Most home centers, hardware and paint stores, drugstores, variety stores, and even grocery stores carry a variety of paint and varnish removers. All soften old finishes so that they can be scraped, washed, steel-wooled, or sanded off. There are differences among removers, however, in chemical content, removal techniques, and price.
Inexpensive paint and varnish removers soften old finishes, but they're not necessarily the bargain they appear to be. First of all, these removers may contain a waxy substance: paraffin. Paraffin gives the wood an oily look and feel and prevents the new finish from adhering properly. It must be removed with turpentine or mineral spirits before the new finish can be applied. Not only is this another step in the stripping process, but the additional money spent on turpentine or mineral spirits can be considerable. In the long run, you may end up spending as much as you would for the more expensive paint and varnish removers.
Inexpensive removers may also be flammable and highly toxic; check the labels carefully. This makes good ventilation -- preferably outdoors -- a must. And you must take care to keep the area free of open flame. No smoking while you work, and stay away from appliances with pilot lights.
The more expensive paint and varnish removers probably don't contain paraffin, but they might very well contain a special wax that helps prolong the chemical evaporation process. This wax, like paraffin, must be removed after the furniture is stripped, regardless of the no-cleanup claims. A turpentine or mineral spirit rubbing or a light sanding with No. 0000 steel wool or very-fine-grit sandpaper will remove the wax.
Some paint and varnish removers don't have wax; while you have to take extra precautions against evaporation, this extra cleaning step is eliminated. The more expensive paint removers probably contain methylene chloride, which decreases the flammability of the other chemicals in the remover. They are probably also nontoxic, although good ventilation is always desirable.
The most expensive removers are usually labeled "water-rinsing," "wash-away," or "water cleanup." After application, the finish is washed off with water instead of being scraped or sanded off. The claims are true if you follow the manufacturer's directions to the letter. The chemicals in these removers contain special emulsifiers that mix with the rinse water, resulting in a squeaky-clean finish.
The problem with these wash-away removers is that water is the natural enemy of wood and certain glues. The water used to remove the chemicals must be removed from the wood as soon as possible to avoid raising the wood grain or dissolving the glue. This water problem is especially pronounced with veneer finishes and inlays. To be safe, never use wash-away remover on veneers or inlays.
Most removers are available in liquid or semi-paste forms. The semi-paste removers contain a starch or stiffener. They're designed for vertical surfaces where staying power is important, such as the legs of a chair. These semi-paste removers are susceptible to the same problems (wax, flammability, toxicity) as the others. You can, however, buy a nonflammable, non-toxic, non-wax semi-paste.
These thick removers can be used on flat surfaces as well as vertical, if desired.
For many jobs, the more expensive wash-away removers may be worth the price in time and work saved. The non-flammability of a remover is also a big consideration, and any remover that is toxic may not be worth the price you pay for it, small or large. The semi-paste removers are the easiest to work with when starting out, although you may want to experiment with a liquid remover as well. All in all, no one remover is necessarily better than another. The key to finding a remover you're comfortable with is experimentation. Try different types of removers, perhaps on the same piece of furniture, until you find one you like.
There are refinishing kits on the market that contain all the materials you need. These kits have paint and varnish remover, steel wool, stain, and top finishes. For the most part, these products are excellent. You should check them out before starting any refinishing job.
Once you decide what you will use to remove the old finish, you are ready to get to work. Learn proper finish removal techniques in the next section.