Stripping Wood - Second-hand furniture and junk which sell everything from washing machines and cookers to dilapidated armchairs and lounge suites, often have a range of painted or varnished wooden furniture in wildly varying condition.


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Expert Tip: Stripping Woodwork

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Stripping Wood


 By using one of the relatively simple methods of stripping wood, you can often transform an old piece of junk furniture, repainted or varnished, into an attractive and useful item in the home.

Painted pine chest, c.1880
Painted pine chest, c.1880

Second-hand furniture and junk which sell everything from washing machines and cookers to dilapidated armchairs and lounge suites, often have a range of painted or varnished wooden furniture in wildly varying condition.

 Here, the discerning buyer can frequently pick up some interesting pieces, such as an attractive pine sideboard or cupboard, usually covered with dirty, scuffed paint or an ugly dark varnish. Yet, if the piece is solid construction and in a style you like, it can be successfully restored by stripping the wood and renewing the surfaces to provide a useful and stylish item in your home.


 You cannot successfully smarten up a by repainting it or revarnishing without first removing old finishes. If new paint is applied over old, for example, and the surface becomes chipped, the original colour will show through.

 Similarly, if you want to lighten the colour of the wood by bleaching it or staining it to a darker colour, the finish must be removed first because bleach or stain will only work on bare wood.

 Old finishes can be removed by blowtorch, hot-air stripper, alkaline paste or powdered removers or solvent paint removers (liquid or gel type).

 Items can also be sent to firms that remove the surface by immersion in a hot caustic soda bath - a drastic treatment but one that is worth considering for large pieces since it is labour-saving and not too expensive.



 Blowtorches are cheap and fairly easy to use. They can, however, cause the finish to give off unpleasant fumes and great care must be taken to prevent scorching the wood. Fire is also a hazard.

 Blowtorches are only really suitable for removing finishes on furniture that is to be painted; if the furniture is to be given a clear finish, char marks (some of which are unavoidable) will show through.


 These are much safer than blowtorches, but using them on large surfaces can be tedious. Charring can occur if the tool is left on one spot for too long and there is a slight danger of fire on oil-painted surfaces.

 Do not use hot-air strippers on lead-based paints, as lead particles blown into the air can be dangerous if inhaled.


 Although these are suitable for removing varnish as well as oil-based paints, they cause many woods to darken or discolour, so they should be avoided if you intend to apply a clear finish.

 They are comparatively slow-acting, but the fact that they clean out awkward or intricate areas on furniture very efficiently is a strong point in their favour.


 When you intend to apply a clear finish, old surfaces should be removed with solvent paint remover, available either with a spirit or water-soluble base.

 Make sure the piece is stripped in a very well-ventilated room or in the open air. Stand the article on a polythene sheet to avoid damage to floor coverings and wear rubber gloves to protect your hands.

If, when the wood is bare, there is a stain or the colour seems too dark, you can bleach it with commercial wood bleaches - but be careful when using bleach since it is strong and often poisonous.
Stripping (and bleaching) will usually raise the grain of the wood slightly, so a light sanding is often necessary. Use a hand-sized sanding block covered with medium-fine abrasive paper, and then a finer grade. Always sand in the direction of the grain, never across it or in circles. (Not all woods are suitable for this kind of treatment, because thin veneers can easily be damaged and many timbers, such as mahogany, acquire a beautiful deep colour on ageing that would be removed by abrasion.) Once sanding is complete, you can seal the surface with varnish, wax or another finish of your choice.

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