Strip Finish Safely from Old Woodwork

Dear James: I just bought an older, turn-of-the-century house. Most of the interior woodwork needs to be stripped and refinished. I cannot get all of the pieces loose. What is the best method to strip it? — Linda L.

Dear Linda: The woodwork in those older houses is truly stunning when it is properly refinished, but care must be taken not to destroy any of the detail when stripping it. The old wood may be brittle, so don’t try too hard to remove the pieces if they seem securely attached.

There are three basic methods to remove old paint and varnish: using chemical strippers, sanding and heat. Since you have so many different types of wood, styles and patterns, you will probably end up using a combination of all three methods on various pieces. You can assume that the old woodwork probably has several layers of finishes on it.

Chemical stripping is probably the gentlest method to remove the old paint and varnish, especially on the pieces that you can safely remove from the wall. When doing smaller pieces, place them on end in a small can to catch the stripper that drips off. You can probably reuse this stripper.

The least expensive type of chemical stripper uses a thick paraffin base. After you use this type, you will have to clean the paraffin residue off the bare wood with paint thinner or a solvent. The next better grade is called “no-clean” because it does not leave a wax residue. It is still sometimes a good idea to do some little sanding cleanup afterward.

The most expensive, but easiest-to-use chemical strippers are called “water wash”. They cut the old paint and varnish quickly and then it can be rinsed away with water from a garden hose. Rinse the stripper off quickly and dry the wood. With the finish removed, the wood surface can be damaged by excessive water penetration.

Most of the strippers are available as liquids or pastes. The liquid type is best to use on large flat surfaces. The pastes work better on irregular surfaces with detail and vertical pieces of woodwork still attached to the wall. These may work at little slower, but the thicker stripper stays in place.

The best technique is to quickly brush on the stripper thickly and try not to brush over spots already coated with stripper. Read the instruction on the can, but 20 to 30 minutes soak time is typical. Use a scrapper or putty knife to remove the old finish. Be careful not to scrape any fine surface detail off the wood.

Power sanding is also an effective and very quick method to remove old finish, but it is best suited to larger flat areas. It is impossible not to remove some of the underlying wood too, so make sure you are not working with thin veneers. Medium or coarse sandpaper clogs less than fine grit. Using a scouring pad and steel wool is a form of sanding.

Using an electric heat gun will soften thick finishes and allow you to scrape much of it off. It is ideal for large, flat surfaces. You may see some experienced painters use a propane torch, but you should not attempt this. Other than the obvious fire hazard, it takes practice not to damage the wood surface.

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