Got a piece of furniture you're thinking about re-finishing? Should you strip it, or sand it, or leave it alone? Here are some pointers to help you decide what to do.
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 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.
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 refinish with a wiping oil finish like Watco, 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 you're done!
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 sand the piece lightly or use a chemical etching product like Easy Surface Prep.
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, and let them 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 that contain 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 wear one 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 them. If you decide to go with these, get the thicker version if you're offered the choice; it stays put better on vertical surfaces. 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 143 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; 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 nice.
OK, 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 typical example. 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. An artists palette knife is 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 miscellany 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.
This helpful article was provided by DoItYourself.com community member David Sorg. Visit our Community Forums for more answers to your home improvement questions.