The stripping process is often the most tedious and time-consuming element of furniture refinishing. Finding more efficient ways to remove old paint and varnish is a favorite pastime of DIYers. It usually takes a lot of trial-and-error to find the method that works best for each person. Fortunately, professionals like Bob Vila and Martha Stewart offer their advice online, and apps like Pinterest and Instagram are truly chock-full of helpful tips and tricks.
After much trial-and-error of our own, Bruce and I have discovered a few time- and labor-efficient methods that cut down on sore backs and weeks of work. Try a few of these tips and tools to see what works best for you:
If you have ever experienced sheer agony from getting some good ole' Formby's on your skin, then you will appreciate CitriStrip, a low-odor, less-caustic "safer" stripper. This product is currently pretty popular with furniture aficionados due to its low toxicity and less caustic ingredients.
CitriStrip boasts no chemical odor-it smells like orange candy; it seems to be barely caustic at all-Bruce and I both have gotten this stuff all over us and haven't been burned yet; superlative efficacy for a "natural" product-I often find environmentally-friendly and low-chemical products don't work as well as their synthetic, though more dangerous, cousins. CitriStrip works surprisingly well, especially if you work in small patches and work quickly. You can find CitriStrip at Lowe's for about $12. There are certainly less expensive products, but CitriStrip is worth the price (and I'm not getting paid to say that!).
Pro Tip: Use CitriStrip with medium gauge steel wool to cut your stripping time and reduce gouges and nicks in the surface of the wood.
Although some really tough jobs simply require a scraper, steel wood reduces risk of gouging the wood, and with the right technique, it can be faster. Big, strong guys like Bruce can literally swipe the finish off the top of a coffee table in about two minutes flat. It takes me longer because I am simply not as strong as Bruce, but it still works so much better than a scraper. Scrapers work well for flat surfaces, but on rounded elements such as chair spindles and claw feet, a piece of steel wool is essential.
Pro tip: Remember steel wool can still damage wood. Use the finest gauge possible in order to avoid deep, swirly scratches in the surface of the wood.
Plastic food wrap
Unless you are using a heavy paste or wax stripper, occasionally you can count on your product drying out before you can get back to it. For small places on heavy hardwoods, I will use a quick burst of "spramp", a 1/1 mixture of white vinegar in water. For larger dried surfaces, I have found wrapping the entire treated surface in plastic food wrap (commonly known as "Saran Wrap"d Wrap") is a great way to keep the stripping product from drying out while I work on other projects.
Pro tip: Plastic wrap is also great for wrapping wet brushes and rollers if you need to step away from your project.
Mineral spirits are essential to keep on hand when refinishing furniture. Besides cleaning paint brushes and rags, mineral spirits clean the remnants of stripped product. You can toss used brushes and rollers into a bucket of mineral spirits immediately after use to keep them from hardening with dried paint and becoming useless.
Pro Tip: Use mineral spirits instead of water to avoid piquing of the wood grain when cleaning bare wood.
Cheap barbecue brush
Chip brushes with natural bristles are the best tool to use to apply CitriStrip because the short bristles allow full use of the product, without losing much of it into the bristles near the handle. Chip brushes are expensive, however. You can find packages of two or three cheap barbecue brushes (with natural bristles, no less) at dollar stores. We go through tons of these brushes, and it is so much cheaper to substitute the barbecue brushes for the real thing.
Pro tip: Always thoroughly wet your application tools with water to prevent the product from simply soaking into natural bristles.
If you need more pro tips, check out these posts by some of the experts of DIY furniture refinishing:
Bob Vila shares his vast knowledge of furniture reconditioning and repair in this helpful post full of resources and information
This comprehensive article from This Old House walks the reader through a sample refinishing job by one of their experts
diyNetwork's exhaustive database of furniture rehab and repair contains almost limitless information and resources for DIY furniture rehab enthusiast
Miss Mustard Seed's Workshop Series offers a step-by-step tutorial complete with photos
Martha Stewart's video tutorial offers a step-by-step example of refinishing wood chairs