Wood Refinishing 101


Refinishing is fun. With a little refinishing, a piece of “junk” purchased at a flea market might turn into a beautiful piece of furniture. Anything from furniture and interior trim to doors and windows can be stripped and refinished. Stripping off old paint for refinishing, however, takes a great deal of patience and time. The hardest stripping job we’ve done was on a brick fireplace in our first home. The bricks had been painted a horrible mint green color. A week, and about two gallons of stripper later, we finally got down to the natural bricks. Most furniture projects won’t be as involved, but stripping the trim, doors and windows of one or more rooms takes commitment. 



Tools and Supplies

Refinishing also doesn’t require a lot of tools, however, you do need safety equipment and you must follow safety rules. Strippers, even the “user-friendly” types, are still caustic. Make sure you wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, enclosed shoes, protective eye goggles and rubber gloves. The latter should be fairly heavy-duty and easy to slip off and on. You’ll also need plastic drop cloths and cardboard or newspaper to protect floors in the stripping area from drips and debris. Recycled plastic food containers can be used to hold the stripper and for the debris removed.

A simple cleaning with furniture-restorer products may be all that’s needed to brighten and rejuvenate some old finishes.

Scrapers and “putty knives” are needed to scrape off the debris. Specialty scrapers with a variety of shapes, such as the Pro-Prep scrapers from Klingspor’s Woodworking Shop, are also available for scraping concave and convex shapes and grooves. Plastic stripping tools as well as stripping brushes are also available, and they don’t scratch or dig into the surface as do metal blades.

In many cases, old finishes and/or paint must be removed using stripper. You will also need other equipment, including scrapers, gloves and eye protection.

Abrasive cleaning pads are required for washing off stain and paint residue. Don’t use steel wool on fine furniture pieces, as the tiny pieces can become embedded in the wood grain and cause rust spots. In most instances you will need to sand the wood after it has been stripped, especially if using water-based strippers because the water raises the grain of the wood. A variety of hand-sanding products are available, including foam sanding blocks that will fit contours, as well as abrasive cords and tapes – sort of a dental floss for wood. Power sanders can also be used for final sanding. The Craftsman 3-D Sander utilizes three spinning disks to fit around any contour, concave or convex. Use a paint brush with natural bristles to apply the stripper. Strippers will destroy many synthetic brushes.

And, of course, you’ll need stripper. A wide variety of strippers are available including water-based and solvent-based. Solvent-based strippers don’t raise the wood grain, and less final sanding is required. But, they do require more attention to safety, the materials are harder to dispose of and they require lacquer or paint thinner for the final wash. This means more of a problem with fumes. For the most part, water-based strippers are easier to use and more environmentally friendly. Strippers are also available in either gel or liquid form. Liquid strippers work somewhat faster, but the mess is harder to contain, and they’re harder to use on vertical surfaces. Gel strippers are a bit slower, but are best for vertical surfaces. They can also be forced into cracks and crevices. Because they adhere to the surface better, gel strippers also tend to have a longer working time. This means they won’t dry out as quickly or require additional coats as often.

Place cardboard or newspapers over a drop cloth that covers the floor, table or bench holding the furniture piece. Apply the stripper according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Regardless of what you’re stripping, or the type of stripper used, make sure you have adequate ventilation. If possible, don’t work in direct sunlight, because this tends to dry out the stripper before it can work properly.

Before you slap on the stripper, carefully examine the piece. Many old furniture pieces may only need proper cleaning and finish rejuvenation, rather than a full stripping and refinishing. Sometimes only a thorough cleaning is needed. Murphy’s Oil Soap can be used to clean a dirty, heavily waxed surface. Or a bit of TSP added to water can be used, but be careful with this as you can damage some finishes. 

In many instances you’ll have to reapply the stripper to remove all paint and/or finish.

A finish that is cracked, crazed or simply dull can often be made beautiful again with a little effort and a number of rejuvenation products. The following products are available from Klingspor’s. Kramer Antique Improver has 14 all-natural ingredients. It restores natural finishes, such as lacquer, varnish and shellac. Qualarenu renovates old cracked or alligatored finishes. It may be brushed on sprayed on or padded over an old surface. Howard Products Restor-A-Finish is a unique penetrating finish that restores original color and blends out minor scratches and blemishes. It’s available in “neutral” as well as a variety of stains. To use, simply wipe on with a soft cloth or #0000 steel wool and then wipe off.

The original BriWax products are extremely simple to use. Used as a cleaner, apply with #0000 steel wool, going with the grain until the area is clean. Allow to dry for one minute, then buff with a soft cloth.

If the wood surface is heavily laden with old paint, a dulled, dark or otherwise unwanted finish, stripping is in order. The chair shown as an example was stained a very dark red. Stripping the finish off allowed the beautiful red-oak grain to be revealed. It is important to carefully examine the piece and attempt to determine the wood species. A wood you think is expensive walnut may turn out to be a cheaper substitute, such as gum, stained dark. After the finish is removed, the piece may not be as beautiful as you hoped. On the other hand, like an unwrapped gift, you often find a real hidden beauty. It’s a good idea to first test a small section in an inconspicuous area.


Before you begin stripping, carefully read the manufacturer’s instructions and follow them explicitly. The type of application and time the stripper is applied and left to work is important. Stripper should usually not be allowed to dry out, until it thoroughly loosens the finish. If stripping a piece with multiple paint coats, you may have to strip off a coat or two and wait until the next day to remove the rest.

