When I use the term stripping here, I mean the
process of applying and removing a chemical paint remover, not using
sandpaper to abrade through the old finish(es) down to the raw wood.
I'm also not going to get into using heat guns to burn or melt old
layers, either, except for a couple of words. If you decide to use a
gun, do it outside! The fumes are thick and noxious, and may be full
of lead. I also recommend against a heat gun if you are planning to
re-finish with clearcoats like shellac or varnish. It is very
difficult to avoid some scorching, and even burning, of the
underlying wood, which will remain visible. This is no problem if
you're planning any kind of painted finish. OK, enough on that.
But before we put on our rubber gloves, let's talk
about when you might want or need to strip the old finish. If you
want to use a wiping oil finish like we used on the child's chair of
the first video, you will have to start with raw wood. Otherwise the
oil will be absorbed unevenly and look blotchy. If you want to use
any clear finish (as opposed to opaque paint), you will probably
have to strip the old finish off. However, if the old finish is
crazed or alligatored, you may be able to easily repair it if it's
shellac. To find out, dab some denatured alcohol on an inconspicuous
spot and wait a moment. If it gets sticky or gummy, the finish is
shellac and you can remove and re-melt the surface layers with some
steel wool and alcohol. I've been amazed at how quickly it's
possible to transform an old, dull, and dirty piece back to its
original glory. Add a top- coat or two of new shellac or varnish and
If you're going to re-finish with paint, you
generally don't need to remove the old layers unless it is in pretty
bad shape. If it is flaky or peeling in more than any areas that
have received obvious damage, (like water lifting on one spot on a
top) you'll want to remove it. Remember, your paint can't stick any
better than the underlying layers do; new paint won't "glue" the old
stuff back down. You will probably also want to strip the old
coatings if there are many layers, especially if it's obscuring
details like carvings or moldings, or if the old layers have been
badly applied with lots of brush marks or errors. Otherwise you can
use the sanding and chemical etching procedures used on the videos.
OK, you've decided the old finish needs to be
removed completely; now what? I figure you have two choices. One
requires a telephone and some cash. The other uses rubber gloves,
safety goggles, maybe a respirator, and time. Lots of time if the
piece is big or complicated or buried beneath many layers.
Let's start with the easy, expensive way. Look up a
furniture stripper or two in the phone book, or ask your paint
dealer for a recommendation. Call them and get an idea of the cost
for your project. Have them come and pick it up, let 'em bring it
back a couple of weeks later, ready for you to finish. Write a
check. Easy. And I don't mean to sound smart-aleck about this. It's
the answer that I often recommend. It depends on how much free time
versus money you have, and whether you take pleasure from the
process of doing this phase yourself.
If I'm doing a piece professionally, that is, for a
client for money, I always send it out. Commercial strippers have
tanks and booths, exhaust fans, and use the strongest chemicals
purchased by the barrel. They can do in an hour what would take you
and me a day. But if I'm doing something for myself, I'll probably
do it myself, especially if it's small. There is a certain joy in
doing something from start to finish. Let me describe it a little
for you, and you can decide for yourself.
Let's start with the stripper itself. There are
(very) roughly two categories of products available; those
containing methylene chloride, and those that don't. The bad news
with the versions that do contain it; it is definitely nasty stuff
in itself, and is packaged with solvents that aren't much better. It
can burn pretty good if you get it on your skin, and will give you a
buzz or worse if you breathe it. You have to wear rubber gloves (not
the thin vinyl or latex disposables), and a respirator (not a dust
mask) if you use it indoors. You probably ought to outdoors as well.
And don't forget the safety goggles or glasses. You don't want kids
or pets around it.
So why would you use these products? Well, they
work, -and they consistently seem to work more effectively than the
products that don't use it. If you decide to go with these, get the
thicker version if you're offered the choice; it stays put better on
Most of the other products are based on citrus oils
and can rightly claim to be easier on you and the environment.
Unfortunately, they're easier on the finish that you're trying to
remove, too. Despite the claims of all strippers to cut through
something like143 layers of finish at once, they rarely do. You will
often need more than one application of even the strong stuff, and
perhaps several of the citrus-type. All strippers are fairly
expensive products, especially in smaller than gallon quantities,
but keep in mind that two applications of pricey product may be
cheaper than three or four of a lesser product. The other
disadvantage of many of the citrus strippers is that they are water
based instead of solvent. Water is not good for raw wood or for
glued joints that often use a glue that will soften or melt in
water. Decisions, decisions.
Personally, I use the strong stuff; after watching
the DVD's, you probably know that I would rather spend my time with
a little extra sanding or another coat of varnish instead of more
time with a stripper. Or, I send it out. But I would never argue
with the person that chose the milder strippers. And they smell
So, finally we're ready to strip! Gather about you
the stripper, maybe a paint roller tray to pour some of it into, a
brush to apply it (use a cheap brush, this is hard on brushes) and
some Saran (type) wrap. Protect the floor around the work area if
you care about its finish.
