Do you cringe when you see honey oak? You know, orange-stained and super shiny oak that looks like it belongs in 1985? I do. Even more, I cringe when I walk into furniture stores that are selling the stuff now. New. But I guess someone is still buying it new, despite the abundance of the stuff on Craigslist and at thrift stores.
Change your old honey oak piece into a Restoration Hardware-worthy weathered oak piece. Or go buy someone else's old honey oak piece and make it look
First, grab some of the paint and varnish stripper that I talked about here. I've only recently become a Möstenböcker's convert, but the stuff works and I will keep shouting it from the rooftops until I find something better. If such a thing exists.
Strip the old honey finish off of your 80's furniture. How long this takes and how much effort it requires probably depends on how thick the original finish is. Keep at it -- it will be worth it. Get ALL the old finish off -- wherever you leave the old finish, the color will stay orange.
Finish prepping your piece by giving it a light sanding with very fine grit sandpaper. Vacuum and wipe off all the dust.
Next, grab your jar of oxidizing solution (which, of course, you keep in your garage at all times). What? You don't have some on hand? Okay, this is going to set you back a few days. Go make yourself some oxidizing solution (AKA: iron acetate) with a jar of vinegar and a steel wool pad. More on the how-to here. Be sure to read all the comments on that post -- it will answer your questions, I promise.
Since oak is high in tannins, you don't want to use your old, concentrated oxidizing solution as-is. I diluted mine with white vinegar -- about 6 parts vinegar to 1 part solution. Yours may need more or less dilution, depending on how long it has been sitting around and how much you've used. TEST your solution on an inconspicuous part of your furniture, let it dry, re-assess and make the needed adjustments to get the color right. Super-concentrated solution will turn your oak black almost immediately. Maybe this is the look you're going for? Overly-diluted solution will make very little change.
Once you've got the solution right, paint it onto your stripped and sanded piece of furniture. Please paint it on with the grain. I used a foam brush for this project and I tried to keep a wet edge. If you let the solution dry and then go back over it, the part you went over twice will be darker than parts that you only went over once. If it is still wet when you overlap, it will blend and look relatively uniform.
That sounds really basic, I know. But if I don't say it, someone will end up with stripes on their piece. The first time I oxidized, I got stripes. Ugh.
Let the piece dry and give it another very light sanding, just to make sure it is super smooth. If you sand too roughly, you'll have to go back and add more solution to the parts you over-sanded. So please, be gentle.
FYI: the more cheaply-made your piece of furniture is, the more variation in color you will end up with, because the piece will be built using different grades of oak or even different varieties of oak. The legs on the pieces pictured here were made from several different oak boards laminated together, and you can see the difference in color between the boards. In my opinion, the variations in color add to the charm of a piece like this.
Your last step is to seal the piece. I prefer Staples Crystal Clear Paste Wax. I buy it at Woodcraft (where the employees call it "bowling alley wax,") but it is also available online. It is inexpensive, goes on easily, dries hard and smooth, and has a beautiful satin finish. AND it doesn't give me a headache. I don't think it is a verified low-VOC product, but it is not unpleasant to work with like most conventional finishes.
So, put on a light coat of wax using a soft cloth. As you put it on, the wood will take on an orangey hue, but don't worry! Once the wax dries the orange will disappear. Give the wax at least an hour to harden before buffing it with a clean soft cloth. Add a second coat all over and maybe a third coat to the top.
Now, why wax as a topcoat? Because every other sealer I've used (ie: polyurethane, polycrylic, and even my beloved PolyWhey) turns the wood orange. Simple as that. Clear wax won't change the color of weathered oak. If you find something else that doesn't change the color of the wood, tell me about it. I'd love to know!
If you go with wax as a sealer, please be kind to your furniture. Use a coaster under your drink to avoid water rings and spots. Don't use harsh cleaners. In fact, don't even use a homemade vinegar-based cleaner unless you are trying to strip the wax. Just wipe down the surface with a damp cloth or a dry microfiber rag. Every six or so months, give it another coat of wax, at least on the top. The sides and legs probably won't need it. Taking care of your piece will keep it looking new. Er...old.