There's probably an old dresser, chair, or table you've sequestered in a dark corner of your basement or attic that's covered with cracked and blistered paint. Whether the piece is a family heirloom or just something you picked up at a garage sale, you can remove the paint and turn it into a usable piece of furniture. Chemical stripping surely ranks as one of the messiest ways to spend a weekend. But if you follow the advice of Don Maxwell, of Maxwell's Furniture Restoration in Mountainside, New Jersey, on how to redo furniture you will get the job done safely and correctly. Who knows? You might find a real gem under all that gunk.
What will you save doing the work yourself? Hiring a pro to repair, strip and finish this table would cost about $450, while you can do the work over a couple of weekends for around $60.
Fix It First
When restoring furniture, it helps to break things down to smaller, more manageable steps. First, remove hardware, such as pulls, knobs, and hinges. Maxwell suggests writing numbers on the parts or even taking a few "before" pictures to help with reassembly when you're done.
If the piece is damaged, fix it before removing the paint. For this project, Maxwell started by removing the split tabletop. "This table had been exposed to the elements for at least a decade," he says, "but it only takes a year or two for furniture to begin checking and warping — even if it's under cover in an unheated garage or on a back porch."
The fastest way to correct splits like these is to recut and reglue the joint. Maxwell ran the top through his tablesaw, cleaned up the cut on his jointer and installed a few wood biscuits to reinforce the joint and straighten any minor warping. Next, he brushed on a thin coat of carpenter's glue and clamped the boards together. Once the glue dried, the table was shipped to the stripping room.
Some pros dunk pieces in a vat of chemicals. "This method is the least expensive," Maxwell says, "but too much chemical exposure isn't good for the wood, and can damage the veneers and glued joints." Because of environmental regulations, many dip strippers have switched to flow-over systems, in which the chemicals are circulated through a pump and hosed onto the piece. "Flow-over systems expose the worker to less chemicals, but the furniture is still getting saturated with more stripper than it needs," Maxwell says.
According to Maxwell, stripping furniture is best done by hand. "It does take longer, but it's easier on the furniture, and on the person doing the work," he says. So if you do decide to have a pro do the work, look for a shop that does the work by hand.
Tools You'll Need
Before you begin stripping, you'll need the proper safety equipment and a few tools. To protect yourself when using any stripper, use an organic solvent respirator with new filters, splashproof goggles, chemical-resistant gloves, and an apron. To lather the stripper, Maxwell cuts down natural-bristle paintbrushes. "They make good scrubbers," he says. Less expensive synthetic brushes work with some water-based strippers but, says Maxwell, "they turn to pulp the second they touch solvent." You'll also need a collection of scraping and scrubbing tools to remove the paint/stripper sludge. Maxwell uses metal scrapers and steel wool, but if you're using a water-based chemical, use plastic knives and abrasive pads; otherwise, metal particles will leave rust stains on the wood.
The Work Area
Choose a well-ventilated spot when you work. Because many chemicals in strippers are heavier than air, they will sink to the floor and can be difficult to get rid of, so basements are not a good choice. Some of the vapors can also corrode the metal parts of your furnace or water heater. For maximum ventilation, Maxwell recommends working in the garage or, better yet, outside.
Maxwell does his work on a lipped metal tray that collects the extra stripper into a paint can; he reuses the stripper until it evaporates. You can cover a worktable with several thick layers of newspaper, removing the top sheet as it gets caked up to expose a fresh working surface.
Taking it off
The speed of the stripping process depends upon the strength of the stripper and the stubbornness of the finish. On this table, the paint began to bubble and blister almost as soon as Maxwell brushed on a coat of the liquid-type stripper. "Methylene chloride strippers work fast and eat through almost anything," he says. The chemical breaks the bond between the wood and paint; most finishes will come off in sheets. For tough paints, Maxwell carefully scratches the surface of the finish to help the stripper get down to the wood. If you find yourself prying or scraping off the finish though, put on more stripper or you'll damage the wood.
To strip the flat top, Maxwell used a putty knife to remove the thick sludge, scrubbed the surface with coarse steel wool and finished up with a second dose of stripper. Carvings and turnings require special attention. Maxwell prefers using a scrub brush to work the paint out of all the nooks and crannies on the legs, but coarse twine and wood shavings also work well.
For some vertical surfaces and difficult finishes, Maxwell will use a paste-type stripper. "These chemicals work when wet," he says. "Pastes have chemical retarders built in to block evaporation, helping them stay wet longer." To further limit evaporation, as well as your exposure to the chemicals, consider wrapping the piece in newspaper, waxpaper or polyethylene sheeting and letting the chemical work overnight. If the stripper dries, you can reactivate it by brushing on a little more, and then scraping it all off.
"The only trick to stripping," says Maxwell, "is to treat every element making up a piece of furniture in exactly the same manner." Because the chemicals and scrubbings affect the ability of the wood to absorb stain and finish, he gives every leg the same degree of attention.
Once the paint is off, you'll need to rinse off any remaining stripper; otherwise, the chemical residue will react with the new finish. Commercial stripper rinses are available, but Maxwell recommends denatured alcohol or mineral spirits. Water-based strippers can be rinsed off with water but, he says, "the water will wind up raising the grain, which will mean more sanding later on."
After it had thoroughly dried, Maxwell gave the table a finish sanding. After starting with a power sander, he switched to a small cork-padded block. "Power sanders do tend to leave swirl marks that will show when you apply the stain," he says. Maxwell also advises against too much sanding. "If a piece is getting a surface finish, using 100-grit sandpaper is sufficient," he explains.
Once you've reached this point, you can decide how to finish the piece. The maple used on this table didn't quite match. To darken the light boards without overdarkening the adjoining wood, Maxwell made two blends of stain—one taken at full strength straight from the can and a second that he thinned with a splash of mineral spirits. He brushed the full-strength stain on the lighter wood, then switched to the thinned stain to finish the top. "The key to blending the two areas is to always brush from a wet edge," he says. Once the stain dries, any additional stain will make the wood look like a darker second coat.
Maxwell stained the edges after blending the top. "The end grain is very absorbent, and will take more stain than the top," he says. To control the color, Maxwell uses a very dry brush and lightly touches the side of the bristles against the wood.
The final step is to apply a protective topcoat. Maxwell prefers the speed of a spray finish, but "choosing a finish is a balance between form and function," he says. In the case of an everyday piece, such as a kitchen table, a brush-on polyurethane would be an equally practical choice.
With its new showroom finish, the table looks might look too good to eat off of, but there's no need to cover up the wood with a tablecloth. "Good furniture is built to take years of everyday abuse," says Maxwell. "And it can always come in for a face-lift."
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
Where to Find It
W.M. Barr & Co. Inc.
Memphis, TN 38101
3M, Customer Service
3M Center, Bldg. 515-3N-02
St. Paul, MN 55144-1000