The Best Way to Strip Furniture


Refurbishing old furniture is a chance for you to save money when decorating your home. As long as the piece is in good condition from a structural standpoint, you can remove the old finish through a process called stripping. Then the furniture can be painted or stained with the finish of your choice to match the rest of the pieces in your home.

Things You'll Need

  • Screwdriver
  • Drop cloth
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Lacquer thinner
  • Old paintbrush
  • Steel wool or rough cloth
  • Varnish remover or paint remover
  • Aluminum foil
  • Paint scraper
  • Turpentine or mineral spirits
  • Sandpaper

Preparing the Furniture

  • Use a screwdriver to carefully remove the hardware from the furniture.

  • Cover the area where you're working with a drop cloth to avoid ruining other surfaces.

  • Test the surface of the furniture with a small patch of denatured alcohol, which removes shellac, and a small patch of lacquer thinner, which removes lacquer. Whichever dissolves the clear finish is the one you should use on your furniture. If neither completely dissolves, but instead just softens, the clear finish is part shellac and part lacquer, and you can use an even mixture of alcohol and thinner to strip the surface. If neither is effective at all, the surface needs to be stripped with paint or vanish remover.

Alcohol or Thinner Stripping

  • Apply a generous coating of alcohol, thinner, or an alcohol-thinner mixture to the surface of the furniture using an old paintbrush if one of these mixtures proved successful with the test patch. Work in a small section at a time.

  • Allow the stripping agent to sit for 10 seconds.

  • Use steel wool or a rough cloth to wipe the alcohol or thinner away.

  • Continue this process across the entire surface of the piece of furniture.

  • Dip the steal wool in the alcohol or thinner to scrub away any spots that were missed, and sand the furniture if necessary.

Paint or Varnish Stripping

  • Use an old paintbrush to apply paint remover or varnish remover to a small section of the furniture's surface if your test patch revealed that the alcohol or thinner wouldn't work.

  • Cover the area with aluminum foil to prevent evaporation and allow the furniture to set for 20 to 30 minutes.

  • Remove the foil to check the progress of the stripping agent. If the paint or vanish doesn't scrap away easily, replace the foil and allow it to sit for up to 40 minutes total.

  • Use a paint scraper to remove the old finish, being careful not to dig into the wood. You may have to reapply the paint or varnish remover on stubborn spots.

  • If the stripping agent you used contains paraffin or another wax substance, use turpentine or mineral spirits to clean it from the wood before attempting to apply new finishes. Sand the furniture if necessary.

Tips & Warnings

  • Some products are made specifically for stripping furniture. The directions in regards to application method and time on these products' containers override the directions given here.
  • When using steel wool or a paint scraper to remove the finish, always do so with the grain of the wood.
  • You can use a rope soaked in the stripping agent to remove finish from groves if necessary.
  • If there is finish on the hardware, soak it in a small cup of the stripping agent while you're working on the main piece of furniture.
  • The chemicals used in stripping agents can be harmful. Work in a well ventilated area or outside.
  • Most stripping agents are extremely flammable, so read the label to learn how to store them properly, and always stay away from heat surfaces when working with the product.
  • Avoid "wash-away" stripping products if possible. Although they may work well, water and wood are natural enemies, so using water to wash away the old finish could damage the furniture.

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  • Photo Credit chair image by hazel proudlove from
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