Q: What’s the best finish to use to refinish a dining room table? I want something durable and food-safe.
Use Oil-Based Polyurethane
Varnish is not easy to apply, and shellac is not durable. Tung oil dries slowly and needs many coats. That’s why, for the non-pro, I’d recommend an oil-based wipe-on polyurethane. I’ve used it on a number of projects—including tables—that I built for The New Yankee Workshop and for my own use. It offers great protection, has the look of a hand-rubbed oil finish, and is easy to apply. It also dries more quickly than brush-on polyurethanes, so there’s less chance of dust getting in the finish. You can buy wipe-on polys that are water-based, but they dry clear as glass. I like the way that oil-based formulas add color to the wood.
When I’m using this finish, I make my own applicator: a clean piece of rolled-up cotton cloth held by a metal binder clip. The clip keeps my fingers out of the finish. I simply pour the poly into a paper bowl, dip the cloth into the finish, and spread it on the tabletop.
The key is to lay down the poly in long, continuous strokes, one right after the other, so you always keep a wet edge. Don’t wipe on too much at one time. Thin coats level out better and dry faster than thick ones. Most manufacturers recommend applying three coats, but I usually do more.
After each coat dries for a few hours, scuff it lightly with 220-grit sandpaper and clean up the dust with a cloth moistened with denatured alcohol. When you’re done, you should have a flawless finish that’s durable and food-safe, once it cures.
— This Old House master carpenter Norm Abram