Stripping furniture to the bare wood is necessary only when applying a new wood finish. Paint will cover most surfaces if they are properly scraped, cleaned and sanded before application. Although stripping away the old finish is a messy process, it's necessary for a professional result.
Strippers are divided into paste and liquid types. Paste strippers are thick and gooey and cling to vertical surfaces as well as nooks and crannies on carved or turned parts of furniture. They're great for stripping thick layers of finish equally. More difficult to apply evenly, liquid strippers work well to remove thin finishes as well as small parts that can be dipped. After using a paste stripper to remove most of the finish, use a liquid stripper to remove remaining finish in hard to reach spots.
Products labeled “furniture refinishers" and “restorers" are designed to remove finishes along with steel wool. They require more elbow grease and they work well on finishes that are not heavily built up.
Many furniture-stripping products contain caustic chemicals. Use them cautiously in a well-ventilated space (outdoors, if possible, or near an open door or window). Wear protective gloves and safety glasses, and use a fan to draw fumes out of the room.
Tools and Materials
|Liquid stripper|| 3"-wide paintbrush
||3"-wide putty knife (metal or plastic)|
|#00, #000 and #0000 steel wool||Wire brush or toothbrush|| Newspapers
|Canvas drop cloths||Rubber gloves||Safety glasses|
|Clean rags||Mineral spirits||
Step 1. Apply the stripper. Read the label carefully before you begin so you understand the directions and safety instructions. Place the furniture on newspapers over a canvas drop cloth. Wear rubber gloves and safety glasses. Brush on the stripper, working from the top of the piece down—top, then aprons, then legs, etc. With liquid stripper, it's important to apply it and leave it alone—don't rebrush it to even out. Liquid stripper tends to spatter and spray off the brush when you're applying it to irregular surfaces. Brush it on carefully and if the stripper gets on your skin, flush it off immediately with clean water.
Step 2. Allow the stripper to do its work. You don't want to rush this part of the process. Wait as long as directed on the label, and then scrape off the old finish and stripper with a wide-bladed putty knife. Slightly round the sharp corners of a metal knife with a file to prevent gouging the wood. Plastic putty knives are a good and inexpensive alternative if you don't want to alter a metal knife.
Step 3. Use steel wool on irregular surfaces such as turned legs or carved moldings. Start with a coarse grade of steel wool (#00, double aught) to remove most of the stripper and finish. Go back over the surfaces with very fine steel wool #000 (triple aught) or #0000 (four aught). You can also use synthetic steel wool for this—it doesn't break apart like regular steel wool does.
Step 4. Use a wire brush or old toothbrush for carved surfaces and turned parts. Table legs and bedposts often have recessed details that need special attention. It's even harder to remove finish from carvings. After the surrounding areas have been stripped, brush fresh stripper into the recessed areas and let the stripper work. Remove the stripper and old finish with a soft, brass-wire brush or toothbrush.
Step 5. Wash off the residue with mineral spirits. If you don't remove all the stripper, the new finish won't adhere well. Wash down the piece with a rag and plenty of mineral spirits (paint thinner). Once you clean off the piece, you'll probably find areas where some of the old finish is still intact. Reapply stripper to the area, remove it after the recommended time, and rinse again with mineral spirits.