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.
Choosing a Paint and Varnish Remover
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.
Stripping Techniques for Wooden Furniture
Whichever paint and varnish remover you choose, the techniques employed in using it are fundamentally the same. The basic steps are simple: After preparing the furniture, apply the remover, let it work, and then take off both remover and old finish.
Preparing the Furniture
Before you start to apply paint and varnish remover, remove all hardware from the piece of furniture -- knobs, handles, hinges, decorative locks, escutcheons, and so forth. Make a sketch of the furniture, and key the hardware to it so you'll be able to replace it correctly. If the piece of furniture has doors or drawers, remove them and work on them separately if you can -- but don't force anything; if a part sticks, leave it alone.
If the hardware is clean, set it aside. Otherwise, polish it as appropriate. If it's blemished with paint or finish, drop it into a shallow plastic pan or bucket filled with paint remover, and let it soak while you work on the furniture. A couple of hours in the solution won't hurt it. Store hardware together in a zip-close bag.
Some pieces of furniture may have gilded edges, special finishes in fluting, insets, and so on that you can't remove. If the special finish on your furniture will stand up to it, you can protect these areas with painter's tape. Make sure the edges are pressed firmly against the wood so the remover can't seep under them.
Some finishes can be damaged by the adhesive on tape. For instance, the tape can pull off delicate gilding. If the finish is too delicate for masking tape, simply stay a couple of inches away from the area when you apply the remover. For further protection, tear a strip of cloth and apply the strip to the area with a tape-like bandage to help protect the finish. Regardless of how careful you are, finishing residue always seems to find its way onto the parts you want to protect. The cloth will provide a little added insurance.
If the piece of furniture is upholstered, it probably needs new upholstery. Remove the old fabric before you refinish, and make any necessary webbing or support repairs. Replace the upholstery after refinishing. If you want to keep the old upholstery, it's best to remove the fabric before you work on the finish -- but only if you're sure you can put it back on again. If the piece is large, have a professional upholsterer remove and replace the fabric.
There are two unbreakable rules for using paint and varnish remover: Use plenty of remover, and give it plenty of time to work. Don't skimp on materials or on time.
Applying paint remover is a slow, sloppy, smelly job, so it's important to protect your workshop. Cover your worktable and the floor around it with a thick layer of kraft paper or with a plastic dropcloth. Be careful with dropcloths, though, because the plastic is slick. Make sure you have plenty of ventilation, keep the remover away from any open flame, and cover up your skin to prevent irritation.
All removers -- paste or liquid, wash-away or scrape-away -- are applied in the same manner. Considering the quick evaporation of chemicals, it's best to work in small sections, say 3X3-foot areas. It's always easiest to work on a flat surface to keep the remover from dripping off. You may want to turn the furniture piece from time to time while you work.
Apply the paint remover with a wide brush, or just pour it on and distribute it with a brush. The quality or condition of the brush doesn't matter. Lay the remover onto the surface with the flat of the brush, and don't spread out the mixture as you would paint. Use what you think is plenty, and then add some more, coating the surface thickly with the remover.
Use the brush only to distribute the remover; brushing causes the remover to lose a lot of its removal power. The chemicals evaporate very quickly; they evaporate even more rapidly when you brush the solution.
After applying a thick coating of remover, cover the surface with aluminum foil to help slow evaporation. Aluminum foil is especially important for removers that don't contain wax, although it helps slow the evaporation of waxed removers, too. If you're applying remover to a vertical surface that can't be laid flat, use a semi-paste remover and try to cover it with the foil.
Wait about 30 minutes or so before testing the results of the remover -- not 5 or 10 or 20 minutes, but 25 to 30 minutes or even more. Experimentation will show you the optimum time, but taking time at the outset will save you time in the long haul.
While you're waiting, apply the remover to another section of the furniture. Don't remove any old finish from areas that won't show when the piece has been restored. Once you start working on these surfaces, you're stuck with finishing them. The obvious areas are work enough; leave table bottoms and the insides of drawers alone.
After 30 minutes, remove the foil and do some testing. The treated area should by now look bubbly and cracked. Rub your rubber-gloved finger into a small part of the bubbly area. If you can easily work your way to the bare wood, the remover -- and the old finish -- are ready to be removed.
