DIY refinished oak side table {stained & painted}

Oh boy.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to be done with a project before. I really underestimated how much work I was getting myself into when I decided to stain and paint these dated little oak side tables I had given to me from my mother in law. She snagged these up some time ago at a thrift store with me in mind and I finally decided to do something with them. I’ve done my fair share of spray painting furniture (see here and here). Most times I’ve been successful and didn’t run into any big problems along the way, but this time was different. I had no idea how much more work staining wood can be compared to just slapping some spray paint on it. I’m going to show you some of the mistakes I made in hopes that you will heed my warnings and don’t make the same screw ups I did. Trust me, you don’t want to mess up like I did!
Aren’t these things hideous? I mean, once upon a time I’m sure they were in style and looked amazing in a 90’s decked out house, but I had something totally different in mind for them in my own living room. I love the shape of them though. I wanted to stain the tops a rich, dark espresso color and paint the pedestals a creamy white. Sounds divine, right? Divine, yes. Easy? Not so much. At least not for an impatient person like me. Here’s how it went down.
First up, I had to sand the finish off of the table tops and get rid of any scratches I could see (there were a lot). I started off with 100 grit sandpaper, then worked my way up to 180 and finished with 220. Sandpaper grit numbers are just like nail file grit numbers- the lower the number, the more coarse the grit. The higher the number, the finer the grit. Got it? 100 grit is pretty rough and worked great to remove the finish and get down to the natural, bare wood. Then 180 grit helped to smooth it and even it out, and 220 grit is super fine and made the wood as smooth as silk. Sanding sucks. It makes a ton of dust and you end up with most of it all over you. Make sure you sand outside because you don’t want that mess in your house.

Alright, we’re down the bare, natural wood. Next up, stain! The one I chose was called Ebony by Minwax. One coat was not nearly as dark as I wanted it to be, so multiple coats were going to be necessary. Multiple coats also means a lot of waiting around because you have to wait 4-6 hours to reapply. 
Here’s the first problem I ran into with the square table and the stain.

Remember when I sanded the table tops? I thought I did a great job, but apparently I didn’t sand down enough because as soon as I put on the first coat of stain a ton of crazy scratches showed up that I didn’t notice before. I swear, that thing was smooth and I thought I’d gotten all of the imperfections buffed out, but I guess I didn’t. There’s no other way that I know of to hide these scratches, and I certainly couldn’t just leave them, so guess what that meant? Yep, more sanding. I had to start all over again with my 100 grit sandpaper and re-sand the whole thing. Yay.

I decided to start painting the table pedestals instead, because I was already sick of all the sanding business. Spray painting is easy. Well, easier, if you know what you’re doing. I removed the table tops from the pedestals and made sure to wipe them down really, really well with a damp cloth. There was a lot of dirt and gunk on the pedestals, especially the feet. The wood needs to be totally clean and free of all dirt, dust, and debris before spray painting or it will end up clumpy and ugly. Normally I would prime the wood before painting, but I splurged and bought Krylon’s Dual Paint + Primer so I got to skip the extra priming step.


It took a good 4-5 thin coats to get the coverage I wanted. Thankfully, spray paint dries really quickly, especially in warm weather. It was a warm 75-ish degrees that day, so I only had to wait about 10 minutes between each coat of paint. This was the quickest part of the whole project. Don’t the pedestals look great painted white? I could tell these were going to be really pretty when completely done. Now, back to the staining business.

I re-sanded the square table and removed the stain I previously applied. I took special care this time to completely buff out all the scratches and made sure I inspected the table top from every possible angle looking for any other imperfections I missed the first time. I did not want to have to sand again. When I was absolutely sure it was well sanded it was back to staining. I applied 2 coats of the Ebony stain to both table tops and I stepped back to admire my work. It was looking so good! But by then it was getting dark, so I decided to move the pieces inside to dry over night. We have a lot of outdoor cats and squirrels in my neighborhood and I didn’t want them getting curious and messing with my tables that I so painstakingly worked on all day. I carefully brought everything inside and put them in my basement to dry overnight. I wanted to apply one more coat of stain to get the wood nice and rich and dark.

The next morning I woke up excited to finish up my tables! That’s when I found another huge mistake I made with the stain, except this time it was on the round table top.


Those would be my fingerprints. Two sets of them to be exact, right where I touched the wood to carry them inside the night before. I thought the stain was already dry, and I guess I was a little rushed getting them inside and didn’t realize I was touching the still-drying stained wood. In my defense, I was home alone for the weekend because my husband was out of town, so in between staining and painting I was coming inside to breastfeed and care for my 2 month old and check on my 6 and 10 year old children. Maybe I was doing too much at one time, but I couldn’t believe I messed up another table top. How was I going to get these fingerprints out? I did not want to start allover on another table top and sand it all the way down. Maybe I could just sand off the fingerprints, right? Sure. I’ll try anything.


Maybe not. I carefully sanded the stain and fingerprints off and tried re-staining just those spots. Nope. Didn’t work. No matter how much I tried I could not get the spots to blend in with the rest of the table top. You know what that means- more sanding. I had to start all over again with this one and sand it all the way back down to the natural wood and stain it yet again. At this point I’m pretty sure my poor neighbors were sick of my sanding and my yelling of expletives.

After sanding the round table again, I went back to work finishing up the last coat of stain on the square table. Finally, after all the mistakes and screw ups it was starting to look really gorgeous! The third coat of stain ended up being the perfect color I had in mind. I patiently let it dry and handled it ever so carefully this time. I attached the table top back on to the finished pedestal legs and admired my work. It still needed to be sealed, but it finally looked exactly like what I had in mind.


I finished sealing the table with a lot of coats of polyacrylic and let it dry very, very well. If I had made another mistake at this point I probably would have ripped every strand of hair out of my head and Hulk-smashed the table in the street. What I thought would only be a 1 day project had turned into a weekend long event, and when my husband returned home on Sunday from a  work trip I still had tables drying in the driveway. I would have been done a lot faster had I not made the scratch and fingerprint mistakes, but you live and you learn I guess.

Here is my pain-in-the-butt side table in it’s new spot in my living room

Oh, that lamp? I also painted that. It was from a set of two brass lamps that I painted a gorgeous, glossy gray color. I found the shades on clearance at Target for 12 bucks each (marked down from $25!) and I knew they would look amazing on my newly refinished side tables. I’ve been wanting to find some brass lamps like these and paint them up forever, and I’m so glad they are finally mine!


Staining takes time. Lots and lots of time and careful application. Stain is not forgiving. Paint is. I’ve made mistakes while painting and most times a little light sanding and a few extra coats of paint will cover up whatever went wrong. This is not the case with stain. Make a mistake with it and you’re stuck sanding and starting all over again. I don’t want to even think about sanding something again for a very long time, which is unfortunate because I still have an oak coffee table to go along with these end tables that needs refinishing too.


Oh, and if you’re wondering where the round table is, it’s still in my basement drying. Hopefully it can join the square table and find it’s new home in another corner of my living room as well.
What do you think? Are you ready to find your own ugly table and refinish it?
Have you ever made a big painting or staining no-no? I’d love to hear your tips.