I guess that over the years I (ab)used this 1¼-inch-thick kitchen table top, by, for example, not using place-mats. The finish was initially extremely good. I palm-of-hand applied the varnish (which one, I can't remember). The idea was to use palm heat to push the varnish deeper into the grains. It worked quite nicely. But cleaning with a moist paper towel year-after-year ends up slowly sanding the varnish off.

table top has oily streaks

Second mistake: I didn't apply the varnish on the bottom side of the table with as much vigor as the top side. As you see from the picture below, the bottom of the table was in any case not finished at the factory with nearly as much attention as the top side. (I understand that this is not unusual.)

bottom is not as nicely finished, not quite as thoroughly varnished

Now aside from the irregular discoloration from food oils infusing into the top of the table, the more serious problem is that the top has warped. In the picture below, you see that it no longer sits flat on the legs and beams on the two short sides. The long sides are fine. They still sit perfectly flush with their beams.

table top has warped off the beams and legs

In the next view you see the table top against the floor. Assuming the floor itself is still planar, the warping is quite serious.

table top is no longer planar

Can this table top be salvaged? How?

I'm considering borrowing one idea from another (1⅛-inch thick) table top. On a desk table top that I have recently finished, I see that the manufacturer (a different one) has built a metal beam within a groove in the bottom of the table. They may have done this merely to give extra strength to the desk, since the frame carrying the table top does not quite reach the edges, rather than to stop warping.

My hunch is that if I now retrofit the kitchen table top with two metal L-beams, just next to the existing wood beams on the short sides, and force the table top straight by a number of screws through the two metal beams, then that would just be a recipe for developing cracks along the top the table, effectively ruining it. Do you agree? Both tables are of comparable dimensions: roughly 5ft x 2½ft.

metal L-beam embedded in the bottom of the table


Second mistake: I didn't apply the varnish on the bottom side of the table with as much vigor as the top side.

Not a mistake. Despite the conventional 'wisdom' of modern woodworkers that both sides of a tabletop need to be finished (and some sources are very definite that it's finished equally) this is actually not necessary1.

Can this table top be salvaged? How?

It's not possible to predict whether you can get this top flat again. Flatter certainly, but back to flat may be hard or impossible2, especially over the long term.

Because of what likely caused the curvature here — it's not simply that the bottom was free to absorb more moisture from the air and swell, while the top could dry out more easily — I'd guess that without a fairly major intervention3 you won't be successful here, especially if the desired end is a completely flat top that you can have some confidence will stay that way.

Not just the finish, or usage
The current issue with the top may have been partly caused by the table not being structured properly. If you do manage to get the top flat again it would be extremely beneficial to reattach it to the aprons in a way that allows for seasonal movement. Currently it appears that only four pocket screws hold the top down across its width (two on each apron) and to put it mildly this isn't the best way to attach a tabletop.

In addition, I'm also unclear as to why the apron pieces don't align with the tops of the legs as would be normal. This I think would also have to be rectified to ensure a long-lasting solution because you want a uniform, flat, surface for the top to be pulled against by whatever fasteners are chosen.

1 The bulk of tables — both modern and historical — don't have tops that are finished on their undersides. Yet, as we all know from being around furniture all the time, the bulk of tables don't warp. This tells us directly that applying finish to only the top of a tabletop can be perfectly fine.

2 Warped wood generally wants to stay that new shape and there may be tremendous force within it resisting a change, which is why so much clamp pressure can be needed to force a thick curved top back to flat once you bring it into the workshop to fix.

3 For example resurfacing the tabletop by heavy sanding or planing.

  • I'll take more pictures showing how the frame attaches to the table top. That would perhaps make it possible for you to make a concrete suggestion before giving up on this table. One idea from the links you pointed out elsewhere is to turn the table upside down, but not attach it, and over a month or two wipe it with a moist kitchen towel and then with another dry kitchen towel—in other words exactly what may have caused this issue in the first place, but on the opposite side. – Sam Dec 8 '20 at 20:52
  • Something to ponder: assume this does take two months, with the significant effort that entails, not to mention the possible restructuring/rebuild of the leg structure that should be done (IMO consider this mandatory, not optional) plus obviously a complete refinishing of the top whatever route you take..... is this table actually worth all that? Even if you price your time at zero dollars/pounds per hour (as we typically do for home stuff LOL) if you have to buy a fresh can of finish the price of that alone could be a significant chunk of the cost of an entirely new table of this basic sort. – Graphus Dec 9 '20 at 9:04
  • And in the current condition, if you want to pass it on cheaply (via Facebook's Marketplace, CL or anything like that) to someone else who fancies the project, or is just desperate for a table even if it has a non-flat top, that would recoup some of the cost of a new table. All together, could easily be considered a net gain. – Graphus Dec 9 '20 at 9:07
  • Right.. time. I acquired many pieces with identical wood (Alder) and I'm now rather partial to this look, for uniformity if not learning about wood. The maker of these pieces has rather lousy distribution and now expects me to cross an international border to get additional pieces, and this table is in any case discontinued. Also, wiping for one minute twice weekly does not add up to a lot of time, and it may even work without disassembling anything! – Sam Dec 9 '20 at 9:23
  • "and it may even work without disassembling anything" Let's assume it does (and I think this is being highly optimistic!) then something else on the table does need to be addressed, at the very least the pocket screws — all of them — have to go, to be replaced by proper tabletop fasteners. "I acquired many pieces with identical wood (Alder) and I'm now rather partial to this look" I get that, I really do, but your new table shown from underneath in the last photo isn't alder in case you didn't know, it's beech. – Graphus Dec 9 '20 at 17:17

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