Varnish is a clear coat that is often used on wood furniture to protect the wood from moisture and stains. It’s ideal for tables that must be wiped frequently, but its glossy, non-porous finish is impossible to paint over. Before you can paint a varnished table, you must remove the varnish and prepare the wood. However, most homeowners can paint a varnished table themselves over the course of a weekend.
Move the table outdoors or place it on a tarp or plastic sheeting to protect the floor beneath. Wear a dust mask, rubber gloves and safety glasses as you work.
Remove any hardware on the table before you begin. If it cannot be removed, protect hardware with plastic secured with painter’s tape.
Apply a chemical paint stripper with a brush or rag in a thick coat to a section small enough that you can work on it before it dries.
Allow the stripper sit for the time recommended on the label. Furniture strippers vary in working times, from as little as 10 minutes to as much as 30 minutes. Usually when the finish bubbles, it is ready to scrape away. Do not allow the stripper to dry.
Scrape away as much of the varnish as you can with your putty knife, holding it almost flat against the wood to avoid gouges.
Continue applying the stripper to the remaining sections of wood until the entire table has been treated.
Soak fine steel wool in paint stripper and scrub the wood to remove stubborn spots and to remove varnish from the legs.
Apply mineral spirits, turpentine or water to the wood to neutralize the paint stripper. Read the label of the product you use to determine which material the manufacturer recommends for cleaning the stripper from the wood.
Allow the wood to dry thoroughly and then sand with 120-grit sandpaper, working in the direction of the wood grain.
Fill blemishes by pressing wood filler into these areas with a putty knife. Leave patched areas to dry overnight and then sand them smooth with 220 grit sandpaper.
Sand the entire table final time with 220 grit paper to ensure a uniformly smooth surface and wipe sanding dust from the wood with a tack cloth.
Apply primer first, beginning at one corner of the table top, but not right at the edge. Work outward toward the opposite corner, applying the paint in thin, even strokes, working with direction of the wood grain. You can use a brush or a roller for the table top, but avoid overloading with paint.
Cover the table top entirely, and then apply primer to the edges. Wipe away drips with a clean, damp rag.
Brush the primer onto the legs, working from the top down in thin, even strokes.
Leave the primer to dry for at least 24 hours before applying your first coat of paint in the same manner as the primer.
Let the first coat dry for at least 24 hours before you apply a second coat. Typically you will need at least two coats of paint for a lasting, uniform finish.
Finish by applying a topcoat of clear, water-based varnish. This provides additional protection, particularly if the table will be used outdoors or in the kitchen. The varnish provides water and stain resistance.