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A few years go I sanded a stained table we had. Upon doing so, we discovered that it had really nice wood underneath. So instead of restaining, I applied about 4 coats of satin polyurethane. It looked nice.

Since that time, a few small spots have formed...typically from a wet spot when a coaster wasn't used. More recently, someone (cough kids! cough) managed to spill something on it and not tell anyone for about a day. As such, there's now a large spot down the middle where the liquid leached through the finish and raised the grain and flaked off the poly.

My initial thought is to get the sander out, sand the whole thing down again, and re-apply a poly finish. But is there anything else I should consider as an alternate DIY finish that can maybe stand up to daily use as a dining/homework/junk table in the center of our house full of kids? Or should I just live with the fact that it'd going to take a beating and that maybe I just need to re-apply a new coat of poly every now and again? If the latter, is there a benefit to add more coats that 4? Do I double the durability with 8, for example?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

For starters, I am going to guess you used a water based urethane instead of an oil based product? I have never seen a good oil based product react as you described to simple spills. I have seen some damage caused by very hot items being placed on a urethane finish, but normally, liquids will bead up and not penetrate the finish. Even though the water based urethanes are easier to work with, it take two to three coats to give the same protection as one coat of oil based urethane.

More directly to your question, the hardest finishes you could use as a DIYer would be a good oil urethane or lacquer. Lacquer finishes are common on high end manufactured pieces, but really need to be sprayed on, several coats to make a good protective finish. The end result of a lacquer finish is much like the finish on a car, very hard and durable. I have built many bars for folks and used 3 to 10 coats of oil based urethane with great results. I have never had a complaint similar to the problem you are experiencing. If I were going to fix your table, i'd probably start from scratch. Sand it down again, fix any color flaws then apply 4 to 6 thin coats of oil urethane, sanding with 220 or 440 between coats. I personally prefer using a 4 or 6 inch good quality foam brush instead of a bristle brush. Use thin coats, resist the temptation to put on too much at a time. Each coat applied and finished with long complete strokes across the entire table. Be sure to allow proper recoat time as prescribed by the manufacturer. Don't rush it! Not allowing proper dry time will create a "softer" finish as undercoats will not have gassed off enough and not hardened or cured.

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Thanks, Shirlock. Indeed, this was a water-based product. I'll look into giving this a go with an oil-based urethane! –  DA01 Apr 18 at 16:26
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So, quick follow up question: One of the traits of this table is a few deep grains, old nail holes, and other imperfections (it appears to have been built with reclaimed wood). Since I can't easily sand out the water=based poly in these small areas, is that a concern if I apply an oil-based product on top of it? (Am I maybe stuck with water based from here on out with this table?) –  DA01 Apr 18 at 17:38
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sand it as best you can, then try a small area where there may still be some water based by putting a little oil base over it and look for a reaction the next day. You may luck out and be able to use oil over what little water base remains. –  shirlock homes Apr 18 at 21:51
    
I have never been a fan of water base urethane. Not impressed with it. –  shirlock homes Apr 18 at 21:52
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As far as I recall, we sought out "gym floor finish" (most likely an oil-based poly) for our hard-used kitchen table (clear finish, no tablecloth, still going strong 40 years and several refinishes later.) –  Ecnerwal Apr 19 at 19:36
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