This is Part II on How to Refinish Furniture is about stripping paint, varnish, or stain.

In this case, I will walk you through how I removed the finish from a fairly large oval walnut table that has 3 leaves and removable legs. This table is stained in a medium warm brown colour and has a varnish which was worn down in places. It is important to first know for certain what kind of wood the furniture is because each type of wood will have a different way of finishing (especially between hard- and soft-woods).

I have used chemical strippers in the past to remove multiple layers of paint, and it was a messy, slow process. This time I made sure that I had all the tools in place and I didn’t try to complete everything at once, but instead in multiple sessions.

The stripping agent I used is called “Heirloom Furniture Stripper” and is available at Home Depot. It is comparable to the “Circa 1850″ brand, which was recommended to me and only available in smaller stores. Since everything I am doing can be laid flat I used the lighter bodied (slightly runnier) stripper as opposed to the heavy bodied one which is recommended for vertical surfaces. It worked very well!

Tools and Supplies Required:

  • 1 gallon furniture stripper
  • A respirator mask appropriate for filtering fumes and odors
  • 2 pairs heavy duty gloves (1 pair on hand as back up)
  • 1 – 2 flat, thin metal putty knives
  • 2 – 3 cheap brushes
  • 1 clean bucket for pouring stripper into
  • 1 garbage bucket or cardboard box in which to scrape the gooey, removed stain and varnish
  • Several rags (and having some water or a tap nearby is helpful, too)
  • A drop sheet to protect the floor of your work area
Heirloom Furniture stripper and tools

Tools to use for stripping stain, varnish or paint.

Some Safety Precautions:

Let me make it very clear that chemical strippers are toxic and dangerous to inhale the fumes or to get on your skin or eyes. Please work in an open, well-ventilated space or outdoors and use a respirator mask. Having an extra pair of gloves is useful, because it is possible to get a bit of the stripper under the gloves, or through a tear. If you get any of the furniture stripper on your gloves then wipe it off right away with a rag: the chemical will soften and wear out the gloves making it more prone to rip and come in contact with your hands (this happened to me once and it stings and burns – rinse with water immediately if you get any on your skin!).

The Process:

  1. Set up a work area with a drop sheet and assemble all your tools. Put on your mask and gloves. (Turn on some music!)
  2. Pour the furniture stripper into a completely clean bucket and fill no more than 1 inch. If this bucket gets contaminated with chunks of dissolved varnish then you may want to pour it into your garbage bucket and start fresh. Same goes for the application brush.
  3. Using a brush, apply the stripper to only a small area at a timeĀ (no more than 1 square foot is a good size) and let it set up for 30 seconds to a minute. Do not let it dry before scraping off.
  4. Using a putty knife, scrape off the partially dissolved varnish in the direction of the wood grain and dispose of it into the garbage bucket or onto a rag keeping your putty knife clean-ish between scrapes. Not all of varnish will come off in the first application.
  5. Repeat the application and scraping process for that area 2 or 3 more times as needed. The less varnish and stain there is to remove then the less time you have to wait for it to set up.
  6. Once most of the varnish and stain have been removed, use a steel wool pad to buff out the last bits of product (this is especially useful on curved or grooved details). You can do this dry or with a bit of furniture stripper on the steel wool. Note that the steel wool will get clogged with stain so keep using a fresh side.
  7. Systematically repeat this process until you have removed all of the finish. Celebrate the completion!
how to strip stain and varnish

Part way through removing stain and varnish, while working in my dark garage.

I hope this will help you in refinishing your own furniture or cabinets! Look out for Part III on How to Refinish Furniture which will cover selecting a stain colour and top coat, and what tools to use for staining wood.