Furniture Refinishing Basics

A beginner gets advice on cleaning, stripping, and refinishing several pieces of furniture. October 13, 2008

I've been presented with a little refinishing work and, not knowing much about refinishing I have a couple of questions. The pieces are a couple of end tables, coffee tables, entry cabinet, and a mirror. All pieces have some fairly intricate lattice work (aprons) and flutting on the legs. The current finish is unknown but looks like pigmented (white) lacquer. The owner wants everything to remain white and i was thinking CV or poly will hold up better to drinks without coasters, etc. I'm planning on using water-based finishes since I lack a proper spray booth.

So, with everything going to remain white, what's the easiest method to recoat in white CV? How much stripping do I need to do before applying a seal coat? Bare wood, wash with spirits, thinner, tsp, etc.? What sealer will adhere best to an unknown (likely lacquer) existing finish? The piece was pledged/old englished over the years so fisheyeing is a concern. Will a shellac seal coat work better or should I involve one of the specialty anti-fisheye products?

Any suggestions would help greatly. Hopefully I'll be too busy in the future to entertain projects like this.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
* Shellac will not seal in silicone contamination from Pledge. You need "fish eye eliminator" from your finish supplier, follow instructions.

* You say you want to use waterborne, but also say you want to use CV or poly, so far as I know, you can't have both - CV and poly are both solvent-based. The exception is "post-cat Agualente" by ML Campbell. I have not used it but they claim it's as durable as conversion varnish.

* Spraying a waterborne does not eliminate the need for a spray booth. Waterbornes still contain chemicals you do not want in your respiratory system, it basically gives you some fire safety and a bit of health safety (note that this is personal opinion as much as it is fact, waterborns are a bizarre concoction of water, solvents, and solids, and heaven only knows what else).

* If you go with white CV, spray on a coat or two of white vinyl primer, which will do well at sealing off things other than silicone. You'll still need fish eye killer.

* Strip all of the lacquer off (you'll still have some white haze but you should be able to see the wood very well). CV or poly over lacquer is a disaster waiting to happen.

As far as being busy, amen to that. I charge out the wazooo for refinishing because of the amount of time it takes. Suffice it to say I get very few refinishing jobs, which I'm fine with.

From the original questioner:
Target has both a water-based poly and CV. I just sprayed the CV for the first time (first time spraying, too) and got fine results. I haven't yet looked at MLC's water-based line but it is available locally.

I understand that dangers still exist with water-based finishes. Weve had two or three cabinet shops burn down in the last six months. All were attributed to lacquer (and these were large shops with, assuming, certified spray booths, fire suppression, etc.). My preference for water-based is almost solely based on flammability.

From contributor B:
Three shops burned down because they were spraying lacquer? I sure would like to know if that was the real cause. It's hard to imagine all three were caused because of lacquer spraying.

From the original questioner:
Has anyone ever tried to sand blast to remove paint from intricate areas? I thought about it the other day and didn't know if this was something anyone has heard of. I know they make a variety of mediums in which to blast with, all depending on how quickly you want to remove paint.

From contributor P:
Did you consider having the pieces chemically stripped? If you don't want to do that, you could try a wax and silicone remover. I used to use a product called Pre-Kleano for cars. Never tried it on furniture, but it might be worth a shot.

Be careful of the waterbased terminology being tossed around. There is no such thing as waterbased conversion varnish. Target's Hybrivar is a good product, but it's not a conversion varnish. MLC's Agualente is more like a catalyzed lacquer than a CV, and even that's a stretch.

I think using dewaxed shellac as a barrier coat is a good idea, even though it might not be the solution for fisheye. For a pigmented finish, BIN primer might be a better choice. It's still shellac-based, but it's white. It will almost certainly help with adhesion, assuming you can get the old wax off the finish. As always, do a test, preferably on a small part like a door or drawer front. Tell the client about the potential pitfalls, and charge accordingly!

From contributor M:
Contributor P's right, charge accordingly indeed. For getting into intricate areas, buy yourself a few cans of aerosol "aircraft paint stripper" from Lowes or even Wal-Mart. I've used them to strip carvings and such and they work well when coupled with a plastic bristle brush (even a brass bristle brush).

Sandblasting may strip the paint but will also adversely affect the shape of the contours if I had to guess. I know guys that make solid wooden baskets (with handles) out of big maple root burls using a sandblaster - even lower-power ones can do some weird stuff to wood.

From the original questioner:
Okay, just so I understand my options.
1. Chemically strip, seal coat with just about anything, and top coat.

2. Wash with lacquer thinner and fisheye killer solution, seal with shellac or bin primer, and top coat.

So what's an easy, and not-too-harmful chemical stripper? I guess Im leaning towards this if it will prepare the surface for the best results and I won't have to worry about any coatings failures.

From contributor A:
To the original questioner: Could you elaborate some on the existing condition of the current coating? Is it flaking off anywhere or mostly intact?

Test it to find out if it is a basic NC lacquer. If it is softened and removed by lacquer thinner then you may not have to strip or you can use that to strip it if you want. It may not need to be stripped if it is not completely failing.