Try to put your project at a convenient height if
you can. This makes a big difference in your comfort (especially
your back), particularly when you're stripping because you tend to
work in one spot longer than you would if you were just brushing on
a coat of something and then moving on. If your furniture can be
moved or turned around easily, it's better to work horizontally.
Remove all the hardware that you can and separate it into its
component pieces. Mask off areas that you don't want to get
stripper, or later, stripper goop, into. Drawer interiors would be a
The instructions on the can obviously take
precedence, but generally you'll want to apply a fairly thick layer
of stripper onto the surface. With the solvent-based types, avoid
re-brushing it, it will break the skin that prevents the evaporation
of the chemicals. Be sure to jam enough of the stripper into the low
spots or crevices, these areas will be the last to give up their old
finish, and they are really time consuming places to pick out the
bits that remain behind. After you've worked each area, cover it
with a layer of plastic wrap. This is the biggest time-saver and
economy move you can make. It allows the stripper to work longer
without drying out, so you won't have to use as many applications to
get down to raw wood. It also gives you much more freedom about
returning later to begin removing the sludge. If the stripper dries
out before you get back to it, you have to brush on another layer to
re-soften the first coat.
While the stripper is doing its thing (and this can
take hours!), you can assemble the removal tools. I like plastic or
steel putty knives, maybe an inch or so wide and one that is 4 or 5
inches wide. You might want to file the corners a little on metal
blades to avoid gouging the wood. That artists palette knife is once
again handy for small spots. Dental tools are the ultimate for
carvings, but you'll probably have to settle for old screwdrivers,
toothpicks, and other effective miscellanous household items. One of
these days I'm going to get some of those dental tools...
You'll want some rags or newspapers to wipe off the
sludge from your putty knife. The trash can should be metal if
you're using the solvent-based type, it will soften or melt plastic.
Steel wool in a rough grade (1,2,3) or Scotchbrite-type pads are
handy for pulling up the last bits on the flats, or for wrapping
around curves or spindles.
One of the most difficult parts of this whole
process is knowing when to begin removing the stripper with its
layers of old finish. Sometimes it will start bubbling up almost
immediately, especially when there is only a thin coat of old stuff.
Mostly it seems to go pretty slowly, and folks often get a little
impatient to start scraping to get down to that pretty wood beneath.
Resist the temptation, I say! You'll usually find that you're only
getting the top layer to come off with your putty knife, and you end
up using the thing more like it was a chisel. Let the stripper do
the work. The worse case scenario is that the stripper works its way
through as many layers as it can, but, untended by you, dries out.
Another light and quick coat of stripper will easily strip the old
stripper/finish. Lots of times you can leave the whole project
wrapped in its blanket of Saran for the night and it will be just
right the next day. Otherwise, I usually try to put the stripper on
in the morning and take it off in the late afternoon or evening.
You know you're living right when that scraper
finally glides its way across the surface, lifting an almost
continuous layer of sludge and revealing a clean, or almost clean
base, -maybe of some lovely wood you didn't even know was there.
Re-apply stripper to the stubborn spots or areas;
these usually are ready a little faster, assuming they've already
had most of the old finish removed. When you've removed all the easy
stuff with your scraping implements, begin rinsing the piece with
steel wool or abrasive pads and either paint thinner or water,
depending on the stripper you've used. Go easy on the liquid either
way, but do use enough to remove the stripper goop while it's wet;
it is much easier than sanding it off after it has dried.
Remember to check the undersides and other less
visible areas of your project; it's a real pain to discover these
later when you had hoped to move on to other stages. When the entire
piece is about as clean of old finish as you can make it, put it
aside for at least a few hours to dry out before you begin sanding
away the surface roughness that has been left behind. Depending on
just how rough it is, I usually start with 120, 150, or 180 grit
sandpaper and usually carry it to 180 grit smoothness for softwoods
or 220 grit for most hardwoods.
At this point you will hopefully have a great
looking piece that is ready for any kind of finishing to begin. So
now you can decide if you would rather do it yourself, or not. Or
maybe you'll have to try it at least once to decide. Here is my
opinion; if you are the impatient sort, or have very limited amounts
of free time, have your furniture stripped by others. I've often
seen a similar problem among people who like building their own
furniture from scratch; by the time they are ready to begin
finishing their piece, they have so much time in it already, and
they want to have near-instant results with their finish. And they
sometimes end up scrimping on the final phases, the part that
matters the most in terms of final appearance.
But I can say that it is a rare and deserved
pleasure to take a project from start to finish by yourself as well;
I hope you've had the experience, or will have soon.
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