It was a sanding fail actually. It's just that I didn't know about it until I was staining.
Here's what happened.
On Friday I woke up completely jazzed to finish my table. With the sanding done, I coated the whole table in a wood conditioner, which helps to avoid any splotchiness with staining soft woods like pine.
It only takes about 15 minutes to dry, and I got started with the staining. I was very nervous about the color. In fact, I had bought one color - Early American Minwax - and returned it before I even opened it for Special Walnut Minwax after I did a little more online research (via google images).
So the good news was that after 4 coats of the stain - spreading it on with a foam brush and then wiping it off almost immediately with a rag - I was getting the color that I'd been hoping for.
The bad news was that I was seeing sanding marks from the power sander all over the top of the table.
I walked away from it for a few hours so that I could go back with fresh eyes. I really, really did not want to sand that thing down again. But when I walked back, they were still there, as noticeable as ever. I just couldn't stomach the idea of sitting down at that table for the next 10 years and seeing lots of sanding marks that I knew didn't have to be there.
So I decided to sand the whole top down again and use a finer grit sandpaper to finish it. I'm leaving the legs as they are because who's going to climb up under the table and look for sanding marks? Also, I value my sanity.
The problem I then faced was that my sander does not accept sandpaper any finer than 120 grit. So that was the finest I had used, and it clearly wasn't fine enough. I had been dissatisfied with the sander in a lot of ways, including its poor dust-sucking ability and its incredible loudness. So I headed off to Lowe's (after posting on a neighborhood forum to see if I could borrow someone else's and having no luck) to buy a random orbital palm sander.
I went a bit more expensive than my original sander out of necessity. They didn't have any cheaper orbital sanders.
But so far I'm very happy with the results - much smoother finish even with 80 grit, and the machine itself is way quieter.
The plan now is to finish sanding tonight and stain it tonight or tomorrow night.
As I'm sure you can imagine, I am itching to get this project completed so we can have our dining room back.
So wish me luck!