Frequently Asked Questions About Furniture Paint And Finish Removal
Questions About Commercial Stripping With Water Washes:
General questions about stripping:
Questions about stripping with water washes:
Why commercial stripping using water washes rather than hand stripping at home?
Cleaner. Faster. That's it. Commercial stripping yields a cleaner result, usually just like previously unfinished wood. It also does it faster, which enables the project to move along more quickly.
Doesn't commercial stripping using water washes weaken veneer and glue joints?
This is the most commonly asked question. The simple answer is, no. The more complicated answer follows:
First we will first offer our idea as to why this question has become so widespread in popular mythology. We understand that in the caveman days of immersion stripping, one step in the process was a dip in a water bath with a high concentration of lye, sodium hydroxide, heated to 160°. Given the fact that before the 1940s furniture items were glued with water soluble glues, a long dip in a water bath would not be good for glue joints. Further, before the 1920s, furniture items had been glued with hide glue which was both moisture and temperature sensitive and would completely fail if dipped for very long in a bath heated to 160°. (Please follow this link for more on hide glue.) We guess that systems like this were used just long enough to create a cultural fear of immersion stripping in water based baths.
In modern commercial stripping set ups, like ours, a water wash that includes lye is still commonly used because so effective. It is usually heated, but to the 115-120° range, and is used to wash not strip, so the exposure time is minimal.With such a brief wetting, the caustic wash serves as an effective cleaner but does not have sufficient time to warm and liquify the cured glue.
That said, some poorly applied or low quality modern glues, or certain contact cements such as are occasionally used by hobbyist woodworkers when applying veneer, may not survive in any commercial stripping system. In addition, paint will hold joints together and when removed, the joints are revealed to be weak. Stripping in this case has not caused the weakened joints but rather revealed them.
Doesn't commercial stripping using water washes raise the wood grain?
To varying degrees it does. Our experience is that it is raised less than the people who have asked this question expected it would be. However, we don't think this is a real issue since items being refinished are sanded before the new finish is applied almost universally--whether water is in use or not. Since the wood surface is sanded before finishing, any minimal grain raising is eliminated before finishing anyway.
Doesn't commercial stripping using water washes destroy the value of antiques?
It definitely does, if the item had a high value in its existing condition before stripping. If value is a concern to you, do your homework before stripping by having your piece appraised by an appraiser qualified to value antique furniture. Even if your item is not highly valued, stripping is not always the best choice for fine older pieces. For more information on the pros and cons of refinishing older pieces please see the discussion on our Restoring Finishes page.
Doesn't commercial stripping using water washes remove the patina of the wood?
We have to suppress a chuckle whenever we hear this question. The wood's "patina" is composed of an accumulation of staining pigments, deteriorated finishing resins, waxes, tar from cigarette smoke, body oils, atmospheric dust trapped by cleaning oils or polishes, and so on. Isn't the idea of stripping to remove all those things so that a fresh start can be had with a new finish? In the defense of those who might ask this question, we do encourage people whose furniture items have fundamentally sound finishes to consider refurbishing rather than refinishing. Again, for more information on this topic, please see our Restoring Finishes page.
Doesn't commercial stripping using water washes cause wood to shrink?
Loss of moisture causes wood to shrink. Finishes are applied to wood in part to retain the consistency of the moisture content of wood. When the finish is removed the wood has a new atmosphere to adjust to and can shrink relatively rapidly. This is more of an issue with commercial stripping because the stripping is so thorough. We rarely see any shrinkage related issues with 100 year old items that have been in a dry climate for a while. There are a couple classes of items where we do see shrinkage fairly consistently. American Colonial style maple furniture from the late 1940s and 1950s will often show shrinkage splits at laminations and sometimes in the end grain. The removal of the finish which has slowed that shrinkage, will often result in weak seams opening. A second class is cabinetry made since about 1970 and particularly oak cabinets. We have often seen shrinkage at the corners, opening miters or causing splits at the pin nails which were inserted to secure the corners. For more information on wood shrinkage, please read the article provided at this site: woodbin.
Doesn't commercial stripping using water washes damage particle board and other composite wood materials?
Any moisture source will cause irreversible swelling to these materials, so yes, the fact that commercial stripping includes water rinses and water baths makes stripping composite wood materials problematic. Even more problematic is the fact that some manufacturers make it very difficult to discover the presence of these materials. We have a lot of experience identifying pieces that include composite materials and when we see them we forewarn our customers or, when practical will hand strip them using a solvent rinse. We do have customers who still opt for the superior results of commercial stripping using water washes and are willing to deal with the swelling. And we do have pieces come through where we are not able to tell there is a composite present until that is revealed by swelling. Sometimes the swelling is minimal and customers are willing to live with it as is, sometimes repairs are necessary. If you wonder whether your furniture has a composite material in it, such materials began to be used in the 1950s even by higher end brand names, but if yours is older, no worries.
