Three Ways to Strip Furniture

Small vanity repainted white
Vanity after being stripped and repainted

Last week, I shared with you that the outside temperature (or the temperature in the garage) was too cold for me to continue using a chemical stripper.

Whenever you are working on a piece of furniture and want to give it a new look, 90% of the time it will require stripping the existing finish. The vast majority of the time, I use Citristrip to remove the existing finish, whether it’s paint or a stain. However, there are certain situations where it’s not possible to use a chemical stripping agent. Most notably, when the temperature outside is too cold.

So the purpose of this post is to share with you three ways to strip furniture. Let’s get started.

Chemical Stripper

Chemical strippers are by far the fastest and most effective way of removing the existing paint or stain from furniture. However, there are some drawbacks. First, they create fumes and you really need to use them in a well ventilated area. I recommend wearing a mask anytime you are using a chemical stripper.

Second, they are extremely messy. Scraping the old finish off of furniture creates a pile of mucky gummy gooey substance formerly known as paint/stain. It will likely get on the floor and stick to the bottom of your shoes. It’s just a messy process.

Third, after applying a chemical stripper and after scraping it off of the piece of furniture, you will need to wipe down the entire piece with either denatured alcohol or mineral spirits.

The vanity shown in the photo above was stripped using Citristrip. Here is a “before” photo.

Vintage Vanity Before being stripped
Vintage vanity before being completely stripped of its finish

As you can see in the photo above, the existing paint job needed to be removed. Chemical stripper was my go-to choice for getting this done quickly. In the photo, if you look at the inside portion of the desk -where your knees would rest – and compare that with the first photo – you will see evidence of the finish being stripped.

I wrote a before post about this vanity HERE and an after post about it HERE.

Stripping Furniture by Sanding

Waxed pine buffet
Refinished waxed pine buffet

The next option for removing an existing finish on a piece of furniture is to sand it off. This is particularly useful if there is a thin finish on the piece of furniture. Perhaps a clear coat that it already flaking off. Or maybe a stain that was applied very thinly.

The drawbacks to sanding are that it can be time consuming and labor intensive. Even if you can sand the majority of the piece of furniture with a random orbital sander, there will be portions that need to be sanded by hand. Some examples include the legs or in the corners of doors.

As with a chemical stripper, it’s best to work in a well ventilated area. Wear a mask to protect your lungs. Sanding is a good option when you can’t use a chemical stripper and the existing finish is fairly thin.

The antique pine buffet shown above is an example of a piece that was sanded. You can read all about it HERE.

Stripping Furniture Using a Heat Gun

Antique green wooden plant stand
Antique plant stand after being stripped and repainted.

The third option for stripping the existing finish off a piece of furniture is to use a heat gun. Of the three options for stripping furniture, using a heat gun is the method I use the least. However, heat guns are extremely useful in certain situations. I find that this is the method I use when there are thick layers of paint on a piece of furniture. A heat gun was used to remove the numerous layers of paint from the plant stand shown above. You can read about the process HERE.

There are a few drawbacks to using a heat gun. First, it can be very time consuming. Second, unless you have large flat surfaces to strip, it’s not always feasible to scrape away the paint. (For example using a heat gun on rounded legs or in small areas where you can’t reach a scraper) Third, even after removing the paint, you will still need to sand the furniture so it’s smooth. Fourth, it’s very easy to burn yourself when using a heat gun. It takes a certain level of dexterity to use a heat gun in one hand and a scraper in the other and you can easily burn yourself on the nozzle of the heat gun. As with the other two methods of stripping furniture, I recommend wearing a mask when using a heat gun. Heating the old paint does release some fumes.

Using all 3 Methods to Strip Furniture

The truth be told, on many pieces I use a combination of techniques to remove an existing finish. Last week I was working on 3 dressers at the same time. At first I applied chemical stripper to all 3 dressers. However, the temperature outside was too cold – so it didn’t work as it should have. I wiped it off. Clearly, another method of stripping the dressers needed to be used. So for two dressers, I used a random orbital sander to remove the existing finish. For the third dresser, I used a heat gun to remove multiple layers of paint and then went over it with a sander.

I hope you found this little summary useful. Trial and error is usually the best way to figure out which method works best for you. Even if it does result in your hand getting occasionally burned by a heat gun.

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