I have an old cheap tea table, which I'd like to fix a bit and re-paint or re-varnish. The top of it is a plywood, its surface has scratches and stains, the table is stained black, but I'm not sure if this is just a black paint or black varnish. Sanding peels off the black coat fairly easy, so I assume it is a paint?

The questions are:

  1. assuming this is paint, what type of paint should I apply on a plywood and how many coats?

  2. if it is varnished, how many coats of varnish should be applied?

  3. is it OK to varnish over sanded surface that had paint on it and the other way around?


If you were to paint the surface it would cover and look more uniform than if you were to try and re-stain. Re-staining is more labor intensive in that unless you know the stain color it is hard to get a perfect match.

Without a picture to judge what is currently on the surface the best way to apply a paint coat is to start sanding. Hand or orbital (or both). Start with 80 grit and work through to 120. Be aware that this is most likely a veneered table top which may have only a thin layer of wood grain. If you sand through it you will expose a core or wood ply that may look different. Paint will cover this under layer but be aware. Use any paint type you prefer. An oil based paint will dry harder than other latex paints, but is harder to work with. Apply several coats.

If the stain color is even and no re-staining is required you could give it a light sanding with a 220 grit paper, wipe the dust off with a dampened rag of paint thinner, let dry and apply several coats of polyurethane (oil or water based, gloss, semi-, or matte finish).

Be aware that while you can varnish over paint it (in my opinion) will not look good. The varnish will give a light toned paint a red hue. Painting over a varnish is possible ,too. You must apply a de-glosser to the entire suface first. This allows the paint to adhere better to the surface.

  • thanks for your great feedback. I'm a bit confused with terminology: is staining the same as varnishing ? Polyurethane is not the same as varnish?
    – Mark
    Dec 29 '20 at 15:59
  • 1
    Sorry. Staining is different from varnishing in that with staining the wood is basically being colored. A varnish or polyurethane is used to seal and protect the wood. It is essentially a plastic skin over the stained wood surface.
    – ojait
    Dec 29 '20 at 16:32

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