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How to restore a damaged tabletop

This charming writing table, passed from mother to daughter, lacked lustre and sported ugly watermarks. Over a weekend Helaine Clare set about restoring the finish, allowing the patina of the wood to shine out again.

Jude has fond memories of when she was very young and she would sit in front of the dressing table mirror trying on her mother’s jewellery, as her mother sat nearby busy at her writing table. Just the thought of it evokes the fragrance of the beeswax polish. This mahogany writing desk now belongs to Jude, but has been sadly neglected of late and ugly watermarks have marred the top.

Uncared for furniture often suffers from a build-up of dirt and grime and the diminished colour and lustre result in a dull appearance. Instant first aid involves removing surface dirt and the old layers of wax polish with a proprietary wax remover or a home-made mix of four parts white spirit to one part of linseed oil. If the finish is still looking a bit lifeless pour some proprietary wood reviver on to a cotton cloth and buff vigorously. One such remedy is 1 part linseed oil; 2 parts meths; 2 parts turps and 2 parts distilled vinegar. Finally some beeswax polish should bring it back to life. Liberon has a range of furniture renovation products suitable for the project (01797 367555; liberon.co.uk).

Before beginning this furniture project I tried various proprietary products and experimented with remedies including petroleum jelly, baking powder, toothpaste, and a mixture of mayonnaise and cigarette ash, but all without success.

Some people believe that water damage should stay as it is part of the table’s history but for Jude the piece was spoilt and she wanted it restored to how it had been. So we decided to remove the damaged finish and hoped that the watermarks hadn’t penetrated the actual wood. I’m glad to say they hadn’t.

You will need...

  • Work gloves
  • Dust mask
  • Paintbrushes
  • Proprietary chemical stripper and stripping tool
  • Wax and polish remover and fine steel wool (0000 gauge)
  • Fine glasspaper and sanding block
  • Wood dye
  • Finishing oil
  • Wax polish
  • Tack cloth and lint-free cloth

Prepare for stripping back

1. Prepare for stripping back: Stripping furniture is messy so work outside if possible. If working indoors, protect the floors and any furniture nearby and ensure good ventilation. To avoid damaging the finish on the body of the table cover it in a plastic sheet so that only the top is exposed. Apply stripper liberally with an old brush.

Allow layers to dissolve

2. Allow layers to dissolve: Leave for between five and 30 minutes until the finish – a mix of old varnish and polish – has dissolved. The length of time will depend on the composition and thickness of the coating. If the stripper hasn’t removed all the layers just re-spread the paste and it will continue to work.

Neutralise the chemical stripper

3. Neutralise the chemical stripper: Neutralise the wood with a pad of steel wool soaked in white spirit or proprietary wax and polish remover, following the grain of the wood. Before using any chemical always read the label carefully as different strippers require different neutralisers. Failure to neutralise stripper can allow it to reactivate.

Clean off the rest of the table

4. Clean off the rest of the table: Wipe away residues with cotton rags and leave for 24 hours. Meanwhile clean away dirt and old polish elsewhere by applying wax remover to a steel wool pad or coarse cloth and working in small areas at a time. Leave for a few minutes to soften the wax and wipe away with a clean cloth before it solidifies.

Return to the tabletop

5. Return to the tabletop: 24 hours after stripping the tabletop, use a sanding block and very fine glasspaper to smooth over the wood fibres raised during the stripping process – work with the grain. Shake and vacuum the protective sheet to get rid of dust that could spoil the finished piece. Finally wipe the top with a tack cloth.

Tackle areas of bleached wood

6. Tackle areas of bleached wood: For many years the table was sited beneath a window and the sun has bleached part of the wood. Applying a mahogany wood dye will make the top a uniform colour. Apply generously with a brush and allow stain to penetrate; wipe away excess with a cloth. Ensure an even finish by working in a good light.

Improve the sheen and finish

7. Improve the sheen and finish: Once dry, apply a coat of finishing oil using a brush or lint-free cloth. Allow oil to penetrate for 10 minutes and wipe away the surplus before it goes sticky. Wait for at least five hours and gently rub with 0000 gauge steel wool before applying a further coat; repeat again – the more coats the greater the durability and sheen.

The final spruce up

8. The final spruce up: Finally, sparingly apply a thin coat of good furniture wax over the whole table. Leave for an hour at least and polish with a lint-free cloth. To avoid warping caused by drying out of the wood, position furniture away from radiators and fires. Sunlight will bleach the wood, so ensure it’s not placed beneath a window.