Furniture Refinishing 5 - Stripping the Wood
Remove paint and paint haze before you continue and further in this project, utilizing a wood stripper to make the job easier. Follow this advice closely to avoid creating costly problems for yourself.
Most Common Mistakes
- Attempting to refinish a piece that is fully assembled. Break it down when you can for an easier, more thorough job.
- Leaving the tops off of strippers while using. They evaporate quickly.
- Failure to apply enough stripper to the surface of the wood to keep it wet. As a result it evaporates and dries out the wood. Never apply stripper in direct sunlight.
- Not waiting the required amount of time for the stripper to work, thereby necessitating harsh scraping of the wood.
- Spreading the stripping process over two or more days. Plan your time to complete the stripping in one day so you won't have to come back to paint that has had time to re-harden.
- Leaving some of the paint on the wood with the intention of sanding it off usually does more harm than good. Let the stripper do the work!
Unpainted furniture coated with only a stain, sealer, or varnish does not require a preliminary application of semi-paste stripper. Simply begin with the thin liquid stripper and follow the procedure outlined below under "Painted Furniture." Use an old, natural bristle brush and keep the surfaces wet with the stripper while working.
Furniture that has been painted can be stripped by hand. While it's more expensive than tank stripping (sometimes called "dipping"), the investment is a sound one. There is less chance of doing serious damage to the wood, and the wood is left a brighter color. This makes it easier to refinish it in a light or natural tone.
Most strippers have either a semi-paste or a thin liquid consistency, the premium agent of which is methylene chloride. When working with built-up layers of paint or varnish, begin with the semi-paste to remove 95 percent of the paint. Follow with a liquid stripper to complete the removal. Note that the optimum temperature for working with wood stripper is between 60 and 70 degrees.
You'll want to wear old clothes for this step, as well as durable rubber stripper gloves and googles to protect your eyes from splatter. Set up a table in a place where you can work comfortably. If working indoors, protect your floors and any other furniture in the area. Cover the floor with a thick layer of plastic and add a canvas drop cloth on top of that. Open all the windows and provide further for adequate ventilation by installing a window fan exhausting outdoors. Have a respirator on hand and wear it if the fumes from the stripper are strong. These fumes are harmful if inhaled.
To make the job more manageable, strip parts separately when you can. Remove mirrors from their frames prior to stripping to avoid damaging the silvering, which would be costly to replace. By separating the drawers, doors, and other pieces, you can elevate them to a more comfortable working height as well. Remove all hardware, hinges, and door handles and place them in a bucket of liquid stripper to soak, and always cover the bucket to reduce evaporation.
Pour a semi-paste stripper into another bucket to work from. I do not recommend working directly from the container, as stripper easily evaporates if let open. The container should be kept sealed to avoid drying. Apply the paste to the surface of the wood using an old natural bristle paint brush. Natural bristles do not have the tendency to melt away in these harsh chemicals like synthetic bristles.
Work from the top to the bottom, one section at a time. Spread the stripper liberally in one direction with the brush, and apply it thickly into the carved areas. Because stripper has a fairly fast evaporation rate, take care to keep the surface wet while the stripper is working.
Depending on the kind of stripper and the number of paint layers you need to remove, you can expect to wait from five to 20 minutes before scraping. Read the manufacturer's instructions for the most accurate application time. The semi-paste is thick enough to cling to vertical and upside-down surfaces. It softens and lifts the paint up from the surface of the wood but does not discolor, raise the grain, or destroy the wood's natural patina. It may take several applications to lift off all of the old finish. Practice and patience go a long way here. Always let the stripper do the work. If you laboriously try to scrape or chisel the paint off, the direct pressure to the scraper could cause it to gouge and damage the very wood you are trying to preserve.
When the stripper has done its work, use your scraper to lift and remove the residue. Consolidate the residue in an old cardboard box for easier clean-up. Scrapers are available with various curves and picks to make working with carvings and rounded legs less frustrating. Pipe cleaners and toothpicks are also useful. (A set of old dental tools is perfect for stripping intricate woodwork.)
Once 95 percent of the old finish is removed with the semi-paste, use another old, natural bristle paint brush to apply the thin liquid stripper from another bucket. Again, keep the surfaces moist while you are working, to avoid drying out the wood, and wear your goggles for this step, since the liquid splatters much easier than paste.
When the liquid has had a few minutes to work (read the manufacturer's instructions for proper time frame), use a brass-bristled brush to work the solvent into the carvings and corners. Steel wool can be used for this step as well, but the brass brush is superior. The bristles don't break down and get caught in the grain like steel wool.
Keep two separate buckets of the liquid on hand—one to use over and over again while scrubbing and the other to use for a final rinse. Once the brass bristles have broken up the remaining paint, the old paint brush makes a great agitation tool to rinse the paint away.
The final rinse with the clean stripper is important. It will remove any film or "paint haze" caused by a little of the paint left in the previous bath of solvent. Never use a water rinse, as it tends to raise the grain of the wood. An unpainted squeegee works very well to clean off flat surfaces, while a putty knife wrapped in a paper towel works well in corners and carvings.
After the final rinse, look over the piece carefully, making sure that all of the paint and finish have been removed. If there was a varnish coat underneath, look for any dark spots or "glazed" areas that are still slightly glossy. Work in a well-lit area, with at least 100-watt lighting, to detect any flaws. A high-intensity desk lamp could be useful here as well.
I do not recommend leaving even the slightest amount of paint or finish to sand off later. Sanding stain, finish, paint, or sealer is always a difficult job and can cause more harm than good to the wood surface while trying to remove it.
NOTE: For those of you interested in refinishing wrought iron or similar types of furnishings, I recommend you acquire a portable air compressor fitted with a sandblasting apparatus. This type of system will enable you to thoroughly strip (and simultaneously sand) an item of such complexity. The same air compressor, fitted with a paint spraying unit is also the most economical and exacting method of recovering wrought iron.
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