple of minutes throughout the process), Special Walnut, I put on my gloves and used a rag to apply the color.


Disposable gloves | Stir sticks | Rags | 2″ brush

3| Sand + Apply Second Stain Coat

I waited 5 minutes then wiped off any residue, waited 20 more minutes, then applied a coat of Weathered Oak. Below, you can see that the Special Walnut brought out a medium wood hue, and the Weathered Oak helped to bring down any red/orange undertones. So far, so good.

The good part only lasted so long, as I start noticing a lot of unevenness in the finish. Naturally, I panicked, called in Scott to assess my damage, and we both agreed to ask our contractor, Mike, the next day if he had any suggestions. (Mike has been restoring his hundred year old house for the last several decades, so we figured that he had to have run into a similar problem somewhere along the way!)

The following morning, I showed Mike the lighter spots, asking him, what did I do wrong? He admitted that he actually didn’t mind the look, as it shows vintage character in the table itself – but he could tell that’s not exactly the sort of patina I was going for. He continued to explain that wood as old as this – because remember, this table was made in the 1800s! – has probably soaked in all the past varnishes, even more so past the point of a weekend sanding.

Troubleshooting Along the Way

He offered me two solutions: I could sand the table again (to which I laughed hysterically!), and after doing so, I could degrease it using TSP (trisodium phosphate cleaner). The TSP would lift out the lingering oils, providing a much more even finish, and I could then again start from square one (the pre-stain conditioner). While this would likely yield the best results, my tired sanding arms couldn’t even fathom doing so – however, he told me to remember that tip in the future. TSP, my friends.

Solution two: Paint the lighter spots back in. Using a small brush, I could apply stain only to the very lightest spots with the Special Walnut. Now this was more feasible, so I did so very carefully, buffing the outer edges with my rag. Mike also said to refrain from wiping the stain up – let it dry overnight, then continue with any further layering we wanted to complete. For good measure, I also applied one more layer of Special Walnut to the aprons, helping them better blend in with the table overall.

4| Touch Up Stain Details

The next day (we were going on day three of the staining marathon by now), you could see a shinier sheen where I had painted in my darker stain, but my goodness. It worked! It wasn’t perfect, but the difference was night and day.

Liking the way things were going, I continued by applying 2 more coats of Weathered Oak, giving the table it’s final color:

After a handful of hours, I started with the final step: Polycrylic. By far, this is my favorite step – not only because it means we could see the finish line, but because it pulls the whole look together. Using my brush again, I applied the poly in quick, even coats, being mindful to not over brush (too much fussing will result in streaks) while working in the same direction.

5| Apply Polycrylic Finish

The next few steps are a big time suck, but so necessary for the longevity of the desk: Wait 2 hours, then lightly sand with the extra fine sanding block. Wipe clean, then apply another coat of Polycrylic. Wait 2 hours, sand again, wipe clean again, then apply the third and final coat of the protective finish.

After the final coat of Polycrylic has been applied, it’s always good to wait at least 24 hours before handling and 3 days before putting the furniture to use. (That’s probably the hardest part of the whole process; especially for a very impatient girl like myself!)

Let me just say that I wish I could’ve photographed the end result in a different light, so to speak. The endless dust and grime covering our floors is an indication that drywall has started!, but it also means that any furniture we have out (which is very, very little) is pushed against walls and covered in dropped cloths. (After these photos were snapped, the table was ushered back to safety behind a curtain of plastic, mocking me.)

Regardless of our messy, messy floors, we couldn’t be happier with the results. There’s still a fair share of age that shines through the finish, but it’s the good kind:

The small cracks and dents were purposely left as-is (rather than sanding and filling), as we think it really shows off the history of the table. (Anyone want to give it a back story?)

You might notice that we skipped the white-wash step from the tutorial (which is why ours is still a little darker than our inspiration), but we still really love the way it turned out. We’re counting down the days remaining for the contractors’ work to wrap up (for many reasons, of course!), but once we can lift the sheets of plastic and spread out, this table’ll be the first thing to set up. Oh, yes.

And since we’ve just discovered the joys of layering stains (dork alert), we’re wondering if anyone else has been been experimenting, too? What’s your favorite combination? (Photos, please!)

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