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Taking It All Off: Stripping Paint And Varnish From Your Furniture

You likely have some furniture that you just can’t bear to part with, despite the boring finish on your home furniture. Or perhaps you’ve found a great piece of antique furniture or discount furniture but just can’t stand the current shade of paint on it. If so, then you may want to consider refinishing your favorite pieces of furniture in order to give them a new look. Refinishing furniture can be a great way to brighten up your home without breaking the budget. And it gives you the opportunity to express your creative vision! But before you can refinish that furniture, you have to get rid of the old finish. Here are some great tips on how to strip off your furniture’s existing paint or varnish finish.

Why Strip?
Though you may be tempted to just slap some paint right on top of your furniture’s old finish, this is definitely not a good idea. Unless your furniture already has a pristine surface, you will get a much better finish if you remove the old layers of paint or varnish first. It is especially necessary to strip off that old finish if you want to be able to see the grain of the wood through your new finish or if your old paint or varnish is:


  • chipped
  • peeling
  • crazed



Taking it Off

Before you can start the stripping process, it is necessary to choose the method that you will use to get rid of that old paint. There are actually three different ways that you can go about stripping paint and varnish. Be sure to choose the technique that is most suited to your particular project.

Sanding is one of the oldest methods used to remove paint and varnish. It uses sandpaper in order to remove paint layers and varnish. It is also great for preparing the surface of your furniture for a new paint job. Sanding can be performed by hand, using a variety of sandpapers or it can be performed using mechanical sanding tools.


  • Hand Sanding: Hand sanding requires a lot of time and physical effort, but it can be very effective for smaller jobs and more delicate pieces of furniture. It is best suited for pieces of furniture that only have one existing layer of paint or varnish.
  • Mechanical Sanding: Mechanical sanding involves using a variety of power tools in order to sand off the old layers of paint. Circular sanders, belt sanders, and orbital sanders are often used, because they can remove paint layers quickly and easily. Mechanical sanders are recommended for large pieces of furniture that have multiple layers of paint.


How To Sand Off Paint
If you decide to sand off your paint finish, always use coarse, open-coat sandpaper. Other types of sandpaper are too easily clogged with paint and wood dust. Always sand with the grain, beginning with a coarse sand paper. Once you can see the grain of the wood furniture, switch to medium grit sandpaper. Use a fine grit sandpaper to remove all remaining bits of finish. Be sure to wear protective goggles and a face mask when sanding off old paint.

Heat Stripping
Heat can now be used effectively in order to strip paint and varnish from wood furniture. Heat guns and blowtorches help to destroy the film contained in the paint, allowing it to be removed from the surface of the wood. Both heat guns and blowtorches are suitable for removing thicker layers of paint, however care must be taken when using these tools. The heat from these tools can cause serious burns and has been known to start fires when used in poorly ventilated areas.

How to Strip Paint with Heat
If you decide to strip your paint finish with a heat tool, practice a little bit beforehand. This will give you an idea of how hot these heat guns actually get. If you are using a blowtorch, practice lighting it before you try to remove any paint. Always wear protective gloves and goggles when using these instruments.

Hold the heat gun or blowtorch six to eight inches from the surface of the furniture. Slowly move the heat gun or blowtorch over the surface of the piece of furniture. When you see the finish starting to wrinkle and bubble up, you can begin to scrape the paint off using a paint scraper. Be careful not to hold the blowtorch or heat gun in one position for too long because it will cause the wood to burn and, possibly, catch on fire.

Chemical Paint Strippers
Chemical paint strippers are typically the easiest way to remove paint. They work by softening the surface of the paint or varnish, so you can then scrape it off. Chemical pain strippers require little physical labor and are usually quite safe to use. They also come in a variety of different forms, from gels to aerosols. Each chemical stripper is suited to a different type of furniture, so be sure to read the labels on each product carefully. Some chemical strippers can remove up to 10 layers of paint, while others can only remove two.

How To Strip Paint with Chemical Strippers
If you decide to strip your paint finish using a chemical stripper, be sure you are working in a well-ventilated area because fumes can be toxic. Also wear heavy duty, chemical-resistant gloves.

Spray the chemical stripper on the piece of furniture or paint it on thickly using a paintbrush. Leave the chemical on for the specified amount of time (typically 20 to 30 minutes). After the chemical has set, test it to see if it is ready for removal. Using your paint scraper, scratch the piece of furniture lightly and in a circular motion. If this exposes the wood, the paint is ready to be scraped off. Additional applications of chemical stripper may be required to remove all layers of paint.


Stripping Tips

Stripping paint isn’t always the easiest job in the world, so here are some tips to make the going a little more pleasant:


  • For irregular surfaces, use chemical paint strippers. They can cling to surfaces well and can get into all of those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.
  • Use steel wool or copper scouring pads to remove paint from the inside of cut outs or on legs or spindles.
  • Only apply chemical paint strippers to small areas at a time. This will allow you to remove all of the paint before the chemical stripper dries.
  • Investigate environmentally-friendly paint strippers. These are beneficial to the environment and to your own health.