Refinishing old wooden furniture is a green choice because it keeps old furniture out of the landfill, restores its beauty, and puts it to good use. Some furniture refinishing products have high levels of toxicity, but new and better products that do less harm to mother Earth and her inhabitants are widely available.
Before refinishing any piece of wooden furniture, make sure it is clean. Simple biodegradable soap such as Dr. Bronner's will do for light jobs. For an old piece of furniture that is grimy or extremely dirty (like one you rescued from the dump) Murphy's wood oil soap is the best choice for efficient, nontoxic cleaning.
To clean, use a soft cloth like an old cloth diaper and a bucket of warm water with your soap of choice added. To remove dirt and grime in crevices of fancy wood-turned pieces, gently scrape with an old butter knife. Sharper objects may scratch the wood, so be careful if you opt to use something sharper.
The method for using nontoxic furniture strippers is the same as the toxic products method, but the difference is the lack of poisons released into the air we breathe, the use of renewable resources, and the greener product's ability to break down.
Soy Gel Paint and Urethane Remover is made from American-grown soybeans. Removall is another nontoxic stripper for wood furniture. Both are biodegradable, water-based, and have no caustic or harsh fumes. Just like other strippers, these are applied with a large brush and removed with a paint scraper. You will need to read the manufacturer's instructions for how long to leave the stripper on on the wood; some finishes such as old, thick varnishes may require a longer soak time than others such as single coats of newer paint. When the stripper has done its job the paint or finish will be curdled and will scrape off easily.
After your furniture is stripped, a light sanding is in order to prepare the surface for a new finish.
Whether you plant to paint or use wood stain to finish your piece of wood furniture, look for products that claim to not contain VOCs, which stands for "volatile organic compounds." VOCs are caustic and are usually used as solvents in thick paints and finishes. They often smell bad and their harsh fumes pollute the air and cause illness to people and animals who breathe them.
Labels of nontoxic paints and finishes will tell you that the product is natural, made with plant dyes, clay or mineral dyes. They will confirm that the products are biodegradable and almost always water-based.
Bioshield and AFM Safecoat are both green brands of furniture stains, paints, and finishes. (For more, visit Eartheasy.com in Resources.)
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