Refinishing veneered tables isn’t impossible. With a bit of finesse, and some patience, you can bring new life to wood veneer furniture – including re-staining!

It’s been awhile since I’ve shared a refinishing project hasn’t it?  Feels like AGES.

This refinishing project is a bit different than I usually do because the tables had veneered surfaces.

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links to the products I used.  For the full Amazon affiliate disclosure, please see the bottom of the page

What is wood veneer?

Wood veneer is a paper thin slice of real wood that is attached to a backing, usually adhesive, that you apply to cheaper building products like MDF or chipboard.  While veneer is NOT a cheap material to buy, it is cheaper than buying solid woods so manufacturers generally use it for that “real wood” look.

Veneer is actual wood, so it absorbs paint and stain in exactly the same way as any wood would.  Veneer can actually last longer than solid wood – surprising, I know – and that’s because veneer is so thin it isn’t as likely to crack or split like solid wood might if not kept in a humidity controlled environment.

The downside of veneer is that it is very susceptible to moisture, and since it is paper thin, that moisture can easily absorb into the lower building material (MDF or chipboard) which also absorbs moisture like a sponge and warps the furniture.

A second downside of wood veneer is that once it is damaged it generally stays damaged.  Veneer is not as easy to fix as sold wood.  Wood veneer is only about 0.5mm, or 0.02″, thick – so sanding out water damage, nicks, scratches, or dents is risky at best.  I avidly avoid refinishing (staining) veneered furniture, usually suggesting paint as the easiest way to give old pieces new life.

Having written all of that, my friend wanted 7 veneer tables refinished – stripped of the previous varnish and stain, repaired where possible, and then re-stained and protected.

There are highs and lows in refinishing veneer tables, and today I’ll share both in case it’s a project you’ve contemplated trying.

First up, the before photos:

damaged veneer coffee table


You’ve seen these tables.  I’m pretty sure millions were made in this exact shape, colour and veneer pattern.  The label on the underside said “made in Taiwan 1997”, so it peaked just about the same time I did. 😂. I’ve seen them in thrift stores many, MANY times – and 0ften you’ll see versions at the curb side after students move out.  It was beautiful, inexpensive, easily manufactured, and exported.

damaged wood veneer table

As with all furniture, time gives it “patina” and these tables were no exception.  Peeling varnish, water damage, dents, nicks and even some raised veneer sections where water had penetrated through.

damaged wood veneer table


My friend had 7 tables with this wood veneer – so replacing them all would have cost a couple/few thousand dollars.

I started with the worst table of the group, and tested out the best way to refinish wood veneers.

Best way to refinish wood veneers (in my opinion)

I chose sanding as the safest method given that paint strippers are liquid, and any breaks in the veneer would allow the moisture to soak through into the underlying MDF/chipboard.  If those get wet, they expand and warp and the veneer with it – until the furniture is so warped it isn’t saveable.

sanding wood veneer

Sanding wood veneer

Sanding is less risky, but there IS still a risk.  The topcoat and previous stain need to be removed, but sanding with an aggressive grit sandpaper (eg. 40, 60, 80) will eat through so quickly that you’ll be through the top layers and the wood veneer itself before you realize.  I opted for a 120 grit sandpaper on my random orbit sander and went over each table in slow rows so as not to create high or low spots.

If you don’t sand all the way through the old finish with the 120 grit, don’t push it; bring in a 150 grit and go over it again lightly.  Follow that with a 180 grit or 220 grit sandpaper, so that you are removing less and less with each passover.

The low: if your table does have water damage that has seeped in past the wood veneer and warped the underlying structure, there is no way to save the veneer and the shape of the table.  You can either sand it completely off to try and level the surface, re-veneer the section, or save the veneer, but have lumps in your table.  I just can’t think of any other workarounds.

sanded veneer table

It is RIDONCULOUSLY easy to sand through veneer, so taking it a little at a time is key.

