Stripping a Finish
You know how it goes: your spouse has inherited Aunt Martha’s china cabinet and you’re expected to ‘fix it up.’ After all, haven’t you already made a number of beautiful pieces of furniture for the family? It’s interesting how everyone else can so readily look past the cracked, peeling, crazed finish and envision it again taking the place of honour in a dining room. Your reputation has preceded you and you’re expected to rise to the occasion.
I used to cringe at the thought of stripping finish from furniture, but not anymore. I’ve learned that it comes down to four things: having a proper location to work in, knowing the right techniques, having a few simple tools and stepping forward with a positive attitude. Let me introduce you to the world of stripping a finish.
Know what you need
Different finishes will require different strippers. While you’re out buying strippers, pick up safety equipment to do the job safely.
Mix it up
In the case of stripping lacquer, using a 50/50 mix of lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol will be most effective.
Putting smaller parts like a leg directly into a can makes it much easier to apply stripper without making a big mess.
Don’t spare the stripper
Flood the stripper on the flat surfaces and work it in with some 00 steel wool.
Before jumping directly into the stripping process, you need to first dismantle the piece, remove and label any hardware and give it a thorough cleaning with a solution of warm water and mild liquid soap. Now go ahead and tackle any necessary repairs. By fixing that broken leg, gluing the door’s split panel and addressing that lifting veneer, you’ll save yourself a lot of aggravation and time in the long run if you look after these issues now. Stripping solvents can sometimes be quite difficult to get out of such cracks and areas.
Selecting the Correct Stripper
The key to selecting the correct stripping solution lies in identifying the type of finish used. Finishes fall into one of four general categories: Oil and Wax, Shellac, Lacquer and Varnish or Polyurethane. First, clean a small, hidden area with a turpentine-dampened rag. Using a bright light, if you can see open pores of wood under the finish and the finish is not glossy, odds are that an oil and wax finish has been applied. These finishes cannot be stripped because they’ve been absorbed by the wood. The good news is that they’re relatively easy to renew. Review my article “Caring for a Finish” (Dec/Jan 2010, Issue #63) for tips on working with oil and wax finishes.
Shellac is easy to identify. Soak a rag with denatured alcohol, wring out the excess and apply it to that same, hidden area. If the finish starts to soften or dissolves after a few minutes, it is shellac, so denatured alcohol is the correct stripper. If it’s neither of these, move up to testing the finish as before, only this time with a fresh rag dampened with lacquer thinner. If the finish softens up after a bit of soaking and some elbow grease, you’ve got a lacquer finish on your hands and 50/50 mix of lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol is your best stripper. None of these work? The finish is varnish, polyurethane or paint and you’ll have to resort to using the harsher, commercially available strippers that usually contain the active ingredient methylene chloride.
Now that you’ve identified the correct stripping solvent, you’ll need to locate a safe, comfortable working area. If the weather is cooperative, a shady part of the back yard is the ideal location, with the garage a close second. In these locations proper ventilation won’t be a concern. Select an area well away from anything you don’t want ruined by solvents, which, no matter how careful you are, seem to splatter everywhere. Lay down a paint tarp and assemble your tools (see Materials & Tools Required). Focusing on safety, have your eye wash bottle close at hand, wear clothing and shoes you don’t mind getting solvent on, then don your safety eye-glasses (preferably chemical splash goggles) and neoprene gloves. If your stripping solvent contains methylene chloride or any such harsh chemicals, consider wearing a respirator that protects against organic vapours. Place a tarp-covered table on the tarp so you’ll have a comfortable surface to work on, then provide yourself plenty of time to get the job done in one session.
Work logically from one small area to the next, applying the stripper with a wad of 00 steel wool. Work the stripper into the finish using a circular motion at first, pressing lightly so as to allow the abrasive wool to cut a bit into the finish. Allow the stripper time to work on the finish as you move to another area. Go over the previous area with a freshly-soaked steel wool pad, this time rubbing the area with the grain. In most cases you should see the finish starting to dissolve by this time, but don’t be disappointed if it takes another one or two repeats of this process. Patience is most certainly a virtue when it comes to stripping a finish. If your piece has any carvings or routed edges you may find that a brass bristle brush will be needed to get into the nooks and crannies. You may even have to resort to using scrapers, either flat or shaped to fit moulded areas. When working with legs or such pieces, placing them directly into the coffee or paint tin containing the stripping solvent may be easier than laying the piece flat. Regardless of the tools required or the orientation of the piece being worked on, be willing to go over the area as many times as is necessary, and with plenty of stripping solvent, until the stripping has been completed.
Rinsing and Special Considerations
Take a wad of 0000 steel wool, liberally wetted with denatured alcohol, and wash down the piece one area at a time. Ensure you rub with the grain so as not to introduce any scratches that may become visible when the finish has been applied. The alcohol should dissolve any stripping solvents on the first pass. However, if there appears to be any remaining, a second pass may be required. There are occasions when a finish is so ingrained in certain areas that any amount of stripping with solvents will prove inadequate and you will have to resort to abrading the surfaces using sandpaper or abrasive pads. In such cases, be especially attentive when working around veneers or delicate carvings and in all cases, use the finest grit that works and immediately stop when the area is clear of finish.
With the rinsing completed, your piece of furniture is ready for refinishing. Knowing which solvents to use and what order to work in makes quick work of most stripping tasks.