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.