As most woodworkers know, stripping wood can be a very nasty business. However, when refinishing older pieces, cleaning wood for reuse or restoring ornate woodwork in an older home, it’s something that must be faced and dealt with.
Some professional furniture restorers repeatedly submerge painted furniture or wood in a vat full of chemicals because it’s less expensive and time consuming.
However, the repeated exposure to the toxic chemicals oversaturates the wood and can easily damage glued joints and veneers. Stripping wood by hand may take more time and physical effort, but it’s better for the wood. When it comes to wood strippers, most experienced woodworkers have their own preferences, so we’re including some information on a couple of the more popular brands.
The Basics of Wood Strippers
Most wood strippers come in two categories: those that do or don’t contain methylene chloride. The products that do contain that chemical is where it gets nasty because it can burn bare skin and the fumes can make you sick and dizzy.
It’s very important to take the right protective measures when working with any product containing methylene chloride, such as wearing protective goggles, heavy rubber gloves and a respirator, especially if using it indoors. Why use something that dangerous? It works very well.
Most other wood strippers are citrus-based and far less caustic. This makes the process less dangerous, but more time-consuming because they definitely don’t pack the punch of the other products.
Most rarely meet the claims advertised and usually require several applications to get decades of paint off the wood, but many woodworkers prefer to use this type of wood stripper in their shops. Another problem with these products is that they’re water-based and repeated applications can often soften or entirely melt old glue in joints.
Thick or Thin?
To remove multiple coats of paint off older trim or furniture, a thick paste stripper, such as Klean-Strip KS-3 Premium Stripper is a good choice. Depending on the type of finish you’re working on, this product can quickly (15 minutes or more) remove multiple layers or oil-based and latex paint.
When the finish is ready, simply scrape off as much as possible, then remove any residue with lacquer thinner or water. Many woodworkers prefer using a power washer to remove the product in order to get into detail work, crevasses or cracks in the wood.
For removing an old finish, choose a thin stripper. Finishes don’t require such heavy-duty performance and can usually be removed with several applications with a brush. Old Masters TM-1 Liquid Remover works well removing varnish, enamel, lacquer, polyurethane, shellac and lighter paint applications.
Both products are available at big box stores at reasonable prices.
Safety and Tips
Anytime you’re removing layers of old paint, always think safety first. As mentioned above, many wood strippers contain toxic chemicals that can cause serious damage to bare skin and your lungs. Wear full length clothes in addition to protective eye wear, a respirator (indoors or outside) and heavy rubber gloves. Older paint contains lead, which can also cause serious lung damage if you don’t protect yourself if doing any sanding – preliminary or finishing.
• Always follow directions on a chemical stripper label before beginning.
• If working indoors, lay cardboard or drop cloths under the piece or around the area before using the wood stripper.
• Apply the wood stripper using fast, even brush strokes.
• A brush with natural bristles is best for getting into grooves or detailed wood.
• Allow the wood to air dry for at least 24 hours before the next step.
• Always properly dispose of any leftover chemical products safely by following packaging directions or checking on local waste disposal regulations.
The process of stripping wood down to its natural beauty may be time-consuming or even dangerous, but whether restoring a family heirloom or interior woodwork, it’s usually well worth the effort.