There are many ways to remove an old finish, some of them more difficult than others. Shellac and lacquer finishes are the easiest to remove, requiring only alcohol or lacquer thinner and a little muscle. The tougher finishes, paint and varnish, are more common; these are usually removed with paint and varnish remover. Oil, wax, and penetrating sealer finishes are less common; they are also removed with paint and varnish remover. In this article, we'll discuss how to remove the old finish from your wooden furniture as well as some short-cut techniques.

Shellac and Lacquer: Finish Removal Made Easy

Before you use paint and varnish remover on a piece of furniture, take a minute to test the finish with denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner. Older furniture often has a shellac or lacquer finish, but it's hard to know what the finish is just by looking. Shellac and lacquer are clear finishes, like varnish, but they're much easier to remove. The time you spend to test the finish could save you hours of work.

Test the finish first with denatured alcohol. If the finish liquefies, it's shellac; if it gets soft but doesn't dissolve, it's a mixture of shellac and lacquer. Test the surface again with lacquer thinner; if it liquefies, it's lacquer. Shellac can be removed with denatured alcohol, lacquer with lacquer thinner, and a shellac-lacquer combination with a 50-50 mixture of denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner. Stripping with chemical compounds is not necessary to remove these finishes.

Apply the appropriate solvent to a section of the piece of furniture, using an old or throwaway brush. Let the alcohol or thinner work for 5 to 10 seconds, and then wipe it off with a rough cloth or with steel wool. If the finish comes off easily, you can remove the entire finish with the alcohol or thinner; paint and varnish remover isn't necessary. Work quickly -- alcohol and lacquer thinner evaporate fast. Clean small sections at a time, and change cloths frequently to keep the old finish from being reapplied to the furniture.

When the finish is off, go over the entire piece with a scraper to remove any remaining traces of finish. A furniture scraper is best, or use steel wool dipped in thinner. Always scrape with the wood grain, and be careful not to dig into the wood. If necessary, sand the wood smooth. No neutralizing is necessary. After sanding, the piece of furniture is ready to be sealed, bleached, stained, or finished.

The one drawback to lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol is that they work only on lacquer and shellac. If the old finish is varnish or paint, or if there's a stain under the shellac or lacquer, you'll have to move on to the more demanding techniques of paint and varnish removers.

Learn how to choose a paint and varnish remover for your project in the next section.