Doesn't commercial stripping using water washes damage plywood?
There is only one type of plywood we have ever seen adversely effected by stripping, that is the three ply rotary cut plywood glued with lignin glue made during the 1920s through the early 1940s. Usually that is already buckling and delaminating before we see it, but if it is not, the moisture contact during commercial stripping will cause those effects. Whenever we see that plywood we recommend replacing it, so even though commercial stripping will damage it, it is not worth keeping anyway.
Does commercial stripping using water washes remove all paint and stain from the wood?
Nearly all. There may be some paint in corners or recesses. Please see the pictures on our paint removal page and in our stripping gallery. Wood dyes permanently color wood fibers. In contrast to dyes, wood stains made with pigments are completely removed. For more information about different stains please see our page on standard wood finishes.
Does commercial stripping using water washes discolor the wood?
Some stripping chemicals will discolor wood. However, items which go through a complete commercial stripping system come out looking very much like previously unfinished wood.
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General questions about stripping:
Why chemical strip rather than sanding or using a heat gun to remove a finish?
Chemical stripping removes the paint or finish without damaging the surface of the wood.
Sanding is not a problem on flat solid wood surfaces, but even then we often have to deal with damage created by people who have sanded through veneer or who have flattened curved surfaces. A second problem with sanding to remove a finish is that although a surface might look completely free of finish after sanding, sanding will not always remove sealers in the wood which are only later revealed by a blotchy, uneven staining job.
Heat guns are mostly used on painted pieces but have to be used very carefully or they will scorch or burn the wood.
Both sanding and heat guns will introduce lead into the breathing zone when stripping items painted prior to about 1978. Chemical stripping contains the lead in a safely disposable liquid.
How do I do it myself?
First prepare your work area. It should be well ventilated but not breezy , out of direct sunlight, as close to 75• as possible. You will need a way to collect your wastes for later legal disposal (check with local agencies for their requirements). A layer of heavy plastic on the floor with newspaper or cardboard on top works well. At the end, roll up the plastic with the paper or cardboard, put that in a heavy plastic yard waste bag and it is ready for disposal.
Next you need to prepare yourself. Most stripping chemicals can cause bodily injury and can stain clothing. At the very least you should wear heavy rubber gloves and eye protection along with "project" clothing.
For stripping with the most effective strippers available, which historically have been Methylene Chloride based, the supplies you will need are: the most expensive non-flammable semi-paste stripper you can find; acetone; a disposable natural bristle brush; a wide blade metal scraping knife; #0 or #1 grade steel wool; heavy weight paper towels or disposable cloth towels; and a wide brimmed disposable basin.
If you intend to avoid or cannot find stripper containing Methylene Chloride, the substitutes require much more time and sometimes have special requirements. Since those requirements are so varied, we will not attempt to offer advice concerning all of them. What follows works for Methylene Chloride based semi-paste strippers and some other modern water based semi-paste strippers.
First pour out some stripper into the basin and brush the stripper onto the piece a section at at time. Next comes the most difficult part of the entire process. Wait 3-5 minutes, not touching the stripper, allowing it to work undisturbed. On flat surfaces then scrape the softened finish off with the wide blade knife. On other surfaces scrub it with some of the steel wool. If you have successfully removed the finish, move on to the next section and repeat the process there. If there is still paint or finish to be removed, repeat the process in the same section until the finish is off the surface. Once you have gone over the whole piece, then brush on another coat of stripper, wait 3-5 minutes and then scrub the surface with fresh steel wool, removing any remnants of stripper missed before. You are done with the stripper at this point and can put that away. Next put some of the acetone into the basin and using fresh steel wool, dip the wool in the acetone and scrub and wash the surface clean. Finally, use the paper or cloth towels with fresh acetone to wipe the surface down.
Virtually every week people bring in pieces they have begun to strip themselves but have given up on. Following these instructions will help you, but if you still find the job to be other than your picture of a well spent day, quit early, bring it to us, we will do it well and usually have it done within a week.
Are the stripping chemicals dangerous to use at home?
Every stripping chemical poese its own unique hazard. For specific information on the health and safety hazards associated with each chemical, ask for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) when you purchase your supplies or do an internet search for the information. Here is a link to a comprehensive source of information about methylene chloride, the dominant chemical in the best strippers. Here is a similar link for acetone. If you use the method outlined above to strip furniture at home, the acetone is highly flammable, so care must be taken to keep the liquid or concentrated vapors away from ignition sources.
