Unusually Handy Ways to Strip Finishes


Some unexpected tools and unusual handyman tricks can make the job of removing an old finish from furniture a lot easier.

Here are some tips on using tools for removing old finish:

* A putty knife is the furniture stripper’s most useful tool for scraping off old finish softened by stripping compound. But to make sure a putty knife doesn’t scar the wood, gently round the corners of the blade with a file. Remove any burrs on the edge with fine sandpaper.

* Lightly coat your putty knife with nonstick cooking spray so that the stripper gunk won’t adhere to it.


* With its flat, flexible blade, an old plastic spatula (such as that used for turning eggs) makes a great scraper. Hold the spatula upside down and push it along for a clean pickup.

* Use an old paintbrush for removing softened finish in hard-to-reach areas. Trim the bristles to a stiff stump about 1 inch long. Dip the brush in water for water-base stripper, or in turpentine for solvent-base stripper. Use the brush to get the old finish out of carvings, turnings and grooves.

* To reach into curves and crevices when stripping furniture, cut two rows of bristles off a stiff-bristle scrub brush. Use the cut-off piece to work stripper into the problem areas and later to rub off the loosened finish.

* To remove loosened finish with less mess, cut an aluminum pie pan in half using heavy scissors, and use each half as a scooper-scraper. The metal is rigid enough to scrape up the goop and hold it, too.

* Save that old bamboo pole. Bamboo is great material for making tools that remove stripper sludge. You can quickly cut it with a utility knife to whatever shape you need. It’s soft enough so that it won’t mar most woods.

* To remove softened finish on turned furniture legs, twist a piece of burlap or old panty hose and move it back and forth across the surface as you would a shoeshine rag.

* On fine turnings and grooves in furniture legs, remove the sludge with coarse twine or with medium-grade steel wool wrapped around a string. If you need to get old finish out of a really tight groove, use unwaxed dental floss.

In addition to using commercial stripping compounds, here are other ways to remove old finish from furniture:


* Remove a heavy buildup of varnish or other clear finish with an old steam iron. Put several layers of damp cheesecloth over the surface to absorb the finish, and press with the iron on a medium steam setting. This will often remove most of the finish, leaving only a thin layer to be removed with stripper or with the appropriate solvent.

* Use oven cleaner to strip paint and varnish. It’s cheaper than stripper, sprays on and doesn’t sag much on vertical surfaces. But use it only on nonvaluable pieces you plan to paint because it darkens the wood. Neutralize the stripped surface with vinegar, wash it with water and let it dry thoroughly before painting.

Does the paint on an old piece resist every stripper you try? It may be milk paint from the 19th century. If so, household ammonia will take it off. On the other hand, if the milk paint is in good condition, the piece is probably more valuable with the paint on than it would be stripped and refinished.

Whenever using any kind of stripper, make sure you wear long sleeves and pants, safety goggles, solvent-resistant gloves and a respirator with an organic-vapor filter. Work in a well-ventilated area--outdoors if possible.