Shopping for Stripper

Most paint stores and home centers stock dozens of liquid- and paste-type chemical strippers. Basically, the three things you need to know are:

• All of them will eat through almost any finish.
• The safer the stripper is, the slower it works.
• Pastes don't generally work as fast as liquids, but because they stay wet longer, you have more time to scrape off the sludge.

With that in mind, here's a rundown of the four basic categories.

Most of the strippers in this category contain methylene chloride, which is also called dichloromethane, or DCM. This chemical will soften almost any paint and finish instantly. These strippers work from the bottom up so that the finish comes off in sheets.

The downside to DCM is that it's nasty stuff. In addition to being a possible carcinogen, methylene chloride can cause skin and lung irritation and exacerbate the symptoms of heart disease. Inhaling it reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood, which can also mean a trip to the ER. In addition, it's difficult to detect when a respirator becomes ineffective.

Examples: BIX Quick Strip, Cabot Paint and Varnish Remover, Formby's Paint and Poly Remover, Klean-Strip Stripper, UGL Paint Remover

These strippers contain smaller amounts of methylene chloride or other chemicals, such as methyl-2-pyrrolidone and gamma butyrolactone. These strippers aren't as toxic as the fastest strippers, but you'll still need to wear gloves and goggles, and most require additional ventilation. Because these strippers work from the top down, you may need to apply a second coat when stripping furniture that's caked under several layers of paint.

Examples: Citristrip, Olympic

This type can be used indoors without special ventilation, a respirator or gloves. The downside is that these strippers take as long as 24 hours to work and, because they're water-based, they will raise the grain and loosen veneers.

Example: Safest Stripper

Despite what some labels suggest, refinishers, or removers, are strippers, although they only work on shellac or lacquer. Refinishers liquefy these finishes on contact. Most refinishers contain either acetone or tolulene, so be sure to use gloves, goggles, and a respirator, and provide plenty of ventilation.

Examples: Formby's Furniture Refinisher, Gillespie Antique Restorer, Minwax Antique Furniture Refinisher

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