Struggling to Remove a Super-Tough Finish

A seemingly bulletproof finish that seems to resist all chemical strippers finally yields to a heat gun. April 15, 2012

I have been in business for over 35 years specializing in antique clocks. As far as I can remember I have never run into a coating that could not be removed chemically. I have been fortunate in a sense that most of my restorations are dated pieces so most have a shellac finish. Some have a milk type water based coating, and a few have a varnish, BLS, or Tung type finish. This piece is not an old piece, (usual for me) so the finish can be anything. I have tried every standard solvent including alkali enhanced MC, and still, I have not found anything that touches it.

This piece is a mantel clock that has a fairly thin mahogany veneer so I am hesitant to mechanically remove the finish for fear of going through and I figure that won't handle the grain fill. Does anyone have any suggestions for a killer stripper that won't lift the veneer at the same time? This is such a basic question I am a little embarrassed to ask on this site but I respect the great resource of knowledge the members hold here.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
On some furniture I have tried every kind of stripper on the market but nothing seemed to phase it. I ended up scuffing the piece (a stool) with 80 grit paper and then using an air craft stripper on it. Eventually I was able to remove the finish but it took a lot of elbow grease, a gallon or so of stripper, and lots of hand scraping. The stripper that worked for me was one I picked up at an auto-body supply house.

From contributor C:
We've run into a polyester finish that wouldn't budge. We tried a heat gun and the topcoat peeled off in sheets (similar to plastic).

From the original questioner:
I have had other shops call to see if I had anything special to use on a stubborn finish - maybe it could generate a few dollars. I tried the heat gun and used the enhanced MC. I don't think I would try that on a larger piece like a table top. I had to cook it pretty well done. I think much more would have messed with the veneer bond, but beggers can't be choosers. Thank you very much for the pointer! If anyone can shed any light on what I am actually dealing with I'm all ears.

From contributor S:
I ran into a similar product years ago when I was trying to strip my wife's grandmother's dining table and buffet. 80 grit on a belt sander wouldn't take it off. I finally told her that I couldn't do anything with it and left it at that.

From contributor H:
Everything will come off, except the gelcoat that was used on Eames chairs that were molded with the finish on. You probably have a well cured polyester that was semi popular in the late 50's. You will need a thin body MC stripper such as Bestways M-36.

The trick is to get the stripped under the surface. Apply a few coats of stripper to soften the surface then take a razor blade and cut into the finish with the grain. Re-apply the stripper and let it soak into the finish. As soon as it bites into the finish it will be absorbed into the wood and the finish should start to jump off like popcorn popping. Keep it wet. The last trick is to use a safety stripper where you brush on a heavy coat then cover the surface with cheese cloth then thin plastic. Leave the mummify clock wrapped for a few days. This will also soften the finish, but is not real great for the veneer.

From the original questioner:
Suggestion worked! I did chicken out on the soaking with cheese cloth for fear my veneer would be on the floor in the morning.