If silicone contamination is a problem you can attempt to deal with it whether you have stripped or not by washing the piece down with silicone removers. You can buy it the expensive way premade in a can or buy the main active ingredients toluene and xylene at your hardware store. Where a proper respirator and have good ventilation also unless you like to hallucinate and kill brain cells.

Again, moving forward, what you do and how you do it will depend on your decision to strip or not. Even if you strip completely, if there is silicone contamination you will have to deal with it even on the bare wood, silicone migrates deep.

If you don't have to strip completely you may be able to clean the contaminates off the surfaces as best as possible, sand the surface coating and white Bin shellac primer may be enough to block any problems and provide good adhesion for a new water based pigmented coating.

From the original questioner:

The existing finish is in fine condition (no flaking or failing adhesion). There are two or three places on each piece where the finish is missing due to the wood being dinged (all are less than the size of a dime). Otherwise, these tables look great for being twenty plus years old. Im guessing lacquer because they look like run-of-the-mill, big furniture store, not very expensive pieces. The owner is really into reduce, reuse, and recycle and just wants the dings fixed and a fresh top coat applied.

Having no refinishing experience, I was just looking for the most cost effective way to accomplish what she wants. I was hoping that I do something along the lines of clean it up, seal it with primer, and top coat it. We haven't discussed budget but this won't be an issue unless the cost per piece is probably two to three times its replacement cost. Shes really into reusing/recycling.

From contributor A:
Okay sounds good. Run the following tests; does a drop of lacquer thinner allowed to remain on the coating for a minute or two soften or make the coating slightly sticky feeling after swiping away the thinner?

From the original questioner:
I don't have the pieces to test. Im just trying to present a best case/worst case pricing scenario for the customer. I think it is six pieces plus she wants me to re-laminate a dining room table and possibly build a buffet. To save on trips (the location is an hour round-trip) I was going to get everything at once and return with all of the pieces. If i get to do everything it will be a nice job. S

So if it is lacquer and it has been cleaned over the years with pledge, etc., what would be the finishing schedule?

From contributor A:
Given the circumstances here are my thoughts and suggestions. It doesn't matter what the coating is, NC lacquer, precat, CV, doesn't matter.

Plan and price based on this;
1. A multi step cleaning of the items.

a) Murphy's Oil soap to remove wax, hand oils, food stuff, etc. Cleared (rinsed) well with distilled water. Do not cheat on the rinsing. Murphys has a high pH and if residue is left behind the existing finish could be effected in the future, not to mention potential problems with your new overcoat.

b) A very thorough cleaning with a 50/50 mix of Tolulene and Xylene for the silicone contamination. This has to be done very precisely to work. You have to use copious amounts of paper towels to be effective. All areas should have the mix applied (small enough areas at a time so evaporation doesn't happen before you can swipe), let it sit for a minute and then swipe the solvent away. It is imperative that you swipe an area once and throw away the towel. Do not move this mixture or turn the towel around to save money as you will just move the silicone around. The only successful means to remove silicone is to repeatedly apply the solvent and swipe up pulling the silicone/solvent off of the piece. Apply, allow a minute for it to molecularly attract the silicone, then pull it up off the piece and throw that towel away. Do all areas more than once.

The coating may or may not depending on what it is be affected by the toluene at minimum hazing/de-glossing it but could also make it sticky. It shouldn't matter because you are recoating it. If it gets sticky just let it dry completely before you move on. When you think you have absolutely cleaned this as much as necessary, do it one more time anyway. Silicone is tenacious.

2. Prep sand the item with 220 no fil paper.

3. Spray a full coat of Bin white shellac primer. If you have fisheyes show up, you will have to re-sand and try misting a couple coats to block it.

4. If you get that far with success, then make your repairs to your dings, etc., with Bondo or whatever you like to use.

5. Sand and final prime.

6. Sand and begin to recoat with Muralo Ultra brand (satin or whichever) water based paint. You can spray or brush this coating and it will lay out. Two to three coats, light sand between and youre done.

The Muralo Ultra is a very durable waterbased, water cleanup product. I have never had a problem using it over existing coatings in kitchens and baths even laden with cooking grease and silicone based hair products, as long as you have done the recommended cleaning and prepping.

The end result (finish) is beautiful. It can be custom colored. I pay about $38 a gallon, but I get a 30% discount, so it may run you more. Practice on a piece of scrape first, it has its quirks, but once you get the hang of it, you will love it.

From contributor M:
Just a heads up on the "re-lamination" of a table. I did this once for a customer on a very, very old oak table. The glue was brittle and breaking, so I (very easily) snapped all the glue joints, cleaned them up on a jointer (1/32" passes at least, on each side), and re-glued them with biscuits.

Obviously I had to re-round the table with a router. I lost about an inch diameter in the process, which was good as far as we cared, and customer was happy. That whole adventure took a lot longer than I expected and really didn't make a decent hourly wage on it.

From the original questioner:
I did a quick search for Muralo and no luck with local distribution. Do you think it will hold up as good as one of target's top coats? (Im leaning towards their em8000 CV).

From contributor A:
I would not recommend a CV over an unknown coating. Rule of thumb is: Not harder over softer. If you were to go this route I would suggest a vinyl sealer between, if you are determined to CV. Yet, that said, the Muralo has, in my experience really good durability and is very easy to repair also. I have found it to be compatible over everything I have used it over so far.