Beneath that neglected and damaged surface, many a piece of old furniture has beautifully grained wood just waiting to be bared and refinished. Stripping off old layers of paint or varnish is a straightforward job that no do-it-yourselfer should hesitate to undertake. The only drawback is that the work can be messy and is best done outdoors.

Here are instructions for stripping paint and varnish and preparing wood for a new finish.Choosing the remover

A chemical remover, used correctly, is the most effective way to remove old finish without damaging the wood beneath. Sanding is less efficient and may mar the wood. A heavy bodied, semi-paste stripper is the best choice for most projects. It adheres better to vertical and grooved surfaces and evaporates more slowly, giving the chemicals more time to work.

CAUTION: When using chemical strippers, work in a well-ventilated, shaded area, never near an open flame. Don't smoke. Keep children and pets away from the work area. Wear old clothes, cotton-lined neoprene gloves and safety goggles. Store scrapings in a disposable can. Follow manufacturer's precautions exactly.

Applying stripper

1. Remove all knobs, hinges, handles and other hardware from the furniture. Take out drawers and do them separately.

2. Place the item to be stripped on several layers of newspaper. Don't use a plastic drop cloth because the chemical may react with it.

3. Pour some paint remover into a coffee can or painter's bucket; keep the main supply capped.

4. With an old, disposable brush, apply a thick layer of remover, going in one direction only. Strip a single section at a time; otherwise the paint sludge may dry before you can remove it. Whenever possible, adjust the piece so that the part you're working on is horizontal.

5. When the finish bubbles - about 15 minutes, but check the label - scrape off the softened paint sludge with a blunt-edged, round-cornered putty knife or a wooden scraper. Work with the grain; be careful not to gouge the softened wood beneath. Remove paint from crannies with a stiff toothbrush, a pointed stick or steel wool.

6. After the entire surface has been scraped clean, look for any dark or glossy patches. Recoat these patches with stripper, wait the required time, then scrub them clean with steel wool. To make sure the new finish adheres properly and looks professional, it is crucial that the old finish be completely removed.

7. Immerse hinges and other hardware in paint remover. Scrape off the softened paint with steel wool or a stiff brush.

8. Paint removers may leave behind wax and other chemical residues. These deposits must be cleaned away or neutralized before refinishing or they will keep stains from penetrating properly. The final finish may also fail to adhere.

Apply turpentine, paint thinner, or mineral spirits. Leave it on for a few minutes, then wipe it off with a clean cotton cloth. Water can damage veneers and soften glue in joints. When using a water rinse stripper, it's safer not to hose it off, as is sometimes recommended. Instead, remove the loose finish with steel wool soaked in one of the solvents above.

Let the piece dry thoroughly, 24 hours or more, before refinishing.

The wood may retain tinges of color from its original finish, even after it has been carefully stripped and cleaned. This is not harmful and may contribute to the beauty of the final finish. However, if these color traces are undesirable, remove them by sanding.

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