Stripping: How to Take It Off Like an Old Pro : Start with mildest treatment. Overkill can destroy furniture you're trying to save.

If there's anyone in this country who hasn't stripped and refinished at least one piece of furniture or woodwork, I have yet to meet him (or her). This is a job nearly everyone feels qualified to tackle, yet in most cases I have seen, the job wasn't really done right.

The most common problem? Overkill. At the very least, overkill involves more work than necessary. At worst, it ruins the piece you are trying to save.

The basic rule of stripping is to work gently, using the mildest treatment that will get the job done. In some cases, soap and water may be all you need, but at other times, only a long soak in a strong solvent will get you down to bare wood.

Start by evaluating the project. If you have a real antique, with real value, it's usually best not to strip it at all.

One of the most common problems with old pieces is that they are covered with a dark, nearly opaque film that obscures the beauty of the wood. If the finish is basically sound, with a minimum of cracks or haziness, a careful washing with soap flakes and warm water may solve the problem.

Try Paint Thinner

Work with a damp rag--too much water can loosen old joints and lift veneers--and then wipe dry immediately. If you are lucky, this will brighten things up to an acceptable level.

If the piece is layered with years of wax and furniture polish, soap and water probably won't help much. If not, try a wax remover or plain old paint thinner on a rag. If a wax buildup is there, this will remove it. If, as is often the case, the wax is laced with years of dust and dirt, removing the wax will reveal the beauty of the wood below.

Unfortunately, in many cases it's the actual finish that's obscuring the wood below. Many old finishes tend to darken with age and no amount of soap or wax remover is going to change that. In this case, or if the finish is in bad physical shape, maybe cloudy, or maybe cracked and crazed like the finish in the sketch, the next step is to try a furniture refinisher or amalgamator.

This is a solvent--something like a low-power paint remover--that will let you dissolve the old finish and remove most of it while evening the rest out. At the same time it will leave the wood below alone, letting you maintain the rich, naturally aged patina that makes antiques look so special.

Precaution Necessary

These refinishers are sold at most paint stores. To use them, work in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors. Wear good rubber gloves, long sleeves, eye protection and a respirator suitable for use against paints and solvents.

The general procedure is to dampen a pad of steel wool in the refinisher and start rubbing your piece in a circular motion. Work on an area about 10 inches across. Rub until the pad starts to gum up or fill, then squeeze it out in fresh refinisher and continue rubbing.

When you get one small area cleaned, move on to another. After the whole piece is cleaned, start with a fresh pad and wipe the whole piece down, working with the grain and removing any skipped spots or lap marks. Then finish up by polishing with a dry pad. This should bring up a low luster that highlights the beauty of the wood.

But often you are faced with an old front door or a set of wooden shutters caked with layers and layers of paint. Here you just want to get down to bare wood so you can put on a decent paint job. This is a case for a full-bore paint remover.

Professional Help

Unless you like working with messy, dangerous chemicals, I'd suggest you take the work to a professional stripper. He's equipped to do a better, faster job than you can do, and for not much more than you'd pay to do things yourself.

If you're masochistic or want to save a few bucks, do the job yourself. Buy a top-quality semi-paste remover and take all the safety precautions listed above. Then follow label directions to the letter. Two tips that will help you avoid the most common stripping mistakes:

--Apply the remover as thickly as possible and don't brush it around any more than necessary.

--Give the remover plenty of time to work. If the thinner starts to dry out and harden, you are waiting too long. Otherwise, the longer it sets, the softer the old finish will become, and the easier it will be to remove.

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