Strip fin­ish safely from old wood­work

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Ques­tion: I just bought an older, turn-of-the­cen­tury 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?

An­swer: 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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