If using a solvent-based stripper, make sure you follow all safety rules. It’s best to use these outdoors in the shade. If you must use it indoors, provide plenty of ventilation. Open all windows and outside doors to provide cross-ventilation in the work area. Use a fan in a window to help draw out the fumes. Keep a respirator on hand and use it if the fumes become too strong. The fumes can flow low along the floors and ignite explosively, therefore, these products should not be used in basements or unventilated areas. Make sure to extinguish all flames, pilot lights and electric igniters, and shut off all electricity.

Apply the stripper only to horizontal surfaces, turning the piece to present each surface as horizontal. Apply in one direction only. Allow the stripper to work for about 15 minutes and then scrape an area. If the finish is not softened, reapply stripper or wait a bit longer. Remove the sludge with scrapers, followed by a coarse cloth such as burlap. Then wash with the solvent suggested by the stripper manufacturer. In most instances lacquer thinner may be used. As the thinner fumes are also highly explosive, continue to use only with proper ventilation and with all flames and ignition sources shut off.


Allow the stripper to loosen the finish for the amount of time specified by the manufacturer. Then remove the old finish and stripper using scrapers.

You may have to reapply and rescrape the olf finish a few times, especially with stained wood.

Stipping brushes can be used to get finish and sludge out of cracks, grooves and crevices.

Allow the stripper to work, and then wash it off using an abrasive pad dipped in warm, soapy water.

After the water rinse, dry the finish thoroughly with a soft cloth.

The fumes from water-based strippers are also dangerous, and the same basic safety rules should be followed. Following are typical suggested directions for water-based strippers, such as the gel-stripper shown. Shake the container well and pour a bit of the solution into a separate container. Close the original container to prevent the stripper from drying out. Apply the stripper in a thick coat. Do not brush it out as you would paint or finish. Wait about 30 minutes and test a small area to determine if the finish has loosened. If not, wait longer, even several hours if needed. You may need to reapply a coat if the stripper dries out before the finish has softened.

Once the finish has softened, remove with the scrapers. An abrasive pad dipped in stripper will also help on stubborn areas. Stripping brushes help remove material from crevices. Most clear finishes can be removed with one stripping. The Citri-Strip product shown suggests using their Citri-Strip Stripping Project After Wash as a final wash. This is used with an abrasive pad. Make sure the surface is completely clean and dry before refinishing.

Pigmented wood stains often require a second stripping. In the case of the Citri-Strip shown, a second coat of stripper is applied, allowed to soak in and work, and then scrubbed away. Use a clean, plastic stripping or abrasive pad dipped in soapy water to scrub away the stain. Then use a clean, soft, dry cloth to thoroughly wipe down and dry the wood surface. Again, make sure the surface is thoroughly dry before refinishing. This tactic, however, should not be used with veneers because the water may cause the veneer glue to soften and loosen the veneer.


General Stripping Tips

• If possible, break down the furniture into separate pieces, such as removing drawers and doors.

• Plan the stripping job for one day. If you have to reapply stripper, it has to resoften the finish that may have become even harder.

• Strippers work best in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees.

• Cover hardware and remove mirrors from their frames. Or in the case of painted hardware, remove and place in a tub of stripper to allow them to soak. Keep the bucket covered with plastic to prevent the stripper from drying out.

• Make sure you wait long enough for the stripper to work. If you attempt to remove unsoftened finish, you’re not only doubling your work, but may scratch or damage the wood beneath the finish.

• Place the piece to be stripped at a comfortable working height.

• Keep an old cardboard box to place the removed finish sludge, as well as to place the debris-covered newspapers after you’ve finished.

• Have plenty of light so you can see into crevices and also to inspect for any stubborn spots.

• Remove all paint, finish and stain. Do not leave it with the thought of sanding it off. Sanding is much more trouble than stripping.

• To prevent stripper from drying out, cover with plastic food wrap.


Caution: Paint that has been applied prior to the 70’s may contain toxic lead. Booklets on testing and handling lead-based paint are available from the Environmental Protection Agency, 1-800-424-LEAD, or www.epa.gov/lead.


Strippers and the residue must be disposed of in accordance with local, state and federal regulations.

After the wood surface has dried thoroughly, a furniture scraper is used to scrape dried sludge from corners and to smooth raised grain.

The Pro-Prep scraper comes with different blade shapes that can be used for different contours. Also, a Dremel tool fitted with a small sanding bit can finish off grooves and carvings.

Sanding and Refinishing

In the case of water based strippers, the surface must be sanded to remove the raised grain. Any number of hand or powered sanders may be used for this chore. Make sure the surface is thoroughly dry before sanding.

The choice of finish depends on the piece. Antique furniture should be refinished using older, traditional finishes, more compatible with the style of furniture. Do not simply slap on polyurethane. Shellacs and padding lacquer may be the best choice in this case. For furniture pieces that are not “antiques,” interior house trim, doors and windows, a brushed on coat of polyurethane may be the best choice. Or you may prefer to apply a sprayed lacquer finish to larger furniture pieces. On woods such as oak, you may also need to apply a wood-filler coat and/or stain before applying the final finish.

After several days of hard work, it’s now time to stand back and admire your handiwork. Then it’s time to start on the other three chairs and build a table to complete the set.


You will have to sand lightly to smooth down the remainder of the grain. Craftsman’s 3-D Sander makes quick work of sanding convex and concave contours.

Finally, apply the appropriate finish.

Stripping furniture can be a fun hobby, and you may be able to turn a piece of flea-market “junk” into beautiful furniture. The oak chairs shown are an example. 

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