Finish Stripping Basics

Tips on stripping finishes without damaging the cabinet or furniture piece. March 3, 2010

While I've refinished kitchens before, I've never stripped and refinished a kitchen before, and it looks like I have a job coming up where I will be required to do just that - so I've taken the most detailed and intricate piece of furniture I own to practice on.

Taking the layers of finish off the tops was pretty easy and straightforward, but the edges and detailed areas are another matter. I tried using bristle brushes and scotchbrite pads, but this is very messy and doesn't really get it all off.

I was thinking of using a Dremel sander on the tight spots. Good or bad idea? I also noticed that while the topcoats come off, I'm left with a pretty blotchy and uneven stain on the piece. Lacquer thinner and mineral spirit wipes don't do anything to remove it, and I'm about to go get a 2 part bleach to see what happens.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor K:
What stripper brand are you using? Sounds like you may not be letting it sit on there long enough to do its job. Also, is it paint or clear finish that you are removing? Acetone may work better than lacquer thinner and definitely better than mineral spirits. I'd avoid the Dremel tool and also avoid 2 part bleach on that big a job.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I just picked up some acetone and a bunch of pads for the detail sander - hopefully it helps with those tight edges. The finish is clear and I used Circa 1850 to strip. It was the strongest stuff General had in stock. I'm wondering if Acroma or Richelieu would carry stronger stuff. As for leaving the stuff on, I put it on thick and covered with plastic sheeting and left for 25 minutes. Didn't help much on those edges, but on the flats it worked nicely.

From contributor J:

For what it's worth, I have found in the past that it is more cost effective to buy new doors than it is to spend the time stripping them.

From the original questioner:
I think you're right, contributor J. After stripping this piece and sanding it down, for the time it takes I think I'm just going to tell my customers that I can either tone/shade or solid color lacquer. No stripping - it's just not worth it. Not to mention that once I sanded it, it turned out to be MDF - what a drag. I'm glad I did this piece as a test - I could have gotten myself in big trouble if I'd tried this on a real job!

From contributor J:
I tried stripping doors once that I screwed up the stain on. I started stripping, then said forget it and just ordered a second set of doors and started over.

From contributor I:
Bulk stripping - economical stripping - is not something you get by wrapping pieces in plastic. The active chemical got bound up in the thicker material in the crevices and didn't get to the bond. Not enough chemical to release the CV taffy. I'd agree that unless you have a flow-over stripping system and a recirculating rinse booth, it is cheaper to buy new. Stripping MDF doesn't make sense - use a scraper first to determine the substrate.

By the way, please keep the acetone away from the detail sander.

From the original questioner:
For sure, detail sander and explosive vapors don't mix well! As for the MDF - it turns out only the table top was cherry and the rest of the piece was veneer (thin veneer at that). If I'd have known that beforehand I wouldn't have bothered. Oh well, a few coats of black lacquer and it'll be brand new! I don't know anything about a flow over system for stripping, but I'm looking into it. It's probably not something I'd invest in unless I was busy enough to warrant the cost of setting up the system.

What's your opinion on using a soda blaster for stripping? Obviously not ideal for large surfaces like cabinet faces, but for things like furniture (chair legs, etc) or severely weathered entry doors? Just curious.

From contributor I:
Fine furniture is generally finished with lacquer. It strips with conventional strippers (including NMP) very quickly. No need to blast it. On architectural pieces, the wood is probably softer than the paint, so the blasting will shred the soft parts to get the wood clean.

From contributor N:
A flow-over system can be something as simple as a tray of sufficient size and a can with which to pour the stripper on the item. A more formal system would have a re-circulating pump to dispense the stripper (hence the name "flow-over"), and a drain hole to re-capture the stripper.

For removing the goop, a pressure washer can be used. Great for getting the crevices clean. Of course, there are proper techniques that should be used. For stain removal, try an oxalic acid solution. Also sold as "wood toner."

I know of one shop that specializes in door refinishing. They use sanders to remove the finish, and it takes over 8 hours to do it. Even more if there is a lot of moulding. Using the proper equipment and procedures, the stripping could be done in 30 minutes or less. But it's "too expensive" to change.

The most aggressive (fastest) stripper is one that contains methylene chloride. With a recovery system in place, it can be reused.

To me, the last thing you want to do is use an abrasive form of stripping - sanding, sand-blasting, soda or plastic beads. It tears up the wood fibers and it quickly dulls or destroys the beading and profiles.

From the original questioner:
Thank you - that is good advice! I never thought of using a pressure washer to remove the finish, and here my pressure washer is sitting right outside my shop.

I finished up the first piece I stripped - unfortunately it didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped it would due to the MDF, but it still looks a lot better than it used to! I tried another piece of furniture today, this time sanding the finish off. It seems to work, however it is laborious - almost 8 hours on a 2 drawer chest (though that includes staining, toning and clear coating). Again it didn't turn out quite as well as I'd hoped, but that's only because I got sloppy and skipped the wash coat. I have a giant oak desk that's well overdue for a refinishing. Perhaps I'll try the power washer idea.

From contributor N:
I urge you to use caution in blithely starting to use a power washer in the stripping process. As I indicated earlier, there are techniques and cautions that need to be followed in using this method. Just as a sander or sandblaster, improperly used, can destroy a piece of furniture, so can a pressure washer. The washer is not just for rinsing away the goop; the pressurized fan of spray is used as a cutting edge.

And since water is employed, there is the issue of properly drying the piece. And, of course, using water on particleboard or MDF can be disastrous.

While I would not necessarily recommend this method to the casual, occasional refinisher, looking at the overall picture and considering the necessary precautions, used properly, this is the most productive and effective method of stripping and prepping the piece for the eventual staining and finishing.

Keep in mind that there are several interlocking steps in getting a good finish. Poor stripping will automatically lead to a poor finish, both mechanically and esthetically. Improper cleaning after removing the finish will result in a poor finish. Improper choice of stain/colorant will result in a poor finish, at least esthetically. Done right, the rewards are tremendous.

From contributor K:
I use a power washer all the time, but never on MDF or particleboard.

From the original questioner:
Yes, if I am going to try removing the finish with a power washer, I'll be damn sure it isn't a thin veneer over particleboard or MDF - I can just see the swelling now. Until I'm well versed in the stripping process, I'll stick to shading and toning on my refinish jobs. Plus, I find it hard to imagine that stripping anything other than a piece of *solid wood* fine furniture is worth the effort required. I really miss finishing new pieces - this economy needs to get back on its feet so I can get back to doing what I do best!