Are the commercial stripping chemicals harmful to the environment?
All of the chemicals used for stripping have some risks associated with them. Methylene chloride is very low in VOCs (volatile organic compounds, a precursor to air pollution), but is a suspected carcinogen. N-methylpyrrolidone, butyl alcohol, and d-limonene, one or some combination of which are used as in non-methylene chloride strippers, present their own health or environmental issues, though they are considered less significant than those presented by methylene chloride. The caustic and acid cleaning chemicals used have no VOCs, so from an air quality standpoint, the potential harm is minimal, yet from a hazardous materials standpoint their extreme pH make them hazardous.
For doing it yourself at home, the same applies. The solvent stripper we recommend and acetone are both low or no VOC so are not an air pollution concern. However neither should be allowed to enter sewers or drains and if buried in your yard as a disposal method will destroy the natural life cycle in that part of your personal environment. We urge you to dispose of all spent chemicals and wastes responsibly and legally.
We have had customers ask if we can dispose of their wastes for them. We do not provide that service, however every community will have some form of a household hazardous wastes disposal policy and service. Do an internet search for household hazardous waste disposal in your area to find help.
Can glass, metal or plastic items be stripped?
Glass is not harmed by stripping. It will need to be cleaned afterward but is not damaged. Note the pictures on our paint removal page. We don't promise that it will not be broken during stripping though. The only times we have had breakage have been when the glazing is weak or the glass has been secured by metal pins. If the glass were to break, we have found it breaks at a pin, usually where a pre-existing small crack extends with the flexing of the glass during stripping.
Mirrors, on the other hand, will have their protective painted backing stripped off by stripping chemicals. The reflective silver coating will be stripped off by the acid wash. We always remove mirrors before stripping.
Most metals can be chemically stripped. However, aluminum is not compatible with the alkaline chemicals and can create a dangerous reaction. Metals are efficient to strip chemically, so we ask people who have metal items needing to be stripped to take them to a company that specializes in stripping metal. One customer has offered that she has had consistent success removing paint from metal by dipping the painted metal in boiling water. The heat causes the metal to expand and the paint will pull away. Scraping and scrubbing are still part of the job, but for hinges, stamped metal hardware items and other small pieces, this sounds like a promising technique.
Some hardware items can be left attached to things we are stripping: the hinge plates attached to the door, metal floor glides on chairs, and just a few other things. Otherwise hardware must be removed. We do not want to lose loose parts during stripping. Additionally, cavities in certain hardware, as in locks and table extension slides, will hold stripping chemicals and slowly drain, causing rust, staining the freshly stripped item, or causing other difficult problems we would rather avoid.
Some plastics are not harmed by stripper solvents, some will melt. Furniture items from the 1960s and early 1970s that are made with some plastic components should not be stripped or those plastic components will be destroyed. Formica, on the other hand, is not adversely effected by stripper.
Does stripping remove discolorations in the wood?
Stripping does remove some discolorations but not others. Of those that stripping does not remove, certain discolorations, such as water-borne mineral stains, can be removed by bleaching, others, such as ink or used motor oil, are permanent.
Will I need to clean the items after stripping?
If we strip the items for you, or if you follow the procedure above, you should not need to do any further cleaning. As soon as the items are dry, the prepping and finishing process can be started.
Are stripped items ready to stain after stripping?
Unless repairs are needed, items are ready for finishing. The first step in finishing is to sand, so no, the stripped items are not ready to be stained immediately, but our stripping process does prepare them for staining with no further steps other than normal prep sanding.
Does chemical stripping include any sanding?
Sanding is a part of the finishing process and is based on finishing objectives, so no, no sanding is done as a part of stripping.
What is the best way to bleach wood?
Bleaching is done to remove color. If the color is a water-borne mineral stain, Oxalic Acid crystals diluted in warm water works well to remove such stains. If you do use oxalic acid it is important to thoroughly rinse the acid from your piece after it has dried. Hose it off if possible then towel dry the surface before sanding and finishing. If the discoloration is a dye type stain such as from a mold or mildew, these stains can be lightened by using as high a strength chlorine bleach as you can get applied to the surface and then set in direct sunlight as it dries. Repeated applications will lighten the dyes further but the degree of improvement diminishes each time. If a more uniform color reduction is needed, a two part bleach made from sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide does the job. It is getting harder to find stores selling two part liquid wood bleach. You may need to locate a local chemical supply house to get these bleaching chemicals. They should be able to tell you the mixing ratio you need.
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