The gleaming surface of The Home Guru’s nightstand, a satisfying quick and easy one-afternoon refinishing project that opted for a polyurethane finish rather than varnish or shellac because of its quicker drying time.

The gleaming surface of The Home Guru’s nightstand, a satisfying quick and easy one-afternoon refinishing project that opted for a polyurethane finish rather than varnish or shellac because of its quicker drying time.

When I was younger and forced by the lack of money to be a do-it-yourselfer around the house and in the garden, I dreamed of the day when I could employ others to do all that sweat labor to maintain and upgrade everything that needed to be done. That day came a long time ago, and I considered myself lucky that I had more time available to pursue other dreams like a satisfying second career, and even a third career. At an age when many people are retired, I have the opportunity to work long, happy hours every day.

But just last weekend, surprisingly, I found myself with a free Saturday for the first time in several years where I was caught up on all my assignments and just itching for something to do around the house. More than just itching. Starving.

As it happens, my wife and I were in the process of furnishing a new room that was able to make use of a small Shaker-like pine night table that was stored in our attic years ago and forgotten, but it seemed to fit our need perfectly. The only problem was that its surface was badly worn and needed to be refinished.

It had been more than 30 years since I had refinished furniture, and in those days, I was a purist, insisting on the method of refinishing known as French Polish, where the old surface would be stripped with paint remover, and after being sanded, the surface grain would be “filled” with a filler and sanded again with fine sandpaper to make it perfectly smooth. Then, it would be coated with several coats of either shellac or varnish that required a long time to dry, again being sanded with fine sandpaper between each coat to remove imperfections and to create a better bond for the next coat. After three coats, I would finish the surface with two layers of Butcher’s Wax, buffed to perfection. The process took forever to accomplish because of the drying time between each coat and also because of the sanding required to remove the imperfections caused by the brush and dust. Shellac can take up to 36 hours to dry and, if you do the math, a project of refinishing would take forever. Who has that kind of time anymore?

With this method, a small tabletop could take me a couple of weeks of part-time effort to accomplish. I don’t have that kind of time anymore, so my first decision was to think about whether I wanted to make that leap to use polyurethane for a surface. Let me explain the difference. Polyurethane is a thermoplastic that combines the best features of plastic and rubber. It has gained popularity due to its ability to form a thicker and stronger film than coatings like varnish and shellac. It requires less coats, time and effort. Oil based polyurethane typically dries in 24 hours, while water-based only takes six or less. I’ll take the water-based, thank you.

This time around, devoid of any materials needed, I marched myself down to Home Depot and bought my small arsenal of products for an afternoon’s pleasurable pursuit: a pint of paint remover; a half pint of Minwax Wood Finish (in Colonial Maple); a half pint of water based, fast drying polyurethane; two 3M Sandblaster sandpaper blocks, one medium grade and one fine; a cheap two-inch brush to apply the stripper and a good one-and-a-half inch brush to apply the polyurethane, and in one small bag, I was a weekend project warrior.

At home, I spread an old sheet on the floor, and with my cheap brush covered the table top, legs and drawer front with the stripper, let it do its thing for just 15 minutes , then wiped it off with old rags. After sanding with first the medium grade Sandblaster, then the smooth, I stained the wood with Minwax, and let it dry for an hour. Then I simply applied the polyurethane and, after less the four hours, I found that it was completely dry. With the fine Sandblaster, I rubbed down the imperfections which did a pretty good job on all the flat surfaces. For the turns on the legs, I used fine steel wool.

The end product looked so good that I thought I could be ready for the finishing wax coat but, I realized that I had forgotten to buy Butcher’s Wax. However, did I tell you my favorite secret weapon around the house for repairing scratches is also a wonderful final refinishing coat too? That is Kiwi Shoe Polish! I lathered on brown wax in two coats, and the results were deep and luxurious.

Now I have a very sweet, shiny end table with an all but impervious surface, but more than that, I’ve enjoyed an almost Zen-like, lazy afternoon exercise that scratched a long-held itch to do a project around the house once again.

Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (, specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is: and his blog is: To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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