If you can't easily reach bare wood, wait another ten minutes and try again. Paint remover stops working, for all practical purposes, after 40 minutes. If you can't easily reach bare wood after this time and if you're using a non-wash-away remover, scrape away all the old finish with a wide-bladed putty knife. If you're using a wash-away, rinse off the old remover and as much finish as you can with water. Apply another thick coat of the remover and wait again. Try the finger test again. If it still doesn't work, scrape or wash off all the old gunk you can and apply more remover. Keep doing this until you've reached the bare wood. Be sure to give the remover time to work.
Once the finish is ready for final removal, the technique you use should depend on what kind of product you have chosen. Learn more about final finish removal in the next section.
Additional Stripping Techniques for Furniture
Different removers require different removal techniques. Once your testing proves that the finish is ready for final removal, use the appropriate technique as detailed below for wash-away, waxed, or nonwaxed removers.
To remove the wash-away compounds, use water and medium-fine steel wool. Do not use a scraper, putty knife, sandpaper, power equipment, or heat. It's easiest to simply hose off the furniture outside. If that's impossible, use a brush to apply the water and steel-wool the wood clean. On curved or carved areas, use the special removal techniques listed below. When the finish is off, thoroughly dry the wood with a soft towel or other absorbent cloth. Keep in mind that water is harmful to wood; dry the wood immediately. Let the wood air-dry for several days before you continue with the refinishing process.
Remove non-wash-away compounds with a scraper and steel wool; scrape very carefully so you don't gouge the wood. To minimize the mess, dump the scrapings into a bucket as you work. On curved or carved areas, use the special removal techniques listed below.
If the remover contains paraffin or wax, immediately scrub the surface with turpentine or mineral spirits. Work the turpentine or mineral spirits into all the dips, dings, cracks, and carvings. Change the cleaning cloth frequently; otherwise, the paraffin or wax will be transferred from the cloth back onto the wood. The paraffin or wax should be removed now, not sanded off later.
During the stripping process, you may want to change removers, especially when the remover you're using isn't doing a very good job. Make the switch. But do not mix paint and varnish removers; follow through on the complete removal of the first chemical before you apply another one. There's no danger involved here; the mixtures may simply not work.
It's a good idea to treat even non-wash-away, nonwax removers with denatured alcohol. Liberally spread the alcohol over the bare wood with a clean, soft cloth. Dry the wood thoroughly. Finally, wipe the bare wood thoroughly with mineral spirits to prepare it for refinishing.
As soon as you finish working, lay out paper coverings, plastic dropcloths, brushes, and cloths used to apply the paint and varnish remover and allow them to dry. Then dispose of them properly. Do not wad waste materials up and stuff them into a wastebasket or trash can. The chemicals in the remover could cause spontaneous combustion.
There are shortcuts you can try to remove old finish from legs, curves, and other nonflat surfaces on your wooden furniture. Let's review these shortcuts in the next section.
Stripping Shortcuts for Wooden Furniture
It's very easy to apply chemical finish remover to flat surfaces, but most furniture has vertical and curved surfaces, carvings, cracks, joints, and other areas that aren't as easy to work as their flat counterparts. Fortunately, pros and serious refinishing buffs have several tricks you can use to make the job go quicker.
Rungs, Rounds, Arms, and Legs
These furniture components are very hard to clean because paint and varnish removers don't stick well to their vertical or cylindrical surfaces. The trick is packaging. Apply a very thick coating of semi-paste remover to the rung, round, or slat; then fold a piece of aluminum foil over the part to enclose the remover in a package or envelope. The aluminum foil helps hold the remover against the part and also prevents the remover from evaporating too quickly.
The legs of furniture pieces are especially hard to strip because the remover -- aluminum foil or no -- will run down the legs onto your worktable. The result is a mess. To reduce the mess, drive a single nail -- about a 10d finishing or common nail -- into the bottom of each leg before applying the remover. Set the legs in shallow aluminum foil pie pans. The nails elevate the legs so that you can remove the finish right to the bottom of the leg without lifting the furniture, and the pie pans catch the remover that drips off. You may even be able to salvage some of the remover for reuse. Be careful when driving the nails; you don't want to split the leg. The nail trick may not work if the diameter of the legs is too small.
Wipe the remover off with medium-fine steel wool after the remover has properly softened the finish. Don't use a scraper or sandpaper on small-diameter components; these can quickly flatten rounds, causing all sorts of reforming problems.
