There are basically three stripping methods open to you – sanding, heat and chemicals – and you will probably find yourself using at least two, whatever the piece. Regardless of the method(s) you intend to use, you will find it easier to take the piece apart as far as possible: remove drawers, fittings, shelves and so on and treat them all separately.
Because it is mechanical, sanding is a more controlled way of stripping, but it is unlikely that you will be able to remove everything, especially from the nooks and crannies, without chemical help. The belt sander’s power and weight is ideal when you have a lot of layers to get through, especially paint, but it really is not the right tool for valued pieces of furniture.
You can use heat, although a blowlamp (blowtorch) is far too violent for furniture. The hot-air strippers popular nowadays are more gentle, but it is still all too easy to burn the wood if you look away for so much as a second. Bubble up the paint and lift it off with a decorator’s knife, layer by layer. Heat does not really work on french polishes and lacquers, except for the highly risky business of flashing, a trade practice that involves wiping a meths-soaked rag over french polish and setting it alight. It is very effective, but the risks are obvious!
Chemicals are most efficient, and do the least damage to the wood, but bear in mind that they and their waste are highly flammable; that they are very harmful to skin and eyes, so you must wear goggles and rubber gloves; and that you must neutralize them.
Proprietary strippers are usually methylene chloride based; pastes are generally a better idea than liquids, because they stick to vertical surfaces. Dab the stripper on with a grass or nylon brush, or a dispensable paint brush and dollop it, rather than brushing. The idea is to leave a thickness that will soak in and lift up the old finish; putting it on too thick or leaving a thick coat over-long does not increase the product’s efficiency. Work layer by layer, scraping with a knife, or wire wool for awkward bits.
Ready-made strippers are usually neutralized by water or white spirit, which dissolves the wax that some of them use to prevent quick drying. Remember that if you get old furniture and veneers too wet, you will melt the glue. Some strippers are promoted as ‘no-wash’, which is useful, but (apart from veneers) there can be no harm in wiping over with water or white spirit.
Caustic soda is still popular, if not so easy to use as proprietary strippers. It needs to be thickened into a paste with whiting, starch or even wallpaper paste, and used as strong as you dare to avoid the water wetting the wood too deeply. A kilo (2-31b) of crystals to a bucket of water should give the right consistency. Do not use it on veneered pieces, and remember to mix the crystals into the water, not the other way round. It also darkens the fibres, which will need to be bleached out again. Neutralize it with vinegar.
There are commercial stripping firms, who use large tanks of caustic solution in which the whole piece is submerged; this ‘dipping’ is an easy alternative to taking the work on yourself. It is good for, say, a staircaseful of balusters, but the trisodium phosphate darkens the wood, damages the fibres, and attacks the glue in joints. It is also unlikely that your furniture will be given the careful treatment you would give it yourself, and naturally everything you give an operator is given at your own risk.
You will often find a white deposit in the grain of mahogany furniture that will not come out when you have stripped the piece. This is plaster of paris, used as a grain filler, that has hardened; scrub it out with a wire brush and linseed oil, and resign yourself to a lot of sanding and smoothing afterwards.
About the Author