How to Strip Wood Finishes

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There are hidden treasures lurking under the ugly finishes on some old pieces of furniture. Stripping off the old finish can reveal that hidden treasure and you may be able to refinish and reuse a piece of furniture that was destined for the trash heap. Stripping wood finishes isn't a difficult job; you can probably strip a table in half a day and be admiring your "new" table in less than a week.

Things You'll Need

  • Putty knife or plastic scraper
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Paint brush
  • Steel wool
  • Plastic sheet
  • Eye protection (splash goggles)
  • Lacquer thinner
  • Wood stripper
  • Rubber gloves

Figure Out What the Old Finish Is

  • Set up your workstation in a well-ventilated area. Put down a plastic sheet or large piece of cardboard to keep your stripper and the old finish off your floor.

  • Start by testing the finish to determine whether it is shellac or lacquer rather than varnish.

  • Use both lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol. Spread each on a small section of the surface, give them 15 to 20 seconds to work and then wipe the surface. A shellac finish will liquefy when denatured alcohol is applied, while a lacquer finish will come off with lacquer thinner. If either of these solvents removes your surface, you will know what kind of finish you're dealing with, and you won't need to use a chemical stripper. If the surface remains unchanged after your test, you have a varnish finish and will need to use a chemical stripper.

Using a Wood Stripper

  • Choose a wood stripper. These are readily available at your home store and come in both liquid and gel form. The gels work better on vertical surfaces (like table legs), while a liquid stripper can often get into crevices in a pattern better than a gel.

  • Use an old paintbrush to spread stripper on a section of your furniture surface. Don't spread it over the whole surface, as strippers dry out and become hard to remove.

  • Allow the stripper enough time to do its work (usually about 15 to 20 minutes, but follow the manufacturer's directions), and wait for the surface to bubble.

  • Use a small putty knife or plastic scraper to carefully scrape the old finish off the furniture (the stripper will also soften the wood, so be careful not to gouge the surface). On stubborn finishes a second application of stripper may be necessary.

  • Clean away any finish that is ingrained in the wood by soaking a piece of steel wool in stripper and rubbing it directly on the surface.

  • Repeat the process on the next section of the piece of furniture.

Finishing Up

  • Neutralize the chemical stripper by cleaning the piece of furniture with the manufacturer's recommended chemical (usually naphtha gas or lacquer thinner). Dispose of the accumulated old finish and chemical stripper mess on the floor.

  • Allow the surface to dry thoroughly (at least overnight) before you stain or refinish your "new" piece of furniture.

Tips & Warnings

  • Use a piece of 1/4-inch dowel sharpened in a pencil sharpener along with a small piece of steel wool or a strip of sandpaper rolled into a thin tube to get into tiny crevices on the furniture's surface.
  • Round off the corners on your putty knife with a file so you can avoid making an accidental scrape or gouge in the surface.
  • Avoid strippers that use water for cleaning up. Water will get into the pores of the wood and cause the grain to swell.
  • Before you refinish your new surface, go over it with a piece of fine steel wool (OO) and then rub the whole surface with a tack cloth to remove any dust.
  • Chemical strippers are hazardous. Always wear long sleeves, rubber gloves and eye protection when working with them.
  • Work in a well-ventilated area, don't smoke nearby and stay well away from any sources of flame, including pilot lights.

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