How to strip furniture (and a few valuable tips)

Strip ugly paints and varnishes off of your wooden furniture to reveal the beauty of its natural grain and colour. Here are a few important tips to consider before you start.

  • Clear finishes can be tricky to identify. If a finish has a low sheen and very little surface thickness, it's probably a penetrating oil. Otherwise, test a small, unseen spot to identify the finish on your furniture. Rub your chosen spot with a rag moistened with mineral spirits. If the finish softens, it's shellac. If it doesn't, try rubbing with lacquer thinner. If the finish then softens, it's a lacquer-based finish. If neither mineral spirits nor lacquer thinner affects your furniture's finish, it's probably a varnish.
  • Always respect the age of an antique and do as little as possible to change the original construction and finish. Stripping off a finish and replacing it with a new one could drastically reduce the value of an antique.
  • The best way to take off old paint and varnish is with a chemical stripper. When you sand you also remove some of the wood and that can spoil delicate, well-defined mouldings. When you use a heat gun or blowtorch, you risk charring the surface. Furthermore, abrasives and heat can pose a health risk when used on old lead-based paints; always strip furniture that is coated with lead-based paint with chemical strippers.
How to strip furniture (and a few valuable tips)

What you will need to strip your furniture

  • Goggles
  • Respirator
  • Chemical-resistant gloves or two pairs of rubber gloves
  • Chemical stripper
  • Paintbrush
  • Plastic or metal scraper
  • Brass brush or old toothbrush
  • Steel wool (medium and fine)
  • Mineral spirits
  • Pointed tool, such as an old screwdriver or grout remover
  • Cheesecloth or towelling
  • A clean, lint-free cloth
  • Vacuum cleaner with a brush attachment

1. Brush it on

  • To work safely, wear goggles, a respirator and chemical-resistant gloves (or two pairs of rubber gloves).
  • Brush on a liberal coating of your stripper, working from top to bottom, one section at a time.
  • Reposition your piece of furniture as often as necessary, and avoid going over any area with more than one brushstroke.

2. Scrape it off

  • When the finish has bubbled up, use a plastic or metal scraper to remove it from large, flat surfaces.
  • To get your finish out of crevices, use a brass brush or an old toothbrush.
  • Continue removed excess finish until all finish has been scraped away.
  • Use medium steel wool to remove the very last of the finish, working with the grain to avoid scratches.

3. Strip fancy legs

  • Brush your stripper on vertical surfaces one section at a time.
  • After the finish has dissolved, use medium steel wool to remove it from turned pieces and small surfaces.
  • For best results, unravel your steel wool slightly and rinse it often in mineral spirits.

4. Clean out crevices

  • Crevices usually require additional attention.
  • Let the stripper do the work.
  • Force the stripper into crevices with the tip of a paintbrush, wait, then use a pointed tool such as an old screwdriver (or a tool for removing tile grout) to carefully scrape the dissolved finish from the crevices.

5. Restore the balance

  • To remove residue and neutralize the stripping chemical, rub the entire piece of furniture with a pad of cheesecloth or towelling dipped in mineral spirits, rinsing the pad often.
  • Do not use water, which can raise the grain of the wood.
  • After rubbing, wipe the piece with a lint-free cloth, then vacuum with the brush attachment.

Bear these important tips and how to in mind while you're stripping your finished furniture and you'll have an easier time revealing that piece's natural beauty.

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