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Stripping Furniture: Tips for Refinishing

Make old furniture look new again in a weekend!

stripping furnitureFamily Handyman
If you've ever thought about stripping and refinishing an old piece of furniture you inherited from a loved one or just rescued from a dumpster, this article is for you! Furniture refinishing is an easy and very satisfying DIY project. It's also a great way to furnish your house on the cheap. With just a little elbow grease and not too much money—$50 to $75 in supplies—you can easily remove old paint or other finish and give an old piece of furniture a new lease on life.

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Choose the right stripper

Most stripping products work well on just about any type of finish. So, when you’re shopping for one, it really comes down to two factors: speed and safety. Don’t blindly accept marketing claims on the front of the bottle about how safe it is. Some ‘safe’ strippers contain chemicals that are dangerous if you touch them with bare hands or inhale the fumes. Read the back of the bottle! That’s where you’ll find information about what chemicals it contains and what safety precautions you should take.

Strip Safely

Most stripping products require the use of eye, skin and lung protection. Wear splash-proof goggles, long sleeves and pants, chemical-resistant gloves and a respirator with new organic vapor cartridges. Keep a bucket of water with rags handy to wipe off stripper that gets on your skin. Work outside if at all possible. If you must work indoors, open as many windows and doors as you can.

Four types of strippers

Methylene Chloride

People who strip furniture for a living often choose methylene chloride stripper because it’s fast and it works. But it’s nasty stuff! It can burn your skin, it smells bad, and the fumes can cause or exacerbate health problems. Be sure to use it outside or in a well-ventilated area, cover any exposed skin, and wear a respirator and goggles (see ‘Strip Safely’). Buy the ‘paste’ or ‘semi-paste’ type; it clings to vertical surfaces and won’t run off tabletop edges. $9 per quart, $22 per gallon.

NMP

Less-noxious strippers like Citristrip contain a chemical called n-methylpyrrolidone (NMP). They do a great job of removing paint and varnishes but work a bit slower than methylene chloride–based strippers. They smell nice—like citrus—but that doesn’t mean the fumes are safe. Wear a respirator and eye protection and work in a well-ventilated area. Also cover any exposed skin. $11 per quart, $18 per half gallon.

A safer stripper

3M’s Safest Stripper has no strong fumes and won’t burn your skin. The bad news is that it can take up to 24 hours to work. It can also be hard to find in stores, so call around before you shop, or search online for it. Strippers like this that contain water can raise the grain of wood, so it might leave you with some light sanding to do. Wear gloves if you have sensitive skin. $14 per quart, $29 per gallon.

If you’re just removing clear finish

Just about any stripping product will remove clear finishes, but products labeled ‘refinisher’ do it faster and are less likely to remove stain. Refinishers contain a mixture of solvents like methanol, acetone and toluene, and dissolve clear finishes like lacquer and shellac in minutes. Don’t use them for stripping paint. Follow the same safety precautions you would for methylene chloride. $15 per quart.

Stripping Tools

Metal container/Disposable brush

Because some strippers eat plastic, manufacturers recommend pouring their products into a metal container, even though some are sold in plastic containers. Use a foil pan, a paint can or an old coffee can.

Use a disposable chip brush or an old paintbrush that you don’t care about. When finished, allow the brush to dry completely and throw it into the trash.

Furniture-friendly scrappers/Abrasive pad

Use a wide putty knife to scoop the finish off once the stripper has softened it. Be sure to round off the corners of the putty knife with a file or electric grinder to prevent gouging of the wood. A 3-in. x 3-in. piece of 1/4-in. plywood with the corners rounded off also makes a good scraping tool.

Use plastic scouring pads to gently remove leftover stripper and residue after scraping. Avoid using steel wool, especially with water-based strippers, because it can leave rust marks behind.

Brass brush/Dental picks

A brass brush has soft bristles and is less likely than a steel brush to damage wood. Use it to remove finish from deep wood pores and turned parts like chair legs. You can also use it (or finegrit sandpaper) to gently score the surface of hard finishes so stripper will penetrate better.

Dental picks are ideal for removing finish from small cracks and crevices. Slightly dull ones work even better because they’re less likely to damage the wood.

Round scrappers

A piece of dowel with a drywall screw or wood screw in it works well for getting into rounded areas where a flat putty knife won’t reach. A pair of locking pliers with a round fender washer also works great as a round scraping tool.

Video: Tips for Refinishing Wood

Tip: Carpet your workbench

Carpet your workbench

A piece of used carpeting or a new carpet remnant on a table or workbench makes a great surface for stripping furniture. The soft carpet protects wood from nicks and scratches and also absorbs drips. You can also use a tarp, plastic drop cloth or old newspapers.

Tip: Brush it on thick

Brush it on thick

Many strippers go on like a gel, so don’t be afraid to get it on thick—1/8 in. to 1/4 in. Add a second coat if the first one dries before you have time to scrape it off, or if the finish doesn’t all come off the first time.

Tip: Strip in zones

Strip in zones

When stripping a really large piece of furniture, do it in ‘zones.’ Only apply stripper to part of the piece and scrape it off before the stripper dries.

Tip: Keep it wet

Keep it wet

Strippers work only while they’re wet. To help keep stripper from evaporating too quickly, brush it on and then cover it with a plastic trash bag or drop cloth.

Tip: Use a box

Use a box

A small cardboard box works great for cleaning off your putty knife. Let the stripper residue in the box dry completely before disposing of it in the trash.

Tip: Is it worth stripping?

Is it worth stripping?

Sometimes a piece of painted furniture is painted because somebody tried to hide something like a repair, ugly wood or finger-jointed boards. Try stripping a small area to see what’s under all that paint before committing to doing the whole thing.

Tip: Don’t bother stripping furniture you plan to paint

Don’t bother stripping furniture you plan to paint

If you’re going to paint (or repaint) a piece of furniture, you probably don’t need to strip it. Wash it with TSP substitute mixed with water. Then, using medium- or fine-grit sandpaper, smooth out any bumps or flaking paint and scuff-sand other areas so the new paint will stick better. This applies to painting over clear finishes as well.

Tip: Get rid of stain (or not)

Get rid of stain (or not)

Strippers do a good job of removing clear finishes, but they won’t always remove stain. If your goal is to get down to raw wood, remove as much stain as you can using lacquer thinner and an abrasive pad. You might be able to remove the remaining stain with sandpaper. If that doesn’t work, apply new stain that’s the same color or darker than the old, or consider painting.

Tip: Strip hardware the easy way

Strip hardware the easy way

Got a lot of old hardware with paint on it? Fill an old Crock-Pot or other slow cooker with water and a couple of drops of dish soap. Then turn it on low and let the hardware ‘cook’ overnight. The paint should practically fall off the next day. If it doesn’t, gently scrub it off with a stiff plastic brush.