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A finely-crafted piece of furniture that is given a nicely stained finish can truly show off the woodworker’s craftsmanship. Perhaps this is why it pains me so much to see when people paint an older, but well-built piece of furniture.
I’m sure that they have good intentions, that it will look better with their decor with paint instead of stain, but to a woodworker, that almost seems sacrilegious. Kind of like going to a great steak restaurant and ordering a $40 steak and then asking for ketchup.
Luckily, in many cases these well-built pieces of furniture can be restored to their intended glory. Advances in wood refinishing techniques, particularly chemical wood strippers, can allow a determined person to remove the masking paint from a well-built piece of furniture and refinish it with a protective finish that will once again show off the skills of the craftsman who built it.
Stripping the Finish
The first step to wood refinishing is to get rid of the paint.
While you can attempt to sand the paint off of the wood using a belt sander, a random orbital sander or a heat gun, you’d be at it quite a while and would probably end up sanding away part of the wood that you’re looking to uncover.
A better method, in my estimation, is to use a chemical-based paint stripper to remove the majority of the paint. There are a few caveats to keep in mind:
- First of all, you will likely want to use paint strippers outside where there is plenty of ventilation, as the fumes can be pretty overpowering, not to mention unhealthy.
- Second, be sure to wear recommended rubber gloves, and of course, safety glasses to protect your eyes.
Paint strippers come in a variety of formulations, including liquids, gels and thicker pastes.
If your project is large and some surfaces are vertical rather than horizontal, you will want to avoid liquid formulas, as they don’t cling well to vertical surfaces – And no matter which type you choose, you’ll need to be patient.
Working in small areas at a time, apply the stripper of your choice to the wood and let it sit for the amount of time recommended by the label. Then scrape the area with a rounded putty knife (or take a standard putty knife and round over the edges with a bench grinder so that the corners of the knife don’t scratch the wood. Lift off as much of the old finish as you can with the putty knife, but keep in mind that you may have to use two or three applications before you get the majority of the finish removed. After the majority of the finish is gone, follow the directions on the label for removing the residue from the stripper.
Once the wood stripper is removed and the project is relatively free of the old finish, you’ll need to allow the piece ample time to dry and get acclimated to the surrounding environment.
Bare wood is susceptible to changes in humidity levels and temperature, and while the project certainly won’t need to adjust as much as fresh, new softwood or hardwoods, it would be advisable to let it rest for a few days.
Once you are ready to begin sanding, put a medium-grit sanding disk onto a random orbital sander, and begin sanding to eliminate any rough spots on the wood.
When sanding, even with a random orbital sander, always work with the grain to reduce sanding marks that you’ll have to take out later. Once you’re happy with the medium-grit sanding, switch out the disk for a fine grit, and repeat the process. Work through about four levels of sanding disks, getting progressively finer as you go to smooth out the surface.
Once you’ve completed sanding with the finest grit disks you want to use, go over the entire project with a thorough hand sanding (always working with the grain) to eliminate any marks left behind by the sander.
Inspection and Sealing
At this stage, inspect the piece for any damage or any open grain areas (particularly if the piece was built with oak or a similar species of wood) that need to be filled. Also check for any cracks or other damage, and fill them with a wood putty or other filler before proceeding.
The next step is to apply a pre-stain wood conditioner that will help to even out the color of the stain once it is applied. While pre-stain conditioners typically are used on softwoods to eliminate the blotchy appearance that staining gives to these woods, it can also help a previously-painted piece to be prepared for staining, much like priming before painting a project.
Finally, you’re ready to stain and protect the project. You can choose to apply a liquid or maybe even a gel stain to give the wood the color you wish, and follow it up with protective coats of polyurethane, lacquer or maybe even shellac to protect the wood finish you worked so hard to reveal.
No matter how you choose to finish your project, you can be certain that your time, effort and patience will be rewarded.