Crevices, Cracks, and Joints
Use sanding rope, a fine twisted "rope" of steel wool, a piece of string, or a length of hemp rope to clean crevices on turnings; simply insert this string into the crevice and pull back and forth, shoeshine fashion, to wipe away the remover. For slight tapers on turnings, a thick rope of steel wool makes the best tool to remove the stripping solution.
Almost always, crevices, cracks, and joints need several applications of remover to clean away the old finish. This is because the finish tends to build up in these spots. Sometimes the crevices are so packed with finish that you don't even know they're crevices until the old finish has been removed. By removing the finish, you can actually restore the original design of the piece.
Tools for cleaning crevices and cracks also include such impromptu equipment as a sharpened wooden dowel, a nut pick, a plastic playing card or credit card, the broken end of an ice cream stick, the tine of an old fork, an orange stick, wood toothpicks, or an old spoon.
Curves and Carvings
Curves and carvings, especially shallow carvings, must be treated carefully; scraping could damage or change the shape of the wood. Clean curves with medium-fine steel wool, wiping firmly along the curve. Clean carvings with steel wool, a toothbrush, and the crevice-cleaning tools listed above. Be careful not to gouge the wood. On delicate carvings, use only wood or plastic tools
After you go through the finish removal process, you might see some spots that won't come off. Learn how to use steel wool and other gentle methods on the bare wood in the next section.
Post-Stripping Cleanup Techniques
Even after you go through the whole chemical removal process, there may still be some spots of finish that refuse to come off. There are a few ways to handle these spots. The following are some of those alternatives.
Steel wool is the best way to remove leftover spots from flat, round, and all easy-to-get-at areas. Dip some medium-fine (O) steel wool in chemical paint remover, and try to scrub the remaining finish off. If necessary, repeat the stripping process with another application of the remover. Once the finish comes loose, wash it off with water if it's a wash-away remover; rub it down with turpentine or mineral spirits if the remover contains wax; or, if the remover is neither washable nor waxed, rub it down with denatured alcohol. When the wool becomes full of old finish, throw it away and use a new piece.
If steel wool doesn't completely remove residual spots, try sandpaper, but be careful not to leave depressions in the wood surface. You could use sandpaper throughout to strip the finish off the furniture, but this is a time-consuming process and one much more likely to damage the wood.
Regardless of how fine it is, sandpaper works by scratching the wood surface. The final scratches are usually so tiny you can't see them when the wood is refinished, but you should keep the scratching idea in mind; it will prevent you from sanding too much.
Work by hand, with a sanding block on flat surfaces and a foam block on curves; sand rounds gently with the paper alone. Sand with the wood grain; sanding against the grain may scratch the wood permanently. Use medium-grit paper to remove the last traces of the old finish, and then lightly sand along the wood grain with fine-grit paper. This last fine-grit sanding should adequately prepare the wood for the finishing process. If you don't think the wood is smooth enough at this point, finish up the job with a very-fine-grit sandpaper.
Sometimes normal flat-surface techniques just can't remove the finish from hard-to-get-at areas. When this is the case, you can usually remove the stubborn spots with scrapers. Used with caution, these are very effective tools; they can easily scratch or gouge the wood, however, so be careful. Scrape tight spots between grits of sandpaper or grades of steel wool to minimize differences in texture and height between scraped and sanded surfaces.
A good sharp pull scraper fits into corners to remove finish; or use it on flats, contours, and tapers. The scraper must be used with the grain, so be sure you know the direction of the grain before you start working. Keep the blade of the scraper sharp -- scraper blades dull fast, so sharpen them frequently with a smooth-cut file.
Scrapers come in all shapes and sizes: putty knives, paint scrapers, pull scrapers, cabinet scrapers, and scraper blades (which are just pieces of metal with a sharpened edge). On some projects, you may be able to use a sharp butt chisel as a scraper; for tiny jobs, the edge of a coin can be effective. Don't overlook other scraping tools -- rubber spatulas, knives, bottle caps, golf tees, utility knife blades, screwdriver tips, and your thumbnail. For some jobs, you may even find that a car windshield scraper works best.
Electric Drill Attachments
Useful electric drill attachments include a wire brush and a rotary sanding attachment -- not a disc sanding attachment. The sanding attachment consists of small strips of sandpaper that spin around as the drill spins. Either of these attachments can be used on hard-to-get-at places when the hand-powered methods fail, but both of them can quickly damage the wood. If you do have to use electric drill attachments, work slowly and carefully.
Removing the old finish from furniture can take many forms. Now you should have a better grasp of you options and objectives.
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