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I just got a nice new wooden table, and, being completely clueless about wood, scrubbed it with the rougher side of a dish sponge because it had some weird rough spots on the surface. Now it's slightly scratched all over - the scratches are very shallow (the color is fine and I can't feel them with my fingers), but I see them in reflected light and they get on my nerves. What can I, a person who has never dealt with wood before, do to fix this?

The table, according to the manufacturer, has a polyurethane finish (on top of a walnut veneer). It doesn't look glossy, so the scratches aren't too much of a disaster, but I'd still like to fix them if that's reasonably doable.

So far I tried Howard's Orange Oil Wood Polish and Old English Scratch Cover for Dark Woods (both rubbed in with a cotton cloth), but neither worked, although the Scratch Cover maybe helped a little.

  • Re the finish being relatively soft, fresh varnishes shouldn't see any use for about a week to 10 days. Then light use for the first 2-4 weeks. After that period the final stage in the 'drying' process (curing, a chemical change in the finish) is done and it's as tough as it's going to get and you can use as normal. – Graphus Apr 24 '17 at 7:38
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    About the smell, unfortunately there's little you can do to not have any smell at all here because oil-based varnishes have smell on their own. But you can reduce the solvent part of the stink quite a bit by diluting using a low-odour version of mineral spirits. Some are literally called odourless but that's a misnomer as none are completely odourless, however the smell is greatly reduced from the normal kind. – Graphus Apr 24 '17 at 7:45
  • @Graphus That sounds useful, thanks! I'll definitely look into the odourless options. – weronika Apr 25 '17 at 15:49
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You're going to have to make this look worse before it looks better. The first step is *gulp* to lightly sand or scuff the entire surface until the existing scratches aren't evident, and then do one of the following to restore shine:

  • polish the surface of the existing varnish
  • add fresh polyurethane.

Polishing the surface is the harder of the two options here and not one I'd recommend a first-timer try on a completed piece of furniture. It's not too difficult to do but it requires practice and you don't have anything to practice on so that really only leaves option no. 2, which I think is the better route anyway.

The second option probably sounds daunting if you've never used varnish before but by using what's called wiping varnish (which can be bought readymade or made at home) it's quite easy to get a very good result without prior experience, as long as you follow the instructions.

After the sanding/scuffing of the existing varnish it's simply a matter of applying wiping varnish* as normal, layer by layer until you have a uniform sheen that you're happy with. There is more than one application method you can employ, but for simplicity you should probably use the wipe-on/wipe-off method which is the easiest and most straightforward and will virtually guarantee good results.

Full instructions on how to go about this in this extract from Flexner on Finishing: Finally - Answers to Your Wood Finishing Fears & Frustrations by Bob Flexner.

Applying wiping varnish 1


Applying wiping varnish 2


Applying wiping varnish 3

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The polyurethane will be well cured by now. Without stripping everything back and starting over (which you should NOT do cause it's far too much work for a few scatches) all you can do is try and mask them (which you say you've tried and not had much success with), or apply a few coats of poly on top.

As the existing finish will be completely cured, you will need to give the entire surface a very light (scuff) sanding first with high grit sand paper. This will hide/blend the existing scratches and give the new coat of poly something to physically bond to. I would use a wipe on poly (homemade - 50/50 mineral spirits + poly blend) and apply at least 3 or 4 coats over a couple of days (following directions on can for timing).

You'll definitely want to try this on the underside of the table first (or on some non visible part) - I'm sure you'd hate to end up making the problem worse (or at least more visible)

Bear in mind that the new finish will be comparatively soft for up to a month and may also be quite stinky for the first week or so.

  • How high is high grit? (Are there numbers?) And, how stinky are we talking? (Am I going to be able to live in a small apartment with it? I don't have anywhere else to put it, other than the balcony where it might get rained on, which sounds like it could be a problem...) Also, does "comparatively soft" mean "don't use it"? (I can do that, I just need to know what to avoid.) – weronika Apr 24 '17 at 3:42
  • @weronika Can you fit it in a bathroom with the exhaust fan on? If not, I wouldn't do it in a small apartment. I'm currently obsessed with shellac, so I'd try coating it with shellac, which only smells like the alcohol it's mixed with. And since it dries faster than any other finish, I'd try rubbing it with a brillo pad or scotchbrite (and water or oil as lube) after a few days or a week to get an even dull sheen rather than a strong gloss. But this is something to try as a fun experiment, not if you need a guaranteed result. – piojo Apr 25 '17 at 10:45
  • @weronika My mom used polyurethane a lot when I was a kid, and I'm still not right. (I'm joking, but I still remember hating the smell, despite the work being done in a large house.) – piojo Apr 25 '17 at 10:47
  • poly smell won't be too bad - the worst part imo is actually going to be the mineral spirits you mix it with. It's basically unavoidable though. High grit depends on what sand paper you're running with - probably P600 or cami 360. Soft means it's usable after a day after the last coat.... but just be gentle with it for a bit. Once it's no longer tacky to the touch you can use it – Dave Smylie Apr 25 '17 at 10:51
  • @DaveSmylie Okay, thanks! Apparently there are mostly-unscented mineral spirits options, do you think that will help sufficiently? – weronika Apr 25 '17 at 15:46
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For scratches that are not through the finish, you can simply make them vanish by scratching the finish more, and then scratching those scratches with smaller scratches, and stop when it suits you. Depending exactly how large they are, this is sanding and or buffing the finish - the only thing you need to be quite careful of is not making any of the new scratches go through the finish. If you do that, you'll need to refinish it. You need to be particularly careful if you are working near an edge, as edges are easy to over-sand on.

You might try starting with 600 grit sandpaper, and if that does not seem to affect the scratches, go to 400 grit. Sand just until you can't see the original scratches any more, vacuum and wipe the surface to remove any loose grit particles, and then work with progressively finer grits up to a point that suits the finish you started with (since you say it's not glossy, there's likely to be a point in the 1200-2000 range where more sanding is not called for.)

You need to clean every time you change grit going coarser to finer - any loose grit from the coarser grade will make scratches you don't want. With each grade, you only want to use it until you can no longer see the scratches from the preceding grade. For flat work, using a sanding block is highly advisable. Don't press very hard at all.

  • That sounds worth trying to start with... How can I tell if the scratches are/aren't through the finish? (My guess is that they aren't but I don't really know what I'm talking about) – weronika Apr 24 '17 at 13:00
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    Your description ("the color is fine and I can't feel them") suggests that they are not through the finish. – Ecnerwal Apr 24 '17 at 13:21
  • @weronika If sandpaper is too aggressive, try #0000 steel wool, or as I mentioned in another comment, a scotchbrite pad from a hardware store. Though it's harder to step up progressively through the grits if you're using this type of product. – piojo Apr 25 '17 at 10:51

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