You’ll see in the photo above that the oak grain in the veneer is still visible as black/darkened rings.  With solid wood, I would sand more aggressively and get right down to the base of those grain grooves to remove that colouring.  I don’t suggest doing that with wood veneer.  With any luck you/your client will choose a darker stain than the previous, so that these grain lines will blend in with the new finish.

Prepping wood veneer 

I always recommend using a pre-stain wood conditioner if you are refinishing any furniture.  When refinishing veneer tables I think it’s even more important.  You saw in the before photos how the old varnish had lifted in areas, how there were scratches and dents on the surfaces?  These areas have been exposed to more/less moisture and humidity than the other (covered) areas of the tables.  The result of this will show when you apply stain; certain areas will drink it up like a sponge, other areas might refuse as much absorption because of residual oils or furniture polishes that have been absorbed.  Pre-stain wood conditioner (PSWC) sort of levels the playing field.  It fills those more porous areas so that when you do apply your stain, it will/should level more evenly.  You can see the treated area versus the just sanded area in the photo below.

applying pre-stain wood conditioner to veneer

Prepping trim work

You may also notice in the photo above that I did NOT sand down the edges of the tables before applying the pre-stain wood conditioner.  That was because the trim work on these wood veneer tables was MDF; and MDF is highly absorbent.  If I had sanded the edges down to bare MDF, and then put pre-stain wood conditioner on them, the actual coat of stain would not have absorbed.  As it is, staining MDF is a splotchy and difficult process by itself.  I decided the best route for refinishing wood veneer tables – these ones at least – was to sand down the MDF edges as a last step before applying the final stain.

While the PSWC was drying on the table tops, I sanded down the table legs – which in this case were solid wood – and got started on staining them.

Refinishing veneer tables, wood veneer table, refinishing veneer

Day 2 and 3 was all about the stain.  My friend chose the colour Espresso for a dark chocolate finish.  Even though the stain base is very dark, there will be gradations between how each veneer surface absorbs the stain.  All of these tables have 2 full coats of stain on them, and while they are the same overall colour, there are shade differences in between veneer sections.  (and some gradations are just due to lighting)

Refinishing veneer tables, wood veneer table, refinishing veneer

The MDF edges – which have no grain whatsoever – absorbed the stain completely.  I’m not sure what I would have done if my friend didn’t want a very dark finish – I don’t know how I would have managed to lighten the trim short of a faux-paint treatment.

If your trim absorbs the stain unevenly, using a stain-and-poly-in-one will help level it out.  

Refinishing veneer tables, wood veneer table, refinishing veneer

Sealing wood veneer for longevity

Sealing your furniture is imperative – I’d say even moreso with wood veneer because it is so thin.  If anything is going to scratch and dent the surface, let it scratch and dent the varnish instead of the wood.  I applied 2 generous coats of my favourite Triple-thick Varathane.  As a rule, I paint the triple-thick on with a paintbrush following the grain of the wood, then gently wipe over it with a foam paintbrush to remove any brush strokes.  The grain on these tables goes in 4 different directions, so while not difficult, did take a bit more time and finesse to follow each pattern and flow into attached sections without harsh lines.

Let your first coat dry for at least 12 hours, then hand-sand with 320 grit sandpaper to smooth out any sections where the grain might have raised.

Wipe down with a tack cloth to remove all dust and particles, then apply your second coat of triple-thick the same way.

Refinishing veneer tables, wood veneer table, refinishing veneer

I don’t think I’ll commit to very many projects requiring refinishing veneer, but it was a really good “challenge” project, and I always love learning new things along the way.

Refinishing veneer tables, wood veneer table, refinishing veneer

All 7 tables turned out really well, and will last another 26 years with very little upkeep.

Nothing is as good as a before and after thought right?  (It’s my favourite part!)

Refinishing veneer tables, wood veneer table, refinishing veneer

Refinishing veneer tables, wood veneer table, refinishing veneer

I hope my friend is pleased, and I hope I’ve inspired you to makeover that veneer unit in your/your parent’s basement into something beautiful as well.

Have a great one!