With a little bit of patience and hard work, you can remove an old lacquer finish from your wood product and prepare it for refinishing in no time. Lacquer looks great on wood. It provides a hard, durable finish that can have any sheen from ultra matte to a high gloss. It is also much more durable than its predecessor in the furniture industry, shellac. Because of this, it can be difficult to remove. Fortunately, it is not as hard as it looks.
Level of Difficulty: Novice
Time: About two hours for removal of the lacquer, and an hour for applying stain and polyurethane.
Note: Lacquer creates hazardous fumes. Even if you are only removing it, it can pose a threat, so only work with this substance in well-ventilated areas and be sure you wear a respirator mask to avoid inhaling the fumes.
Step 1 - Prepare the Mixture
In a bucket, mix equal parts denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner. Be sure to do this in a well-ventilated area, as the fumes from these chemicals can be dangerous as well. In fact, wear your respirator and work outside if you can. The last thing you want to do is pass out from the fumes while working. With all the effort that will be needed to sand and scrape the lacquer away, there will be plenty of time for passing out later.
Step 2 - Spread the Mixture on the Wood
Use a clean paintbrush to spread the mixture on a small portion of the surface. Give the removal chemicals time to work, but don’t let them dry. The mixture should sit for only about one minute.
Step 3 - Start Scraping
Take a scraper and steel wool and begin removing the lacquer. This process will take time and effort, so be sure to give yourself plenty of breaks and work section by section to keep it simple. As you scrape, the majority of the lacquer will come away. If you don't have any steel wool, you can also use a scouring pad like those made for doing dishes.
Step 4 - Remove the Remaining Lacquer
Go back over any remaining traces of lacquer with a sponge soaked with a mixture of alcohol and lacquer thinner. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then scrape again. Dispose of the mess made by lacquer removal immediately, and not in a plastic bag where pets or wild animals can get into it.
Step 5 - Sand it Away
Lightly sand the piece all over with a fine-grit sandpaper. This type of sandpaper will leave the furniture with a nice smooth finish that will make re-finishing easier later. If you still have some traces of the old lacquer, the sanding process will also remove these.
Step 6 - Prepare for Refinishing
Clear away any sanding residue with a clean paintbrush or a clean rag. Now that your wood is free of lacquer, it is up to you to choose the new finish. Unfinished wood is like a blank canvas for a painter, so feel free to let your imagination run wild. This is a good opportunity, for example, to paint on any custom designs or sports logos, paste-down pressed flowers or photographs, or whatever personal stamp you have in mind on the unfinished wood. The new lacquer finish will seal the design. This is a great way to dress up an older piece of furniture.